*This post was originally published on footsmoke.com in the Fall of 2009.
Alright, alright, fine – blogging isn’t journalism. Lines between the two fields exist. Professional journalists get paid, for example. Bloggers generally don’t. They toil in the nervous spaces between working on the internet and “working” on the internet, or between trips to Starbucks and withdrawing more trust-fund money. Journalists, at least good ones, use primary sources. Bloggers mostly use secondary and tertiary and whatever-comes-after-that ones. They comment on comments on comments, re-chewing news or spewing their opinions.
At the same time, the wall between the two fields has become permeable, particularly in sports writing. In many ways it’s collapsing. This is because sports journalists often perform the same task as bloggers. They watch an event, digest its nuances and its numbers, and comment on it. As Richard Whittall points out in a recent post that got me thinking more about all this: professional sports writing is traditionally more conservative and less risky, beholden to the demands of editors, readers, and advertisers. “The most successful and interesting blogs tend to follow threads into the realm of the bizarre, the shocking, the unnewsworthy.” But take a look at The Guardian’s funky sports sections to see how, in many ways, these two worlds can overlap. As Richard Whittall says in a recent post: “Bloggers and professional sports writers both tend to make wild, highly-opinionated extrapolations from whatever bit of sports news, whether on field or off, happens to come up that day. While sports news still requires a primary source – someone has to record results ad take player quotes – there is a lot more filler than in the front section.”
When sports journalists do perform actual journalism, ie. investigations into the sources of the entertainment, they rely on access – to locker rooms and press rooms and practice fields and athlete’s phones. Such access traditionally ensures that professionals have privileged knowledge, leverage over the rest of us. But the state of modern media’s relation to the modern athlete is closing much of the access that journalists once enjoyed. Increasingly, modern athletes are treated as brands or products. They’re told what to say and who to say it to. They speak in sound-bytes, saying everything while saying nothing. Only the elite professionals continue to get journalistic access – the Rick Reillys who ride in convertibles with Kobe Bryant, or the Spike Lees who make painfully contrived documentaries about a day in the life of the same brand, I mean athlete. As a side-note, part of the reason why I enjoy soccer so much in this country is that such a disconnecting and money-driven process of branding athletes hasn’t really happened yet in the sport. But it’s well on the way, as soccer gets more professional and lucrative in the U.S. every year. Such shrinking access is natural and often necessary, and depressing.
In any league, however, new mediums of communication have allowed athletes to circumvent journalists’ questions altogether. On the surface, blogging and tweeting allow athletes to speak their minds about whatever they want, whenever they want. Except they don’t. These technologies make athletes both more and less transparent at the same time. They empower athletes to share juicy locker-room tidbits or leak breaking news. But more often, athletes will produce clouds of chatter about being “really pumped for the big game!” The newness and potential effects of such technology make employing it a tentative and risky process for leagues and marketing executives. For bigger leagues with established followings, tweeting represents an understandably dangerous prospect that warrants vetting or banning. (“Yo bitches, I told ya’l coach was a knuckle-fuck. He always plays Karl at crunch time even though the donk can’t shoot free throws for shit. Won 20 g’s off him pre-game in a free throw contest.” “Wanna know where Karl was last nite? … Those hoes in the East River. I know the real story. Hold on. TO. I gotta act like I’m pumped…”) Other leagues like Women’s Professional Soccer have embraced social-media tools like blogs and twitter as valuable tools for marketing and communication. And the WPS has used them to good effect, short of allowing live streams of the girls’ post-game showers, to connect fans with the players – or at least to make fans feel more connected. However, I’m still waiting for some shit-slinging bitch-sessions to explode between girls on the same team who don’t like each other. Can’t the league at least stage this for some more attention? This brings me to another problem. While providing “access,” the potential to use the technology to lie or hoax or give false alibis (“Na, I wasn’t at the club. Check my tweets. I was playing Cranium.”) could put up another screen between the athlete and the fan.
As a quick disclaimer: If I’m totally off base on this it’s because I don’t really follow athletes’ twitter pages, yet. But I imagine that for most reasonable sports fans, following an athlete’s twitter page feeds a weird desire to know both less and more about athletes’ lives and personalities. In one sense, we don’t want to know anything more. Part of us wants more of the same vapid statements that they give on podiums that let us know they’re professionals and they’re not telling us shit about their personal lives or what they really think, and they will let their games do the talking thank you very much. But in a more real and possibly disturbing sense, we crave more access. We want behind-the-scenes drama. We want to know how stupid or funny or absurdly vane they are. We want to make fun of them so that we at least have something over their rock star lives and their god-given genes. We want their lives to fall apart. We want comeback stories. We want to relate somehow. We want messages that let us know that they’re actually human, and sort of funny or weird or kind of bad-ass or struggling. Basically, we want messages that feed our idolization of them as the hard-working-freak-of-nature-genius-lucky-bastards as they are.
On that note, the problem so with so many internet-spawned tools for communication is that we use them more for rumor, absurd reaction, and really just straight up bull shit than anything else. We’re all mostly commenting on the products and entertainment that we consume. Us bloggers are horny parasites licking the salt that trickles down to us from the ball-sacs of global media empires. We are all mindful and mindless contributors to the giant circle-jerk that is the blogosphere, vying for attention while coming up with an occasionally salient point that we will all likely forget by tomorrow. Of course, this is also the brilliance of the blogosphere, and the internet itself. It gives everyone a voice. And with this voice bloggers do, every once in a while, produce valuable and entertaining opinions in the worldwide conversation. And networks of bloggers do often push the best and the brightest forward, toward new and far-reaching audiences. In such a democratized media landscape, we are responsible for propeling the best seeds forward.
This is exciting and scary. David Byrne, former Talking Heads front-man and blogger extraordinaire, asks some worthwhile and prescient questions about the state of the modern media. For example, he writes: “What will happen when most of the country has nothing but entertainment, gossip, and sports as sources of information? It’s a country ripe for takeover if you ask me. A place where public opinion can be easily manipulated as long as the consumers keep buying.” At the risk of sounding like a raving socialist, I would argue that we’re already there.