Big Ten Wonk
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Nod perfunctorily toward your columnist
#8 in a series of last-day posts
For decades the sports columnist, by virtue of their profession, enjoyed three effective though not total monopolies:

1. The ability to see the games
2. The ability to reach readers
3. The ability to talk to players and coaches

What we've seen over the past 20 years is the total breakup of monopoly number 1 by cable and satellite. Even more dramatic has been the antitrust action brought against number 2 by the internet over the past 10 years. Today the professional columnist is left with only monopoly number 3. And while it's true this realization can on occasion trigger a frightened yelp like that coming from a stagecoach manufacturer circa 1910, this state of affairs in fact doesn't faze most sportswriters.

Nor should it.

Take Simmons. I think the shift he heralds isn't that he's both a sportswriter and an avowed Boston Red Sox fan but simply that he writes as a sports fan would write instead of as a professional would write. That is, he hasn't shattered any paradigms but he's writing from the VIP seats and not from six feet closer to the court along press row. That's a big six feet: he's all about old monopolies 1 and 2 and not at all about number 3. And such is one way of finessing the current situation as a professional.

Another way for sportswriters to greet the present is even more obvious: if you have a monopoly on access, don't do penance. Use it. Please. In three seasons of reading MSM fare as a blogger trolling for good stuff, I still feel that perhaps the single best piece I came across was a feature by Mike DeCourcy and Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News in December 2004. That month Illinois played Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and basically DeCourcy and Veltrop each took a team and trailed them for a few days leading up to the game. The resulting article, posted a day or two after the game, was filled with fascinating details to be found nowhere else: how each coaching staff broke down the game tape, what they told their players about the opposing team's weaknesses, the stats that each coaching staff kept on their own team, what each player's assignments were, etc. All gold.

I'm baffled as to why we don't see more reportage like this. You have a press pass. Trail these guys! (Related: how come we never get any dishy off-the-record quotes on opposing players or coaches? Good grief, if mandatory job rotation were enforced and we had the Washington press corps assigned to college hoops, we'd have scandal within the week, guaranteed. More people than just Bob Knight talk like Bob Knight, they just do it off the record.)

Or take another example: every now and then I make sport of Seth Davis. But say this for Davis: he uses his monopoly on access. He broke the news that Mike Davis was out at Indiana. And he quotes NBA scouts and GMs anonymously on the draft prospects of college players. Davis should quit analysis altogether and just duel Katz to see once and for all who's going to be the Bob Woodward of this here sport (where "Bob Woodward" is understood in a 30-second-SportsCenter-spots kind of way). The gig is just sitting there: Deadspin-snarky but with health coverage and getting calls returned. Schmooze, build your network, quote them anonymously, and do it. There's a place for that.

Where I think columnists sometimes err, though, is in thinking that this last remaining monopoly can be of some use in divining what's going to happen (where the object under study is tonight's game and not, say, a coaching search). This year I had occasion to dissent from a columnist who had written about a game: "Breaking down [team X's] chances is simple. If [leading scorer for team X] doesn't have a big game, then [team X] is toast." With the phrase "breaking down team X's chances," the columnist was stating, in effect: by virtue of monopoly 3, I have this figured out in advance.

He turned out to be wrong, of course, which is why I chose this particular episode. (Bet you didn't see that coming.) But the larger point is that giving anyone
columnist, blogger, or free-lance blueberry inspectorthe abilities of former monopolies 1 and 2 should enable them to run rings around anyone limited to merely number 3 where analysis is concerned (again, as distinct from coaching searches and the like).

Columnists, give us what we can't get ourselves. It's interesting to us and in your best interest.

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