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Writers don’t root

How do sports writers separate team allegiances to remain unbiased? Liam Quinn finds out.

“Do you root?” asked the girl as the anchor cut to commercial.

Thinking the few post-flight gin and tonics were having a greater effect on my travel-weary consciousness and hearing than previously anticipated, I meekly asked for the question to be restated.

“Who do you support?” she reiterated, picking on up on the linguistic gap our cultural divide had plummeted us into.

What followed was a bumbling attempt to outline some noble, self-aggrandising notion about how, as a would-be sports journalist, I made every attempt to not support any one team.

“Why?” she asked. “Everyone supports someone.”

Certainly, for someone to be drawn into the cutthroat, hectic world of sports media, there has to be a certain love – or at the very least, affinity – with such athletic pursuits to drive us to work on short deadlines, stay up until 3 a.m. to watch the Romanian Fourth Division.

Considering the highest level of human interaction over the proceeding thirteen hours was being whether I would like Chicken or Beef, her simple inquisition left me dumbfounded.

It’s a relatively safe assumption to make that sports writers rooting for “their” teams is not all that uncommon nowadays. The rise of certain element of “homer” journalism coincided with the mass-coverage media model introduced on the back of social media’s meteoric rise.

So, how do you abandon allegiances often formed in childhood, even if it means watching “your team” cop a hiding?

“When you’re competing against 18 other daily beat writers for stories, you realize if you’re some pennant-waving fan, you’re not going to have the job for very long,” says Sports Illustrated’s Peter King.

“You’d be surprised how easy it is to drop the rooting part when you begin to work as a sports writer. I can honestly say when the ball is kicked off, I’m rooting for my story, not for a team.”

Dallas Morning News columnist and ESPN personality, Tim Cowlishaw offered a similar explanation, even if for slightly different reasons.

“Deadlines have improved little if at all in 30 years,” he states. “As there are more editions and now the web, they have gotten worse. So your first and foremost concern when covering night games – and most games are night games in sports these days – is making deadline. You learn very quickly to cheer for good story lines, not teams.”

“We might do it in a rather ironic or comical way on Around the Horn, but in terms of writing for newspapers, you don’t see it much,” Cowlishaw says. “You see it a little more with the younger generation of writers than the older ones.

It’s not a good thing to do.”

Despite the seeming consensus that all writers should strive to write from an impartial position, could the argument still be made for fan-based journalism?

“I think there’s a place for fans that write columns and are very opinionated, as long as they make that clear,” says King.

However, Cowlishaw disagreed with King’s assertion.

“No, the case can be made for a talented writer gaining attention, readers, pageviews, etc on a web page or blog,” Cowlishaw says.

“Bill Simmons is the ultimate example of that. Bill Simmons is not a journalist and doesn’t call himself one – to my knowledge. He’s highly successful at what he does, he’s fun to read and he’s a friend of mine. And he can run a site called Grantland if he likes, but he’s not a journalist.”

Further, with more and more ex-athletes and team officials with well known allegiances entering the field, can that have a detrimental effect on the industry?

“Detrimental? Probably, because with so many outlets employing former players who aren’t usually critical of the teams or the players, it makes actual journalists who are critical stand out,” laments King.

“I know it’s more difficult for me after I’ve written or said something critical about a team to go back to the team and get cooperation because the PR directors know they can get the story they want through other members of the media who might not be as critical.”

“I’ve had a close relationship – very close – with Sean Payton. But after some of the bounty stories I wrote, he told me he wasn’t interested in talking to me anymore. That’s the way it goes. I hope I am able to speak to him in the future, but if I can’t, life goes on.”

Despite it all, the ethics and sentiments of duty to the pursuit, is there ever a time when you just want to sit back and watch it all as a fan?

“When the Giants had success and I was covering them in the mid-eighties, I was happy for my dad, who was sick with cancer,” says King. “I knew how happy it made him when the Giants won, so when they did, I had some happiness for him. But it wasn’t for me. Take my word for it: you just don’t root in this job.”

“If you do, you won’t last long.”

Liam Quinn is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University, and the editor of upstart. You can follow him on Twitter: @Quinn_LP

Photo: Twitter – Michael Hazel

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