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Writing Up A Storm

March 27, 2006
March 27, 2006

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March 27, 2006

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Photo Credits: Robert Beck

Writing Up A Storm

The Internet is changing sports coverage. Columnists who seldom leave their couches hold forth. Athletes break their own "news" on their personal websites. Rumormongering is rampant. Don't like it? Get rowdy. Start your own blog

This is a magazine story, so by definition it is finite, static and, if you drop a big gob of mayonnaise on it, smearable. It was subject to certain standards—of accuracy, grammar and relevance, to name a few—and its production required a fair amount of time, reporting and thought. Once it went to print, it could no longer be edited or updated.

This is an article from the March 27, 2006 issue Original Layout

Were this story being written for the Web,however, none of that would apply, and it would begin much differently, perhaps under the heading SI's Feature Creature.

Thursday, 6:30 p.m. PST: I should be writing my SI story about online sports, but Duke is about to tip off against Southern in the first round of the NCAAs. So Mrs. Creature is cooking paella,and I'm recliner-bound with the sportswriter's black-and-tan—a giant mochaccino and a pale ale.

Then again, were this not a website column but a blog, the above post might be followed by another from the author at 7:55 p.m.,noting that Blue Devils guard J.J. Redick was "launching more jumpers than the Golden Gate Bridge" and that the paella was exquisite. Not long after, anyone on the Internet could post a comment, perhaps as follows:

TarHeels4Ever:YOu are an IDIOT!!! Redick is an overrated PUNK! AND why do I CARE about your Wife and her Cooking?

FeatureFan#1:What's up with TarHeels4Eever—get a life man. Love the joke about J.J.! Haha,but I bet some people are offended. Helpful tip for Mrs. Creature: simmerpaella with mushrooms for an extra five minutes and it retains a wonderful nutty flavor.

Soon an Internet message board might post a critique of the blog, complaining about the author's self-absorption and questioning whether he knows the first thing about basketball, let alone knows his head from other, more southerly body parts. More readers might pile on, one perhaps anonymously contributing the news that the author, cheapskate that he is, once ordered Chinese food and did not give the delivery man a tip.

But this is a magazine story—at least until it gets posted on a blog by some enterprising typist—so we shall begin our discussion of sports on the Web with an anecdote, some reporting and a few facts. Kobe Bryant is as good a place as any to start.

A couple of months ago, when Bryant scored 81 points for the Los Angeles Lakers in a 122-104 win over the Toronto Raptors, it took a full news cycle for many print outlets to weigh in, but who wanted to wait that long? Bryant's postgame press conference was available live on ESPNEWS, and within minutes of the final buzzer, websites around the world had reacted. Their postings included expressions of astonishment, references to other historic basketball feats and this nugget from nba.com columnist Michael Balzary: "that is [Kobe's] way to let us know he loves us." And who is Balzary? He is better known as Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If you don't know why this qualifies him to write a basketball column, well, you are not alone.

Amid all this electronic blather, it was easy to forget that newspaper reporters at the game spoke to Bryant afterward; as recently as a decade ago they would have been the voices of record. In this digital age, however, we can all be real-time observers, and opinion (Kobe loves us?) often trumps fact. Which is to say, for those uninterested in actual reporting, the print media have almost become an afterthought.

To wit: One of the most read accounts of Bryant's scoring spree was not in the Los Angeles Times or L.A.'s Daily News, but by Bill Simmons, who writes the popular Sports Guy column for espn.com. Simmons wasn't at Staples Center for Bryant's historic feat and had not interviewed anyone (unless you count his father, who happened to be sitting beside him on his couch, watching the game on TV). Still, Simmons's column two days after the game, which was headlined KOBE, MEET DESTINY and included references to the movies Teen Wolf and Monster's Ball and to the troubled union of Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe, was read by nearly 400,000 people. Loved by many, tolerated by others, the 36-year-old Simmons writes sprawling, often funny, often insightful rants that include everything from comments on Boston sports to gambling manifestos to NBA draft analyses to,well, more Boston sports. A pioneer in the online sports community, Simmons is also the embodiment of its prevailing ethos: the empowerment of the fan.

*****

Three nights after Bryant's monumental game, Simmons is at Staples Center, watching not from the press box but from his Clippers season-ticket seat, 10 rows from the court.He is 6'1", with pale blue eyes and short hair that is beginning to go gray, and he speaks in a nasal tenor. "I have more heckling talent than anybody, but I have the worst voice for it," he laments. As the Clippers demolish the listless New Jersey Nets, Simmons stands up to cheer for L.A.reserve forward James Singleton ("I could never do this in the press box!" Simmons says gleefully), scarfs down chicken fingers with fries and works out riffs for his column. "Violet Palmer might be the fattest ref in the league," he says, pointing to her as she hustles down court. "She looks like she should have a saddle on her!" Then, not long after: "Why is it that these European players all look like they just spent 30 days in the hole? Couldn't they get out in the sun occasionally? And what's with the half-beards?"

