Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sportswriters Are Apologists

By Evan Weiner

February 1, 2011


(New York, N. Y.) -- Many years ago the New York Times sports columnist George Vescey told me that sportswriters are apologists. Vescey, whose life interests are not limited to just sports, co-wrote Loretta Lynn's autobiography “Coal Miner's Daughter” in 1974. George Vescey should be handing out annual "Sportswriters Apologist Awards" with Yahoo Sports Dan Wetzel the leading candidate for the 2011 prize.

Wetzel is very upset with National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell who, in Wetzel's mind, has deviated from the Ben Roethlisberger has been rehabilitated script that the apologists, rather the sportswriters, have been following.

Wetzel thinks Goodell's comments to Sports Illustrated’s football writer Peter King are a disservice to the Pittsburgh quarterback and probably to the game of football. After all Wetzel points out that Big Ben has become a model citizen after his unfortunate night in Milledgeville, Georgia last March when he was accused of sexual assault. No charges were filed against the Steelers quarterback but Goodell did sanction Roethlisberger by suspending him for the first six games of the 2010 season.

It was the second time Roethlisberger faced sexual assault allegations and it was the second time that Roethlisnerger was cleared of any wrong doing. Goodell told Roethlisberger if he was a model citizen, he would review the suspension and drop the penalty to four games.

Roethlisberger behaved and Goodell commuted the last two games of the suspension. Since then, the sportswriters have bought into the Big Ben is a changed man story and have spread it as gospel. That is what sportswriters do, apologize, but Goodell has altered the Aesop Fable just a little bit and that disturbs people like Wetzel.

Goodell told King that Steelers teammates didn't exactly have words of support for Roethlsiberger during Goodell's investigation of the incident. Wetzel seems bothered that Goodell is spoiling the Super Bowl party for him and presumably other journalists by telling King what he observed during the Roethlisberger investigation.

Goodell has clearly messed up Wetzel's enjoyment of Super Bowl week and Wetzel has a stinging rebuke for the NFL Commissioner. Goodell is not giving Roethlisbeger a free pass and that could open up the entire question of what happened in both Lake Tahoe and Milledgeville again to other media like non-sports reporters or give a platform to groups who are concerned about athletes committing violent acts against women.

"Most of all, why bring up something that’s negative for the Steelers, Roethlisberger or the NFL?," Wetzel writers in his piece.
"Goodell’s comments carry no positive information or spin. They do nothing for anyone. At best, it’s an annoying line of questioning that the Steelers are capable of compartmentalizing and ignoring. At worst, it’s an unneeded distraction that only regains steam when the rest of the story is printed in SI later in the week."
When did Wetzel become a football coach and start worrying about distractions? He is a journalist and this is a story of some significance. The NFL’s public face talking about the Roethlisberger investigation. King got the story and it is a story. Wetzel is supposed to be a journalist, that’s his job but he sounds like an apologist for Roethlisberger.
People covering the NFL have a cushiony job.
They are spoon fed stories by the team's public relations department. Key players are delivered both in person and on the phone. Team public relations offices spit out information instantaneously. It is an easy job. Covering sports is pretty simple, a writer, radio or TV reporter goes to a practice or a game and chronicles a game. The ESPN program “Around the Horn” is a pretty accurate look at what real sportswriters are all about. It is a toy department of a mega store and nothing of any significance is ever discussed.
Goodell though has ruined the Super Bowl for them by stating his opinion and handing out suspensions.
Wetzel is a journalist, not a fan, or is he a fan? Perhaps Yahoo Sports Executive Editor Dave Morgan can answer that. He hired Wetzel. It does seem sportswriters are fans first and think they are part of a team or a league. After all, the games cannot go on without them. They record history, they vote on awards like the Defensive Player of the Year, the Offensive Player of the Year in the National Football League. They decide who gets into the Canton Hall of Fame. They act like fans who have inside access. Of course that access is rather controlled by spin masters who allow just bits of real information to come out. Wetzel's opening paragraphs seem to have come right out of the Steelers public relations staff as if he was a junior associate in the office writing an apology.
"For months now Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers have been working to put the past in the past. They’ve attempted to flip the script on that drunken night in Milledgeville, Ga. and make something good come out of what, at the very best, was a series of poor and classless decisions by their star quarterback," he wrote.
"Roethlisberger has been more open with fans. He’s been more polite with the media. He’s gotten engaged to be married and, it’s been said, has become more of a homebody. His teammates, coaches and the organization as a whole have welcomed him back into the fold. It’s one reason the Steelers are playing Green Bay in Sunday’s Super Bowl."

