Friday, May 02, 2008

Is All In Love (And Blogging) Fair?

This may sound strange to a lot of you, but when it comes to sportswriting I really don't know what I am sometimes. Am I a blogger, because I write on this blog religiously? Or am I a sportswriter, since I write for the College Sporting News? It's something I've genuinely struggled with for years. More often than not, I try to wear both hats simultaneously.

Which brings me to the now-infamous Bissinger vs. Leitch spat on Bob Costas' cable show Costas Now. To those too lazy to click on the video, the jist of the beginning is like this (fade on computer guy, opening many pages of Fox box scores and pictures of athletes behaving badly):

Instant scores and constant updates... Analysis and breakdowns of thousands of scores in hundreds of cities. What sports fan could complain about that?

But there's also.... this. The wild west of the internet. The "blogosphere". A virtual bulletin board where anyone can post anything. Opinions. Photos. Videos. Blurring the line between news and gossip, truth and rumor, commentary and insult.

That's the general idea. Thoughts about the role of gossipy blogs like Deadspin and DMZ are brought up, and the "great and sad decline of newspaper coverage" is also brought up. Ultimately, what ensues is part an ad for Deadspin (which sort-of worked, since I actually surfed over to the site for the first time today), posturing (a disapproving author Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, who grandstands with a fistful of printouts and a look throughout the whole piece that he's going to puch ME in the face, never mind Will Leitch), but also, weirdly, is important in that it is a real discussion about what's happening in the world of sportswriting.

That's why you see a lot of bloggers starting to weigh in on this particular piece. It's a 20 minute video, but the main themes are: the decline of the sportswriter in general, the rise of the "blogger", the fact that "some blogs are really good, but most of it is utter garbage", where the line of public and private lives is for athletes, and - where the line is between the blogger and the sportswriter.

Will Leitch said something interesting in the piece (paraphrasing a little, bear with me):

I could get a press pass. But as soon as I do that and cover a game from the press box, I'm writing for the other writers in the press box. Some bloggers benefit, but I benefit from having that distance from it.

More than a lot of people, I think, I can genuinely weigh in with a pretty strong opinion on blogging, sportswriting and the internet.

When I grew up, I moved a lot, including overseas. It seems inconceivable now, but where I lived when I was 9 and 10 there were three TV channels, there was zero coverage of football, and TV signed off at midnight. Sportswriting was my lifeline to my country of origin, the good old U. S. of A. I eagerly clipped newspapers for any scrap of AP copy for news, let alone analysis of the games. I'd get three-week old copies of Sports Illustrateds and read them cover to cover. Rick Reilly editorials were cut out, and taped on my wall.

Today, if I'm a fan of cricket, Australian Rules football or box lacrosse I can find it instantly anywhere online. Furthermore, the power of what coverage to read is no longer in the hands of writers and editors at newspapers. It's now in my own hands as a reader.

Take Patriot League football. If I think the New York Times' account of a Fordham/Columbia game is a load of baloney, I can now look elsewhere for a different account of the game. It's no longer in the hands of a small cabal of local sportswriters whose coverage rarely leaves the confines of the metro area he's in, with the AP cherry-picking the best bits for mass consumption. Now, it's out there, globally, immediately. You don't even need to wait for the paper to be printed first.

I think most old-school sportswriters are clinging to this "woe be the decline in sportswriting" not so much because the quality was "so much better then". Come on, everybody knows it deep down inside: there was always the same percent of garbage and inaccuracy out there as there is out on blogs right now.

It's really that some of these sportswriters hate the fact that they can't control what people read anymore. That's what frightens them more than everything.

The difference is that "there are no editors on the internet". Even if a sportswriter stunk, there was always an editor who got rid of the worst of it, cut it down for reasons other than the "art" of sportswriting - for example, to fit an ever-shrinking sports page, to cover for a star athlete that is needed in the fall, or to push his used car business). As a "side benfit", they also made it so some societal norms were kept, like no profanity, useless information, and the like.