Simmons grew up in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill worshipping at the altar of the vaunted Boston Globe sports section. For three years he covered high school sports for the Boston Herald, but he quit when he sensed that he wasn't going to get ahead. While tending bar he began an online column in 1997 for AOL's Digital City site (which had a columnist called the Entertainment Guy, from whom Simmons adapted his handle). He churned out columns—initially for $50 a pop—on what he and his friends thought was interesting or funny. All anyone needed to read them was access to AOL and the patience to wait out the busy signals. It was novel stuff: the sports world filtered through the eyes of the sarcastic frat guy next door, one who played fantasy sports (just like his readers), who hit the bars when his teams won and became despondent when they lost (just like his readers). Slowly his popularity grew, spurred by a burgeoning list of devotees to whom he e-mailed his columns. In 2001, ESPN vice president John Walsh read Simmons's rip job on the ESPYs awards show, loved it and, after giving him some freelance work, hired him full time.

Today Simmons is so popular that as many as 700 fans lined up to meet him at book signings for Now I Can Die in Peace, a collection of his columns published last fall. He is recognized at Clippers games, hangs out with celebrities in L.A. (where he moved in 2002 and wrote for Jimmy Kimmel Live) and, back in Boston, can't go out without being cornered by admirers—which is to say, young drunk guys wearing sweat-stained Red Sox hats. "It's really weird," Simmons says of the attention, "but I welcome it."

It's tempting to categorize Simmons as a product of our times—a reflection of a sports-addled, pop-culture-immersed generation for whom nothing is too base, sarcastic or self-referential—but that misses the core reason for his popularity. "He knows what people like to read about and writes from the perspective of a passionate fan," says Walsh. "The best thing that happened for him is the Internet. I don't know that this form of writing would have come out otherwise."

And what form is that, exactly? Fan-alism? Reclinerporting? Simmons willingly cops to his biases and revels in his outsider status, saying he deliberately avoids meeting players, lest his image of them be ruined. "If Paul Pierce is a d---,"Simmons says of the Celtics star, "then what do I do?" (It's also easier to take potshots when you never have to talk to your targets.) Maybe this is just the latest mutation of sportswriting, which has evolved from the days of Ring Lardner, when reporters rode the rails with athletes as co-conspirators of sorts; to the investigative journalism of the late 1970s; to the information saturation of the '80s, when The Boston Globe's Peter Gammons introduced ellipses-riddled notes columns that rambled for a full newspaper page; to the 24-hour cycle of the ESPN age, when anything that fills airtime is billed as relevant, if not necessary, information. Breaking news: Jevon Kearse eats Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast! Shaquille O'Neal drives a Hummer with a specially built seat!

And now: the era of detachment and fragmentation—detachment because technology allows games to be covered from great distances and fragmentation because fans can tailor the"news" to their needs. They can DVR any NBA game off their League Pass subscription, stream highlights and video, follow only those players on their fantasy squads (65% of online sports revenue comes from fantasy content), read myopic blogs devoted to their teams and never once, if they so choose, read a newspaper, tune in to the local sports news or watch SportsCenter.

The hub of all this is the Web, which has empowered fans in ways unimagined a generation ago. Log on and feed almost any jones. Interested in discussing infielder Tony Womack's OPS? Dying to watch that Central Michigan football road game? Want to read NBA forward Mark Madsen's musings on former teammate Robert Horry? Like Simmons, you need not leave home. What's more, anyone can join the debate; we are all critics and analysts, joined by broadband connections across states, countries and, more often than not, value systems (as in, you may value Chris Webber's skills, while your friend may not). Of course, much of the information you read is unreliable (page 62). For example, before the Clippers game, Simmons predicted he would find an inaccuracy about himself on wikipedia.com; sure enough, an entry read, "He's appeared on Playboy TV's Dweebs with Girth."

Still, the Web is rapidly changing the relationships between athletes, fans and journalists, reapportioning access and power, redrawing boundaries and, for better or worse,making everyone a self-appointed expert. Reporters are becoming bloggers, teams are "filtering" information, fans are getting exclusive interviews with G.M.'s, and anyone with a camera phone can document a rookie's philandering or a gridiron hero's binge drinking.