Who knew that Ben was such a great guy? You kind of wonder what women's groups now think of Ben after Wetzel’s utterances. Unfortunately for Wetzel, Goodell made it clear that Ben was far from a model citizen by sitting him down.

Wetzel doesn’t sound too much different from Hollie who complained about this writer’s “Will Roethlisberger get a pass at the Super Bowl?” column. “It is a shame in today's society that a man accused of rape is guilty until proven innocent, just as a man with children going through a divorce is almost never awarded custody of his children. The woman's word is taken as gospel. Rape is a serious allegation and a woman should not use it as a crutch for a bad decision. A decision that doesn't have the results that she wants. This is cruel to actual victims and takes away from the credibility of women. As was stated, no one knows the true facts. I guess well known males need to have contracts with anyone they have sex with to prevent baseless accusations.”

Angie, like Wetzel, also defended Roethlisberger. “It was said Ben sexual assaulted a woman not raped a woman. This could have been anything from a pat on the butt, touch on the shoulder or a casual wink. Being a woman I know how they use things to their advantage and a lot of men get the bad end. Ben did do as he was asked he did his dues so it does need to be dropped and moved on and see him for what he is an AWESOME quarterback - I love him and his style/behind you all the way Ben Here's to a Super Bowl win and another great season next year and playoff bound GO STEELERS.”

Sports fans and writers are so forgiving as long as a player provides enjoyment and is entertaining.

Is a sportswriter covering a team a real journalist or someone who is lucky to have some ability to put a couple of sentences together and impress some sports editor to hire him or her? The real answer is that most sportswriters just want to be a part of the team and seem to be willing to be used as a public relations department extension.

If a writer real knows something that can give the sport a black eye, chances are he will sit on the information (and it is generally a he in football circles because sports editors assign real men to cover real sports. Just look at the history of women sportswriters and you will see how women were given lesser assignments such as the National Hockey League), it is probably not going to see the light of day.

Members of that esteemed ultimate boys club, the Baseball Writers Association of America, could not figure out in the 1990s that baseball players were adding muscle at incredible rates which might have been the result of illegal substances. Years later, after a Congressional hearing on steroids usage in sports (Congressional committees slammed baseball for the sport's "laissez-faire" drug testing policy but lauded the NFL for the league's drug testing policy---it seems the various committees were again asleep at the wheel during those hearings), the players suspected of use, the Mark McGwires, Rafael Palmeiros of the world have been barred from entering Baseball's Valhalla, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The eligible voters, sportswriters, the real baseball men according to luminaries like Hall of Fame skipper Whitey Herzog and mere mortals like John McNamara and Gene Mauch, two former baseball managers, have turned their scorn to the players called to testify before a Congressional panel about banned substance in sports.

Sportswriters should not under any circumstances for sports awards or participate in Hall of Fame voting. It is a clear conflict of interest. A reporter is supposed to report. Voting for an honor is not part of the job, especially when the honoree is the subject of the reporting. Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Tony Grassi should not be keeping former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton because Modell moved his team to Baltimore in 1995 and deprived Grassi of a "home" team to cover in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Modell moved his business, it happens but Grassi took it personally and his fellow voters, football writers, fell for Grassi's plea.

That's the real world of sportswriters. They are a band of brothers who love watching games and rubbing elbows with jocks. It is not a difficult job, just report on who won and why and put out information that the team or the league wants. Wetzel is the leading candidate for the Vescey "Sportswriters Apologized Award" for 2011 but there will be others that will be in the running. Wetzel has the lead at the moment.

Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble 's xplana.com, kobo's literati or amazonkindle. He can be reached at evanjweiner@yahoo.com

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