With blogs, you are your own editor. If somebody bumps into (say) Mike Mamula and gets a phone shot of him doing something idiotic at a "local nightspot" (a local nightspot that my wife would castrate me for being at, but I digress...), it's your choice to put that up on the internet or not. No editor is going to say "yes, that will sell papers" or "no, the Ladies Muffin club won't enjoy those pictures". It's all you, bucko.

Blogging is still more like newspapers than anyone would care to admit. There have always been "rags" that will put the latest trashy photo on the cover to sell papers/get hits, and there are others that are the "newspapers/blogs of record". It's been that way since the days of Ben Franklin, and it's just as true today about blogs as it was about newspapers in the 18th century.

I really don't follow the seamier side of sports blogging at all. I don't see how some of the things Deadspin puts on their site has any real societal value at all - for example, the latest "news" how Arizona State Cheerleaders were kicked off the team for lingerie shots on their website. Young men without girlfriends may care, but I sure don't. There's always been pornography, and there's always been great news. But my site is not pornography, and I loathe when sites like Deadspin and mine are "lumped together" as "sports blogs". No, they're not.

Blogging is a tool for writers. Newspapers are a job for writers. Both, done right, are tools to report better. There are times when an opinion is better delivered in a blog than in a reported piece, or if news is so fast (and requires some level of quickie analysis) that blogging, simply, is more practical than putting something through an editor. For a detailed "beat" person whose only job it is to write about the Eagles, the Flyers, or whatever, a paper is a better venue for that.

Because I "blog" it doesn't make me something different than a writer. Leitch seems to think that once you're in the press box, you're no longer writing for your audience but for other writers. I really, really disagree with that. You're a writer whether it's using one rock to carve letters on another rock or on a legal pad or a blog.

And broadly, I do believe in the power and the democratization of the internet in terms of blogging and opinions. I do believe in my heart that cream rises. The blog postings that say "Tom Brady is Dreamy" or "Donovan McNabb Sucks" will fade away, like anything in media, while the genuinely good stuff will rise to the top and find its audience - something, by the way, that didn't always happen in the "good old days". How many great sportswriters (and other writers, for that matter) stopped doing it because their stuff couldn't get seen?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What Playoff Expansion Means For The Patriot League

The long-rumored expansion to the FCS playoffs came true late Friday of last week. Starting in 2010, the NEC and Big South will have automatic bids into the FCS playoffs, and NEC schools and Big South schools couldn't be more delighted with the announcement.

Below, I list the three immediate impacts that playoff expansion has on the Patriot League from my perspective.

Impacts
  1. The NEC and the Big South will be offering more free education. With their brand-new shot at the FCS championship, you can bet that neither league will stand pat and not want to compete. The NEC is likely to bump up their scholarship levels - right now they offer 30, and it's likely to be bumped up to 45 in 2009, and maybe even 63 come 2010. They may find some level of resistance from the smaller schools in their league, like St. Francis (PA) and Sacred Heart, but the pressure of competition is probably too great. Similarly, Big South schools also haven't always been funding a full array of scholarships either, but the pressure on VMI, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern will be enormous to "cowboy up" with schools that are already there or close to it: Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Stony Brook.
  2. Any recruiting advantage of "playing for a national championship" will disappear with NEC schools. Patriot League recruiting is hard and becoming harder with more and more free education around them with the full array of NEC schools and Stony Brook. But there was always that autobid that the Patriot League could always dangle in front of a recruit to say that "we have access to the championship, and if you go to Central Connecticut State you very likely won't have that chance." In 2010, that recruiting advantage is gone.
  3. If nothing is done, the Patriot League will continue to slide. A long-overdue overhaul of the AI - very likely simply the formal adoption of an Ivy League-like banding system - may seem like enough to the Patriot League presidents to stay competitive. But it's clearly not the solution, with more and more free education luring away the remaining middle-class students that may want to look at a Patriot League education but are put off by the need to apply for financial aid. A partial scholarship model, with a strict Academic Index, mostly need-based aid for football players combined and some scholarships to get good middle-class students, could be a powerful combination competitively, while still keeping academic integrity intact and increasing economic diversity. But if solutions like that aren't considered - or if AI reform is considered "good enough" - we could see what Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani feared most: that things might be "staying the same [while we] watch the level of play diminish".
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