(Ladies and gents: I'm leaving the post below intact, but I'd like to direct everyone's attention to an apology I wrote the Tuesday after this was posted.)
Tomorrow at 1pm, Duke and North Carolina will play for the ACC championship in Greensboro. It's the culmination of a battle for supremacy that's raged all season- a battle that would lack a true winner without this rubber match. As a Duke fan of dubious mental stability, it's what I've needed and feared since the tournament began. For this conference and these circumstances, it's the perfect game. And lucky me, I have a free ticket. First four rows, courtside.
I'm not going to use it. That's what I want to tell you about.
But first, a story. For those who've missed my incessant bragging, I've been covering the ACC Tournament in Greensboro since Thursday. Yesterday, before the Duke-Virginia Tech game, when Carolina was slowly creeping back on a resilient but outmatched Clemson team, I got booted from my seat in press row. My low status makes me vulnerable to this kind of thing, and I accepted without protest. It was no big deal, except that the press area was crowded and it seemed doubtful that I'd find another perch. I finally saw a spot near halfcourt in the last row. I asked the men if it was open, and one of them indicated 'yes' with a reluctant wave. I'm not going to mention his name, except that it was Bob Heymann. He looks a little like Jim Boeheim and a little like David Stern, and he works in radio.
Bob and I chatted very briefly. It was clear from the way he watched the game that he was a Carolina fan. When I asked him point blank, it turned out he was not only a fan, but an alumnus. Bob and I had a decent time watching the end of the game. I was in awe of Kendall Marshall's passes and Barnes' shooting, and Bob echoed my praise. A shrill female Clemson fan behind us kept whistling and shouting obnoxiously at the referee. When Bob turned around, she whistled right in his face and said, "look at me again. Please."
We both hated her, and it gave us some common ground. We even laughed together when the guy to my left, an older curmudgeonly type, shook his head and said, "I could be married to that." Then Carolina won in overtime, Duke took the court, and Bob came to understand through my comments that I was a Duke fan.
"Who are you here with?" he asked.
I already noticed that the friendly tone disappeared. "Reese news," I said, "from UNC. But I went to undergrad at Duke."
A calculated look of incredulity flashed across his face. "What," he said, "you couldn't get into Carolina?"
Ha! Oh, ha, Bob! Well done! No big deal. It was the kind of lame jest you get used to ignoring while living down here. I'm sure Carolina people hear the same thing in reverse. Still, there was something a little too intense in his words. I felt unsettled by something that, on paper, reads like no more than a light-hearted dig. But I wasn't about to act on my suspicions. I did what I tend to do in those situations, which is to ignore the underlying emotion and talk right through it.
"I actually applied there," I told him. "I had to withdraw my application because I did early decision at Duke."
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Upstate New York."
"Why would you want to go to Duke from upstate New York?"
Again, the tone of the question rang my warning bells. Things were getting tense. I resorted to a common defense, which was to laugh as though he'd said something really witty. "Yeah, well," I said. "I liked it."
"You know, it's harder to get into UNC out of state than to get into Duke," he told me.
I've talked in this space before about the self-conscious feeling Duke alumni can get about their school and its stereotypes. We know we're all supposed to be status-obsessed and arrogant, not to mention disdainful of anyone outside the northeast. The question felt like a trap, or a challenge, or something. The entire interaction began to feel like a subtle but perceptible attempt at intimidation.
"Out-of-state UNC students get better SAT scores, too," he continued.
Lucky for me, I could not care less about acceptance rates or academic standing or anything resembling that kind of comparison. I muttered something about both schools being good.
"Well, at least you corrected your error," he said, referring to my current graduate career.
"Yup," I said, making sure to avoid eye contact. The mild bonhomie of ten minutes earlier had vanished, and the conversation had turned on what should have been an innocent fact- my undergraduate university.
In some ways, Bob Heymann has nothing to do with why I'm not going to Greensboro tomorrow. In other ways, it couldn't be more relevant.
You're not supposed to cheer in press row, and for the most part over the past two days, I respected that. I couldn't help the odd whispered curse or the rare tight-lipped grunt of admiration, but I thought I restrained myself quite nicely. In the first half against Virginia Tech, when Nolan Smith made his ridiculous, acrobatic lay-up, I put both hands on my head, said "wow!", and turned to look at the stands behind me. A couple Virginia Tech fans shook their heads in amazement, and the Dukies went wild.
This offended my new friend's sensibilities. "How about a little decorum?" Bob Heymann said. I looked at him and laughed, expecting it to be a joke. All I'd done was put my hands on my head and say a single word. I hadn't cheered for Duke. The reaction was about the grace and skill of the play, not some kind of partisan fervor. Yes, I'm a Duke fan, but you wouldn't know it from that one moment.