Fifteen years ago an Oakland A's general manager probably never would have met someone like Tyler Bleszinski, let alone granted him lengthy, exclusive interviews. Bleszinski, 34, who spent a year and a half covering high school sports for The Orange County (Calif.) Register before moving to Sacramento in 2000, is an unapologetic A's fan, the kind who used to drive around listening to sports radio and fuming at his dashboard. "I felt like a dog waiting for a bone every time I listened to KNBR for a snippet about the A's," he says. "I was wearing my wife thin talking about when Eric Chavez was going to reach his potential."

So in November 2003, at the urging of his friend Markos Moulitsas, the founder of popular political blog dailykos.com, Bleszinski started a blog called Athletics Nation, which, in his words, would be "kind of like group therapy as far as dealing with the playoff losses." For original content, Bleszinski started out interviewing the team's beat writers and then moved on to Moneyball author Michael Lewis, before finagling a sit-down with the Oracle of On-Base Percentage himself, G.M. Billy Beane. In each case Bleszinski ran the interview transcript in its entirety; Beane's was 10,000 words (twice as long as the article you're reading), or 30,000 words if you include other posters' comments on it. The tone was aggressively A's-friendly—Bleszinski says he "feels an incredible sense of honor" to interview Beane—and the readers were mainly fellow A's acolytes. In short, the best of all possible worlds for a G.M.looking to spread his gospel.

The A's aren't the only team looking for a direct pipeline to its fans. Last season the Washington Redskins pulled an end run on print reporters, saying that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was unavailable for interviews about his contract extension; then they gave one to the team's official website. The media outcry was substantial, but the idea was not exactly shocking. Players now use their websites to disseminate self-serving information. Leagues and teams have their own television channels and hire their own "beat" writers (mlb.com most enthusiastically). "I'm surprised that sports teams haven't done this sooner," says Dan Okrent, a longtime sportswriter and former ombudsman of The New York Times. "Anyone who's selling a product wants to get his message out there in a friendly atmosphere."

Some athletes, such as Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods, have taken to "breaking" news on their websites. Bonds most recently used his to announce that he wouldn't play in the World Baseball Classic. (Another flash: Bonds ate at an"awesome!" restaurant during his recent trip to the Dominican Republic.) Paul Shirley, the Phoenix Suns' 12th man last season, wrote a blog for the team website that became so popular, he not only got a book deal but also is having a sitcom pilot made about his life (even though Phoenix cut him before this season). Vanderbilt senior Mario Moore left the basketball team without comment—except for his rap lyrics on the community site myspace.com. Even high school athletes are in on the act: Go to gregoden.com and you can read any number of glowing articles about the Indiana high school phenom who has signed with Ohio State. They include such scoops as BRIGHT FUTURE FOR GREG ODEN, written by a staff member at gregoden.com.

The end result is that, now more than ever, the message is controlled. "The link between a player and the sport and the fan has changed forever," says Sandy Padwe, a former SI senior editor who teaches a sportswriting class at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. "We're going to have journalism by website, and readers and viewers are all going to suffer. You'll never get to know athletes beyond what they want you to know. I mean, wouldn't you like to know who the hell Barry Bonds really is?"

There's no disputing that it is a different world for the sportswriter, but don't cry for the scribes just yet. Some have become net celebrities, read by fans who like their personalities, insights and world views: SI.com's Peter King, for example, has built a following by combining NFL reporting and the spirit of blogging in his column, Monday Morning Quarterback. It's the old analogy of sharing beers with a guy, only it's 2 p.m. and you're in your work cubicle, poised to minimize the browser if the boss passes by. So readers sit there, impatiently clicking refresh on Simmons's column before it posts or reading on SI.com about Dr. Z's repartee with his wife, a.k.a. the Flaming Redhead.

This leaves some reporters with a dilemma: Stick to traditional reporting or join the online world? In Portland, Trail Blazers beat writer Jason Quick of The Oregonian began the season writing a blog. He wasn't paid extra—a not-uncommon arrangement for print publications and their sites—but it was a way for him to pass on information that didn't make his column, update fans in real time and, on occasion, share his often-critical opinions regarding the team. Blazers fans loved it; Blazers brass did not. "I think blogs are a curse," says Portland G.M. John Nash. "They're not held to the same standards as the newspaper. They're often musings or impressions and frequently filled with error." In particular Nash is unhappy that Quick's blog, and the one by Oregonian columnist John Canzano, are excerpted on hoopshype.com—a repository for NBA rumors that is read by many around the league—but attributed to The Oregonian. "I've become very, very wary about what I say," adds Nash, noting that he's likely to become more cautious when speaking to reporters who also blog.

