Published October 9, 2012 - 2:34pm
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The difference between Steve Spurrier and Charlie Weis can be measured in goodwill. Spurrier has lots of goodwill with South Carolina fans, so when he blackballed The State columnist Ron Morris, it was the writer who suffered. In contrast, when Kansas coach Weis attacked the student newspaper for an unflattering cartoon predicting, correctly, the Jayhawks slaughter last weekend at the hands of Kansas State, nobody took the onetime Florida offensive coordinator seriously.
Weis is on his second doomed head coaching stint on his way to oblivion. Spurrier is the elder statesman of the SEC and may well lead the Gamecocks to a conference and national championship. When you’re at the top, you basically own the local media. This rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Will Leitch, the founder of Deadspin now writing for USA Today’s “Sports on Earth” website, claimed last week that Spurrier’s treatment of Ron Morris–who apologized to Spurrier for an earlier column and lost a side gig with a local television station–amounted to a full-scale assault on the institution of journalism–even though Morris’s credentials as a “journalist” are pretty weak:
Sure, the State hasn’t fired Morris (yet), but that “apology” column last week reeks of internal pressure. The sort of pressure you’re feeling when a coach who feels more powerful than ever because his team is winning starts to bring the hammer down in a small football-crazy town. And more to the point: The type of pressure you feel when your industry is weaker than it has ever been, covering an industry that is stronger than it has ever been.
Someone has to bankroll journalism, and as time goes by, teams and leagues are in far better financial position to do that than publishers are. So far, I haven’t seen any crossing of the streams at reputable organizations. But eventually, there will be fewer of these newspaper reporters, and thus fewer people remembering just how the separation of church and state should work. And the line will creep more and more toward “shill, or no paycheck.”
This is just a logical next step. This example is particularly brazen and ugly — a coach actually pulling weight to have a critical sportswriter fired — but that might brand it less as “an anomaly” and more as “ahead of its time.”
Leitch’s “separation of church and state” metaphor is typical of how established media members become unhinged the moment anyone calls someone out for being a troll. And there’s a pretty strong consensus that Morris is a troll–or, to put it more eloquently, a pundit who trades in controversial opinions.
By Leitch’s own definition, a “journalist” is a disinterested observer who strives to discover the truth, even if it’s unpopular. That excludes the majority of modern sports media. If anything, it’s the team- and league-funded new media that Leitch frets over that may well provide the salvation for sports journalism. While there’s a good deal of propaganda coming from such outfits, the producers of sports actually have a greater incentive to deal in impartial, fact-based reporting than traditional outside media that survive by selling ads to a fickle public.
But let’s get back to Spurrier. If there’s anything that defines the Ball Coach, it’s his frank honesty. He’s an anomaly in that sense among coaches. We’ve become so used to coaches speaking in meaningless football jargon–a function, ahem, of traditional journalists who punish any sign of original thought–that when coaches make a point of saying what they really think, it becomes a major story.
You can certainly criticize a man of Spurrier’s standing for picking a public feud with a lowly media troll. But it’s his time to waste. It clearly hasn’t distracted his team, as Saturday’s victory over Georgia proved.
More importantly, Spurrier talked about his problems with Morris openly. That’s really what seems to disturb media types like Leitch. In the post-Watergate culture, which sadly has infected sports journalism, the way you handle a problem is through anonymous leaks to favored reporters. The public has grown accustomed to anonymously sourced and unsubstantiated reports citing “sources close to the team” and the like. Transparency has always taken a back seat to the media’s manipulation of stories to make themselves look important.
It would be one thing if Spurrier worked behind-the-scenes to fire a reporter who was about to uncover some major scandal involving the Gamecocks. But Ron Morris isn’t Sara Ganim. And while Leitch may disagree, there is a difference. If you simply lump every opinion-spouting pundit in with the class of professional journalists, then “journalism” ceases to have any meaning. It’s a self-defeating argument.
There’s nothing wrong with publicly confronting a troll. Would it be such a terrible thing if a coach or team boycotted ESPN unless they fired Skip Bayless? Most consumers of sports and sports information would probably welcome such a stand.
The basic error folks like Leitch continue to make is assuming there has to be some large-scale “disinterested” group of journalists to act as an intermediary between sports teams and fans. Yet the entire history of new media, which Leitch himself pioneered, has been about eliminating such barriers. Coaches and athletes can now communicate directly with fans if they so choose. Simultaneously, independent writers can now pursue stories and scandals without having to work through the closed network of “professional” journalists–most of whom are now dedicated to reinventing themselves as multimedia celebrities a la Bayless.
And yes, with this new era comes more trolling and propaganda. Leagues and schools will publish their own splashy news portals with “everything is great” content, while the Bleacher Reports of the world will cull SEO data to create customized stories designed to inflame just about any fan.
Ultimately, Spurrier’s petty vendetta won’t usher in some new era of coach-controlled media. The successful coaches will continue to enjoy greater influence over their local coverage than the Charlie Weises–just as the successful troll like Skip Bayless will continue to grab ratings and Twitter followers while Ron Morris fades into obscurity. The larger sports media system will continue to operate normally.