"I'm serious," he said. Then he fixed me with his most reproving look, a kind of quizzical number where he leaned back, crossed his arms, and gave a small laugh like he'd just witnessed the most crass act in the history of this or any other republic.
I can take my share of verbal combat. I'm fine with either going to war or just letting it slide off my back. But condescension like that raises my hackles. It activates a deep-seated anger I save especially for bullying authority figures. So my reaction, all too inevitable, was to stare at him for a moment, grin, and place my middle finger on the right side of my head.
"Don't fucking give me the finger!" he sputtered. In his tone, I heard exactly what I wanted, which was the uncertainty of a tyrant who didn't expect anything but a submissive reaction; the hesitation of the bully when you rattle his cage. It never gets any less sweet.
I defended myself, he countered, and then he closed by saying, "no, you behaved badly, but that's fine. But don't give me the fucking finger." When I wasn't suitably impressed, he threatened to have me thrown off press row. I raised both hands in a mock gesture to show how much the threat affected me, and then we both turned to the game.
Despite a reasonably auspicious beginning, Bob Heymann and I didn't exchange another word.
Which leads me to the culture as a whole. You can't cheer on press row, and I understand why. It's to preserve a supposed impartiality, to ensure our readers that they're getting the straight dope, untainted by allegiances or bias.
I get that, but I also get this: the world of the sports writer is not impartial.
Coaches and athletes aren't impartial. I sat through every possible postgame press conference over three days and 10 games, and in each one one, the attitude of the players and coaches to the press was, at best, mild annoyance. The media were lightly despised. At worst, they showed the superior petulance of an important luminary deigning to answer to a swarming horde of incompetents.
Which is unfortunate, but understandable. The modern mainstream sports media has become an impotent joke. They churn out lazy columns with half-baked insight and overwrought or rhythm-less prose. They have no influence. Except in one circumstance:
When something negative happens. When a coach or player says something controversial. When they get caught screwing up. When failure mounts on failure.
That's when the press wields power. And the coaches know it. The players mostly know it too, and the ones who don't tend to learn very quickly. To them, the press can only have very limited positive impact; the positives come from their performance, or from their PR people. But what the press can do is bring punishment.
Which is why athletes and coaches are cautious. They don't say a word out of place. They speak in platitudes and cliches. They repeat themselves in worn formulations that add nothing to the discourse. I recently spoke with a sports information officer from an ACC school that isn't Duke or UNC, and he actually said he encourages players to make it through interviews without saying one thing that would give the interviewer something new to report.
How sad is that? How sad is it that they're perpetually on the defensive? It's hard to blame them, though. I just endured three days of dumb, leading, and boring questions. "Coach, talk about how you feel." "Kyle, what was the key to the game out there?" In yesterday's post, I detailed an incredibly ill-conceived line of questioning from a New York Times reporter. Thursday, as Gary Williams was ready to leave the press conference, a writer from the Washington Post begged for one more question. When it was granted, the reporter asked Willimas if he'd been concerned that his team wouldn't have enough legs that day. Again, this was Thursday; the first day of the tournament. These are just two examples, but they're from the Washington Post and the New York Times. Would that kind of ignorant journalism be tolerated in any other section of those excellent newspapers?
The worst, though, are the leading questions. Such as: "Coach, can you talk about how proud you are of Seth Curry's leadership late in the season?" Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and take a wild guess at the content of that reporter's eventual story. Still thinking? I'll player spoiler: it'll be about how proud Coach K is of Seth Curry. In fact, it's already written. It just needed a quote from Coach K. He's a helpful puppet in the sportswriter's script. Because why write about real life when you can make up your own version?
And so the writers produce drab copy that nobody reads. You can see why they live for the negative. The negative is never drab; it's always exciting. The negative makes them relevant.
But it's important to consider the other side. How would you feel if you were a coach or player and these people asking questions were just dying for you to screw up so they had something exciting to print? You'd feel like they were snakes. You'd understand their power, and the fact that they really can't do anything good for you, and you'd be resentful.
And if you want to put a name on the annoyance universally expressed by the athletes and coaches, that's it: resentment. They look out on a sea of writers, many of them slovenly, many of them burned out, many of them incurious about the very thing these men have devoted their lives to mastering, and they see people unworthy of covering the sport.
It leads to disrespect and a lack of trust. It poisons the atmosphere. It creates a dysfunctional relationship of mutual disdain.
