Tuesday, February 21, 2017
The State of Sports News
There were so many things I wanted to write about this week. I wanted to write about the NFL's new coaching hires, with San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan finally filling out his staff. With the season over, I wanted to write about T.Y. Hilton's total snub in all-pro voting. I hoped to write more about dominant wins and embarrassing losses. I have an article about the greatest statistical quarterbacks of all time, which I wrote during the NFL playoffs and have been holding onto for over a month already.
I wanted to write about all of those things, but then I saw this:
That's the NBC Sports homepage Saturday morning. The top headlines include:
* A historic slalom accomplishment
* Four stories about NFL player arrests
* Two stories about suspensions
* Two stories about sports-related injuries
* A story about the blood alcohol level of an athlete killed in a car crash
* A video anticipating Ben Roethlisberger's decline and retirement
Is this sports news? Is this what we've come to?
I know this is a slow season for North American sports. But out of 11 Top Stories, Top Headlines, and featured videos, only one pertained to the result of an actual sporting competition, and less than half are obviously related to sports. Trent Richardson hasn't played since 2014; how can his arrest be sports news? Darrelle Revis is a future Hall of Famer, but he wasn't an impact player last year, and it doesn't sound like his arrest is likely to lead anywhere particularly serious. This is just gossip and voyeurism — it's rubbernecking, the sports equivalent of gawking at the motorist who got pulled over on the freeway. It doesn't matter, it will never affect you, but you waste your time and others' time because it appeals to our baser instincts.
The most certain way to make the highlight shows is to get suspended, die, or — best of all — get arrested. A triple-double won't get your name in the news as many times as a torn ACL will. Two touchdowns aren't worth one black eye.
I'm sorry, but that's simply not sports news. I don't mean to pick on NBC here. I wrote a similar article in 2010, Infotainment Comes to Sports, which focused on ESPN, and wasn't meant to pick on them, either. It's the nature of today's sports media: they don't cover sporting events so much as the celebrities involved in sporting events. And as in Hollywood, scandal and controversy can turn minor figures into headlines. Who got more press last year, Colin Kaepernick or Matt Ryan? Kaepernick's team went 2-14 and he spent half the season as a backup. Ryan was NFL MVP and his team nearly won the Super Bowl. Yet Kaepernick got more press, and it wasn't close.
About a third of NBC's Saturday morning headlines concerned suspensions and injuries. That's sports-related — though some of the stories more than others — but it's about the negative, the dark side of sports. No one got into sports because they liked hearing about scandals and injuries. Sports drew us in for positive reasons: the joy of victory, the inspiration of camaraderie and sportsmanship, the achievement of the improbable, the power of shared culture and tradition, or sheer love of the game. I think it's bad for sports when we treat them like we treat other entertainment industries. In the short term, media like NBC may benefit from highlighting negative stories. But in the long term, people want good feelings from sports, and over time, a negative presentation will drive fans away. A sports culture built around scandal won't stand for very long.
I'm not a Pollyanna, but wouldn't it be nice for our news to go in the other direction? I'm not saying we don't cover negative stories. I just wish sports news still focused on sports. Things that happen outside of the game matter, sometimes quite a lot. But none of these stories — Revis and Richardson and the Oregon strength coach — is really a major news item. They're barely sports stories. Richardson's arrest frankly isn't a sports story. It's sports the way O.J. Simpson's murder trial was a sports story ... if instead of being a Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer, who still holds the single-season record for rushing yards per game, who had nationwide endorsements and announced Monday Night Football, Simpson was a nobody, a first-round bust who had fallen entirely out of the public eye.
Those are the stories NBC thinks sports fans want to read. They see us the same way TMZ and daytime soaps view their audience. Let's prove them wrong.