Earlier this year Quick decided to stop posting, not wanting to dash off something he'd later regret, but he resumed under pressure from his bosses. "What bugs me is that the Blazers may be subconsciously making me do my job a certain way," he says. "But I don't think it's been defined well enough where we draw the line between what's fact and what's opinion. That's really a gray area, and I think we need to be more careful. I think blogs are taking us the other direction."

That direction—away from facts, reporting and professional decorum—is one Kyle Orton knows full well. Last October the Chicago Bears' rookie quarterback was in Iowa City, doing what rookie quarterbacks tend to do when their teams have a bye week during a surprising winning streak—namely, getting hammered at a bar. A patron at the bar had a digital camera and was a reader of deadspin.com, a sports blog that earlier that month had posted a funny photo of then New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter playing beer pong with what appeared to be college students. So, the young sports fan figured, why not snap a photo of the soused QB? He took his best shot of Orton and came away with a real winner: the quarterback, bottle of Jack Daniels in hand, unidentified liquid spilled down his shirt, looking as coherent as one might expect him to be in such a situation. That night the shooter e-mailed the photo to Deadspin. The next day millions saw it. By the following week Orton was answering questions about it, telling SI, "That's my personality—I go out and have fun. If someone puts it on the Internet, so be it. It doesn't affect me or bother my family."

Deadspin, part of the Gawker network, is a snarky, funny but not entirely reliable site that looks at the underbelly of sports. It was launched last September and quickly became the Web's most popular sports blog, now garnering more than a million hits a month (2.5 million in February). It has become a clearinghouse of sorts for the various misdeeds of athletes, with salacious photos, links to similarly-minded sports blogs (sample: a mock blog about the Ohio State football coach headlined, IF JIM TRESSEL WERE AN EVIL GILA MONSTER) and media critiques (a regular section called WHY YOUR HOMETOWN COLUMNIST SUCKS).

Deadspin's creator and principal writer is a 30-year-old former sports reporter named Will Leitch. He works out of his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he says he has worn a butt groove in his couch so deep that his fiancée has asked him to sit on the other side. He talks fast and types faster (80 words per minute), which is important, considering that he updates the site 18 times a day between 8:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. and usually answers upward of 500 e-mails a week.

Leitch is not surprised by Deadspin's popularity. "It seemed like there was a gaping hole for a site like this," he says. "Most sites were either hard-core heavy stats, Bill Jamesian, or they were 'Jets suck!'" On Deadspin, Leitch can be funny while also tackling stories that mainstream sites might shy away from. "The Ron Mexico story is a perfect example," says Leitch, referring to the alias that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was alleged to have used when undergoing herpes testing, according to a 2005 lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that Vick gave her the sexually transmitted disease. "It was this fantastically interesting story that you can't read on ESPN, because it has this big contract with the NFL and Vick's an extremely marketable player." (In fact, espn.com did run an AP report on the lawsuit, but Leitch's site has delightedly kept the story alive.)

Deadspin also benefits from a reverse flow of reporting; readers tip off Leitch and even provide content. When, for example, New York Knicks forward Antonio Davis went into the stands in Chicago to check on his wife, who was having a heated exchange with a Bulls fan, most media outlets immediately reported the Davises' version of events, while Deadspin had the first account from those seated near the combatants. "The knee-jerk reaction of columnists was: drunk fans,"says Leitch. "But I immediately started getting e-mails from people who were at the game, and they said [Kendra] Davis's account wasn't at all what had happened."

Perhaps the most risqué thing about Deadspin is its link to On the DL(itsasecretsohush.blogspot.com), a site on the murky fringe of the sportsweb—a nasty place stocked with painfully bad writing and, far more troubling, accusations that are neither sourced nor confirmed. The site promises that you will "read juicy blind items and let your mind ponder over which dirty major leaguer it might be," such as sexual rumors about "a tall, dark National Leaguer" or an "injured American League infielder." There are also photos of players in compromising positions, such as Red Sox pitcher Keith Foulke, his arms around two young women and his prodigious tongue aimed at one of their faces. Some of the content is astonishingly crude, such as a transcribed IM exchange between a baseball player and a groupie, and much of it potentially libelous. On the DL has, it goes without saying, been very popular; the site has gotten over 1.5 million hits since last September.

