Sports Journalism and Perspective
Dwil’s already addressed Bob Costas’ appearance on Mike and Mike Tuesday morning, but there was an additional piece of that appearance that I wanted to address. Costas attempted to bring, as Dwil referred to in his post, historical perspective and gravitas to the conversation. But, in attempting to do so he made a staggeringly misguided historical analogy. And, in doing so, he unwittingly put on display so much of what is wrong in sports commentary – a combination of self-righteous moralizing and an embarrassingly myopic and, frankly, insulting view of history.
Here’s the set-up:
Rob Parker was subbing in for Golic this morning and is, by the way, unusual among sports scribes as a fan of Bonds (he’s also one of very few African American journalists with a Hall of Fame vote).
Parker had made the point earlier in the morning that no fan has walked away from the game because of steroids and, therefore, the fans have spoken about the steroid era – they don’t care. In fact, Parker pointed out, we’ve seen attendance records in baseball over the past few years. So, when it comes to the steroids era, fans have, in effect, voted with their feet. While Greenberg disagreed with the claim that fans don’t care about steroids, he did agree with Parker that fans are not turning away from the game because of them. In fact, Greenie noted, steroids are just another topic of conversation for fans, a point of interest, now part of the larger discussion about baseball, likely only generating more interest in and passion about the sport.
When Costas phoned in later in the morning, and expressed his feeling that the record had now been diminished, Parker again argued that the fact that baseball has enjoyed record attendance the past few years indicates that the fans don’t ultimately care about steroids. The implication – those who are down on Bonds (and the era in which he played) are making way too much out of PEDs and should, as he said earlier in the morning “get over it.”
Costas strongly challenged the premise of Parker’s claim with the following history lesson:
After World War II, baseball had a tremendous surge in attendance. Baseball was essentially segregated then. A few teams had a few Black players but no one in their right mind would say, ‘well, baseball remained popular so we don’t have to move with greater speed toward justice when it comes to integration of the game.’ I loved baseball in the fifties and sixties growing up; that doesn’t mean that Curt Flood and Marvin Miller weren’t on the side of justice and didn’t have principle on their side because something in the game needed to be corrected and I was able to separate those two things. Baseball was flawed and it was unjust and it needed to be reformed in terms of players rights, but at the same time I loved the game.
Maybe you’re thinking – what’s so unreasonable about that? After all, just because the fans like something, doesn’t automatically make it OK. And, on the surface, I agree – I’m not one to argue that the customer (or the crowd) is always right.
But, think a little bit more about this statement and it takes on an unreal quality. Is Costas really saying that steroid use is the equivalent of the world historic injustice of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow enforced by violence and terror, and manifest in baseball’s color line and its too-slow dismantling? Steroid use and Jim Crow?! In the same breath?! Look, I know Costas would react with horror to such a proposition. But, that his sense of moral outrage about steroid use could so overwhelm his judgment that it did not occur to him – just once during his rant – to acknowledge the fundamental incongruity between use of steroids and baseball’s color line is, in my view, an indictment of the lack of moral compass of much the mainstream of sports journalism and its extraordinary self-absorption. If fans don’t care about steroids, does that really say the same thing about them and their moral sense as fans being indifferent to Jim Crow? Only in the highly insular, painfully over simplified and frankly childish view of too much of sports journalism could such a statement slip through, disguised as gravitas, rather than the misguided historical comparison it is.
Look, I have no problem with villains and heroes in sports on the field. That sports competition is about good guys and bad guys for many people, when it comes to the competition itself – that’s part of what’s fun about rooting for and against teams and players. I am a Yankee fan – and the Yankees are probably the most hated team in American sports. That’s fine – I understand why that is and it’s part of what’s fun, actually, about being a Yankee fan. But, when you take that two-dimensional, black hat vs. white hat world view off the field – when you actually, in short, purport to make serious judgments about character and morality and society that are based on simplistic views of reality – well, I can’t abide that. If Dodgers fans hate the Giants’ best player – great. If Red Sox fans hate the Yankees’ best players – that’s part of the game. If Michigan fans hate the Buckeyes – I am good with all that. Three of my biggest rooting interests – the Yankees, Michigan football and UNC basketball - are arguably part of the three biggest rivalries in North American sports. Bring on the hatred between the lines, I say. But, once you start to believe your own press – as the sports media do – that they aren’t just the purveyors of what happens on the field, but the arbiters of character and morality and decency and (God help us) justice off of it – well, then we’ve got a problem. Because, in far too many cases, theses are folks who’s understanding of the world in which we live is arrested at an adolescent stage. That’s fine for rooting for your team. It’s not fine for serious analysis of the weightier issues of sports as a reflection of larger social realities.
Compare Costas’ comments to Peter Gammons, who came on a short time later and when asked about Bonds had this to say:
I don’t get terribly wrapped up in all the morals of this because I think it’s the era of whatever it takes, whether it’s a slandering a politician after he wins a couple of primaries…or a retail chain wiping out every family business in the country. It’s part of sports, it’s part of life. Barry Bonds is the greatest homerun hitter of his era as Ruth was of his and as Aaron was of his.
See, now that’s perspective. Costas should dial back some of his self-righteous outrage until he gets a little more of it.