Last week, a familiar sports media storyline played itself out in Michigan. Detroit Free Press columnist Mike Rosenberg and reporter Mark Snyder wrote an investigative piece
with details from a half-dozen current and former Michigan football players about practices that (most likely) violated NCAA rules.
A predictable firestorm erupted, with national media taking notice, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez going into damage-control mode and Michigan's already anti-Rodriguez fan base up in arms. But their pitchfork-wielding anger
was directed not at Rodriguez, but at the Freep
I'm not so much interested in the specifics of this story as the trend it illuminates. As former Ann Arbor News sportswriter Jim Carty observed
The most striking thing about this week was how openly and aggressively most of the media moved to reject the Free Press story out of hand and get down to the business of attacking Mike Rosenberg and the paper.
Carty called the episode a perfect example of "faith-based" coverage, which "sees sports as a diversion, something to be enjoyed and embraced and not examined journalistically the way city hall or a labor union should be." Carty then examines the rise of this perspective among the media covering Michigan sports, with sports blogs rising to prominence and making significant inroads into the establishment media — and the sports information department's good graces.
This general trend isn't anything new — the emergence of the voice of the fan
is probably the story of the decade in sports media — but it seems to have been particularly pronounced around Michigan athletics. And last week, we saw a few of its less appealing effects: A perfectly reasonable story (though, as Carty notes, a flawed one) is dismissed out of hand because its author is perceived to have a grudge against the coach, an idea that simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny
I can't help but relate the rise of fan-based coverage of sports with the simultaneous rise of ideologically based political journalism — as in the conservative and liberal blogospheres. I think a quick comparison between the two might be helpful in shedding light on where fan-based sports coverage is prone to falling short.
First, both have provided a refreshing (and necessary) corrective to the dominant "objective" view of news.
Partisan journalism has exploded on both the liberal and conservative ends of the political spectrum because people were tired of journalists using the tired "he-said, she-said"
strategy and acting as though the truth therefore somehow automatically landed in the middle, when in actuality, truth is hardly ever politically neutral. The voice of the sports fan has provided a counter to professionals' formulaic, emotionless "no cheering in the press box" journalism that gradually but surely divorced itself from the fan's perspective. It's difficult to view these changes as anything but fundamentally good for the areas they're covering.
Second, both forced those traditional spheres to change as a result.
When you see someone pressuring the establishment political media to abandon a "neutral" characterization of an issue in favor of one that's simply more factually accurate — as in the definition of torture
or the "death panels"
scare — the vast majority of that pressure is usually coming from the conservative or liberal blogosphere. And they're starting to wear the hated "MSM' down. Likewise, mainstream sportswriters have begun to realize that they are writing for fans who want a more human voice than they're getting, and you're seeing people who reflect that realistic voice
Third, both provide a valuable communal space for like-minded people who had previously gone unconnected.
As Clay Shirky argues in "Here Comes Everybody,"
this has been one of the fundamental societal shifts enacted by the Internet as a whole over the past decade or so. It's been especially valuable in both these arenas. Both sports fans and political junkies seem to have a particularly strong desire to gather and share thoughts with other like-minded people, and the Internet allowed both to connect with those people far beyond the geographical surroundings to which they were previously limited. It's incredibly empowering to discuss politics within a cohesive community, and especially convivial (or cathartic) to follow sports among one, too.
Fourth — and here's the distinctive difference — the political partisans have shown they'll do investigative journalism, while the sports fans haven't.
Let's illustrate this with a thought experiment: What if the "objective" establishment media reporting regularly on politics and sports all disappeared? (And from what Carty describes, it's not that far away in Michigan football.) Would investigative journalism — the practice of digging up something the powers that be don't want people to know — still exist? In politics, the answer is unequivocally yes: The conservative blogosphere would dig up dirt on liberals and vice versa. How do we know this? Because they're already doing this
. They're highly motivated to dig into the area they're covering, because they're essentially covering their opponents.*
*Whether the American people would choose to trust these sources is another matter. But the work would get done.
But in a solely fan-driven sports media world, investigative reporting would be in big trouble. (The establishment isn't doing much of that anyway, but I'm comparing fans to their political counterparts right now, not sportswriters.) Why the heck would a Michigan fan or booster go through weeks or months of work to dig up something like the Freep did? Or even with a simpler story like this one
, why would they broadcast it within their community? (Don't believe me? Look at what Michigan fans did to someone who did
try to do that.) And there's no way an Ohio State blog would go through the work to expose it, either: They're too busy debating about the health of their own backup halfback.
While political partisans are covering their opposition, fans are covering institutions they love. Yes, fans have long shown they're more than willing to criticize those institutions, but they haven't shown willingness to devote significant time and resources to find out something (probably negative) that the public doesn't already know. (To be fair, generalist fan sites like Deadspin have been plenty willing to bring negative stories
to light, though those stories often fall on the gossip side of the aisle and usually have to be dropped in their laps.)
That's a problem, because sports is big business, and especially in college sports, there are plenty of shady dealings going on in just about every corner of the country. While I don't buy into the "Journalism will die when newspapers are gone! Who will cover the city council meetings? Who?!?" hysteria, I think we have more of a reason to be concerned in sports coverage down the road than in most other areas. Fans may be asserting themselves as the engine that drives sports coverage, but we don't necessarily want them steering the entire way.