George Solomon January 2018 Column

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George Solomon January 2018 Column
Jan 9, 2018

Partnerships among media companies and leagues are one of the reasons professional sports teams turn a profit. And the alliances produce access for the networks, even if the access is mostly bland sideline interviews with coaches who have more important things to do.

But sometimes these relationships hit a major bump, as is what happened over the weekend when the respected Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle criticized ESPN for providing LaVar Ball – the ubiquitous father of Los Angeles Laker rookie Lonzo Ball and two teenage Balls playing professionally in Lithuania – a platform for questioning Lakers coach Luke Walton.

ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman was in Lithuania covering the professional basketball debuts of LiAngelo Ball, 19, recently of UCLA until a shoplifting charge got him booted from China, and 16-year-old LeMelo Ball. That’s where Daddy Ball – who has earned the title of “Worst Sports Parent” in any country, went off on Walton, suggesting his coaching was hurting his son and the entire team.

“ESPN is an NBA partner and they’ve been a great one,” said Carlisle, who is president of the NBA Coaches Association. “Part of that partnership is the coaches do a lot of things (for ESPN) and in exchange for that, they should back up the coaches. Printing an article where the father of an NBA player has an opinion that’s printed as legitimate erodes trust. It erodes the trust that we built with ESPN and our coaches are upset.”

If Carlisle is suggesting the NBA and its coaches lean on ESPN (even reducing access or pulling game credentials) for its giving Daddy Ball a platform, he’s wrong.  ESPN’s decision to send a reporter to Lithuania could be debated. But once the reporter – Goodman –was on the scene, Daddy Ball was part of the story and his criticism of Walton, however bizarre, had to be reported.

Carlisle, who is no rookie, should know better. News divisions and reporters are separate from the business arms of television and radio networks, newspapers (some sell space adjoining news stories) and websites. Without independent reporting, sports coverage becomes nothing more than an extension of what the teams and leagues want their fans to see and read. Sounds like I’ve read those threats before on the front page of newspapers that cover The White House.

News organizations are under constant pressure to back off critical stories, aggressive reporting and investigations – from the coverage of the administration to LaVar Ball.  Hopefully reason will prevail among NBA coaches, including San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, whose thoughts on the president receive proper coverage.

Which brings us to a recent piece on SI.com by Tim Layden discussing how, in the words of the headline writer, “sports reporting continues to move further objectivity” – featuring a picture of ESPN’s Michael Wilbon and film star Bill Murray in Chicago Cubs hats after their beloved Cubs had won a key 2016 postseason game.

The point of Layden’s excellent story was the direction the craft of sportswriting has taken– from objectivity by most sports journalists to openly supporting favorite teams. Layden wrote: “Increasingly, sports journalists have abandoned neutrality in favor of writing (or broadcasting, or podcasting) in the voice of the fan.”

He added: “The traditional voice of the sports journalist (or any journalist not writing an opinion column) is a neutral voice, detached from any connection to the teams, players and coaches he or she covers…The buzzwords here is objectivity.”

Layden continued: “The change has come as writers have used their attachments to a college team or professional franchise to better connect with an audience. ESPN personalities Scott Van Pelt and Mike Greenberg have made narrative devices of their affection for Maryland basketball and the New York Jets, respectively, with scant blowback.”

But objectivity is why the late Jerome Holtzman called his 1973 sportswriting anthology “No Cheering in the Press Box” and why for the past six years we call our Merrill College student project “Still No Cheering in the Press Box.”

But that ship, for the most part, sailed years ago, as Bill Simmons created a genre and style when he began blogging about his favorite Boston teams. Former Washington Post columnist Wilbon, a “tell it like it is” sportswriter long before he began co-hosting “Pardon the Interruption” with Tony Kornheiser, wore an Ernie Banks jersey doing a, ESPN television interview. “I never had a problem being critical,” Wilbon told Layden. “But I don’t know how any of this would have gone over earlier in my career. “

Wilbon-a “must-read” columnist (working for me at The Post) and now a “must see” television commentator, is correct in his assessment of how wearing a team jersey would have played back in the day. It’ s not something you did. But times change.

My first lesson in such matters came in 1958, as a freshman journalist in the press box of the University of Florida, in the Gators’ first game ever against Florida State. When the late Don Fleming blocked a Seminole punt, and scored the only touchdown of the game, as a good Gator, I could not contain my cheering. My boss, the late Miami Daily News columnist Morris McLemore, turned to his campus correspondent and said sternly, “Don’t ever cheer in a press box.”

Words to live by.

 

 

 

 

 

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