Though reluctant to disclose their names, two of the site's six founders—all women; they say they met on a message board for baseball groupies and are now in their20s—agreed to talk to SI. One of the two, who goes by the alias Satine Ivey, says she is a 20-year-old accounting major at NYU and that neither her parents nor her friends know she runs the site, because if they did, "they'd think I was some sort of slut." (The other interviewed founder, also an NYU student, 20-year-old "Katharine Heart," would communicate with SI only by e-mail because her parents pay her cellphone bill.) When asked why they run the site, Ivey said, "We want to expose the hypocrisy of players. A lot of people think these guys are perfect with their cute little family and the pretty wife and the money. But they're so messed up, the drinking and the drugs and the women."

As for how the site got started, she said, "We just had a crazy idea one night. Let's do something like this, nobody will ever find out. Well"—she giggled—"I guess they did." In an attempt to prove that On the DL's stories are accurate, Ivey offered the cellphone number of a married big-name American League pitcher who, she said, tried to persuade her to come to his hotel room.

(You might be wondering: When might libel lawyers get involved in such an enterprise?According to Jeffrey Neuburger, chair of the technology, media and communications department at the New York City law firm Brown Raysman, Internet portals are protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Communications Decency Act in ways that print publications aren't—because sites are hosts and not responsible for what people write—but the posters themselves can be held liable. Bloggers can be sued not only for what they write, but also if they post a doctored or falsely incriminating photo or reprint a libelous rumor from another source. Says Neuburger, "If you put up a defamatory rumor about Derek Jeter and he can find you, he can sue you.")

This is thepower—and the danger—of the Internet: Any girl or guy at a bar can bring down an athlete, and a rumor can be fanned into a full-fledged conflagration. The result: Athletes are very wary. Even Darrin Horn, the basketball coach at low-profile Western Kentucky, is worried; he says that last summer he declined to have his picture taken with two women at a golf function. "It would have just been an innocent thing, but people can even misinterpret pictures and make a story out of it," says Horn. "So no pictures like that. You just can't do it."

New Orleans Hornets forward David West echoes that sentiment. "You always have to be conscious of where you are and who you're around," he says. "Those camera phones are bad. When you go out, you've got to make sure you're not caught in a compromising situation."

Where is all of this leading? Well, for one, athletes—already inclined to hide behind agents, tinted windows and the gates of walled-in communities—will become as guarded as A-list movie stars, if they're not already. Maybe the Web, while providing more access than ever to the games, is really taking us further from those who play them. This shouldn't be surprising. "Athletes are celebrities,"says Leitch. "We get enough people like the guy who took those pictures [of Orton], and we won't be stopped."

Stopped from what, exactly? "So what, a guy's drunk?" says Padwe. "What does that tell me about him?" Perhaps the advantage is in not knowing: Ignorance, or at least detachment, is bliss. And detachment is what allows Internet scribes to trash athletes from their living rooms without fear of reprisal. Maybe, in a weird closing of the circle, we are returning to the earliest days of sports journalism, before those long train rides, when the writers didn't even go into locker rooms. The famous 1924 story by Grantland Rice about the Notre Dame-Army game—you know, "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again"—contained not a single quote.

"I think the main reason I've done well is that I like sports," Simmons says while watching a Celtics game on TV and complaining about Doc Rivers's coaching."I feel that a lot of people in the media, columnists for big papers, don't like sports. I think fans can relate to me partly because I'm not in the lockerroom."

As popular as he is, though, Simmons is already thinking about his life after Sports Guy; he says he has only "a good 18 to 20 months left in me," because he doesn't want to be "that 42-year-old guy sitting on a barstool, saying how hot Anna Kournikova is." And that may be a good thing, because despite Simmons's vast readership, some believe his time has passed. In an ironic twist, there is a message board called Sons of the Sports Guy—observers critiquing the observer—that obsessively follows Simmons's work. Of late, some have soured on the Sports Guy, and Leitch sees where they're coming from. "Simmons is talented, but I think he's kind of worn out," he says."One of the reasons that people have turned on Simmons, I think unfairly, is that people think he's not one of them anymore. He goes to parties, and you have to go through a forum to e-mail him."

Yes, it's hard to be a "common fan" when you become a celebrity, even if your columns remain funny and provocative. And it's probably inevitable that the blogosphere will eventually turn on Simmons, who isn't truly "one of them." His format—long columns without responses—really makes Simmons a transitional figure between the old-school journalists and the new bloggers, like Leitch, who are champions of interactivity, who have taken fan empowerment one step further, for better or worse.

"I have no illusions about Deadspin," says Leitch. "If it ends up being the biggest site in a couple of years, people will get sick of me too. And there will be something else out there that's newer and better." He pauses."That's just how it is: Everything evolves."