Believe me, I haven't forgotten that we're hours away from the ACC title game. This is supposed to be a sports blog, and maybe this space would be better used for a game preview, or a discussion of what's happened in Greensboro to date. I'm itching to talk about the unbelievable thuggery of Jeff Allen, or the miserable refereeing, or Nolan's brilliance with a deteriorating elbow and hurt toe or Seth's redemption or the lingering question mark that is Kyle Singler. And I want to let you know that those things will return.
I guess this is something I had to get off my chest, and SCSD! is the only forum I have. As you see, I'm also speaking very broadly here. It wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention the exceptions. Some beat writers do great work, and the last thing I want to do is chastise the mainstream media as a whole. You've all heard me praise Luke Winn and Seth Davis and others like him who have risen to the top of their profession by virtue of great wisdom, drive, and ability. I would never question people like that, and there are a healthy number of them active in the sports world. I hold them all in high esteem. I admire and envy their station.
I had occasion to see Dan Wiederer in action this weekend. He's the writer for the Fayetteville Observer who wrote the great 3-part piece on Coach K earlier this season. He's been published in the Best American Sports Writing books, and he genuinely seems like a hard-working, whip-smart guy. When I watched him write in the press room the past few days, I couldn't help but notice an intense, almost maniacal look on his face as he stared at the computer. He wrote in a sort of quiet fury, and you got the sense that a gun fight wouldn't have distracted him from his task. Even if I hadn't know Dan Wiederer from Adam, I would have been struck by that look. It's the rare and unmistakable face of passion. That look isn't why he's great, but it's a product of the fact.
He's surely not alone. There are others doing excellent work against the odds for newspapers; overcoming the limits of the form and the built-in incentives tempting them to concede the fight and churn out garbage. They deserve a tip of the cap.
Interestingly enough, in all the postgame press conferences we attended, I never once saw Dan Wiederer ask a question. Maybe it's coincidence. Or maybe his narratives are organic creations that don't have the taint of prefabrication.
But exceptions are exceptions for a reason. They don't represent the whole. It was not, suffice it to say, an impressive world. And for anyone who's been there, I know I'm not breaking new ground. These are old complaints I've heard a million times before, but seeing them firsthand is a little staggering.
You can't cheer on press row. You can look at your computer, and back at the court, and back at your computer. You can share tired jokes in an attempt to sound gruff. You can hammer out your two-bit tale in the moments after, trying like hell to beat a deadline. You can gobble up the free food they give you at every venue, augmenting your complacence. You can slowly grow bitter and tired of the thing that brought you here in the first place. You can focus on baskets and touchdowns and home runs and forget why you came. You can forget the people, and the inner human drama that these games actually represent.
You can't cheer on press row. But it's also hard to love the game.
This diatribe aside, I actually don't believe every sports story has to be an earth-shattering masterpiece of heartbreaking clarity. Those who read my blog will see that the overwhelming majority of posts are some variation of me photoshopping Ryan Kelly's head onto a bird. I am not a standard-bearer, nor would I want to be. I know there's a place for game stories and quick sidebars and the all more mundane aspects of sports journalism.
That's fine. But the old world is dying while the old order persists. Except for pieces of local interest, sports sections of newspapers go unread. Especially by young people. I honestly can't think of one friend who starts his or her mornings by opening a newspaper to read the latest Duke or UNC story. And I realize economic and internet realities play a huge role in the decline. I'm not stupid. But I can't help but think that the agonizing culture of underachievement I witnessed over the past few days, along with the mediocre product we've all stopped reading and the castrated desire to achieve more, are the torpedoes that ruptured the ship in the first place.
I don't think anybody older than twelve believes that the world of sports writing is glamorous. But I'm here to tell you it's downright depressing.
I don't know if Bob Heymann is a good journalist. I've never listened to him on the radio, and I probably never will. But if I go back to Greensboro tomorrow, I know there will be someone like him to pounce on me if I show the slightest hint of emotion. It may be a dying order, but the dinosaurs don't want to be extinct. There's a ferocity to their incompetence; ingrained in the drivel is an entrenched bureaucracy that doesn't want to become obsolete.
So I'm not going back. That's not how I want to experience sports. I want to watch Duke take on North Carolina for the ACC title tomorrow, and I want to be a fan. When Harrison Barnes his first three, I want to swear, and I want to know that a few miles away, my friend Justin is flapping his arms in his best black falcon impression and shouting "Caw! Caw!" I want to rant. I want to rave. I want my girlfriend to question her life choices. I want to be an absolute goddamn mess of a human being for forty minutes. I want to experience the rhythm and emotion of the game in the pit of my stomach. I want the chemicals flowing in slightly-less-than-dangerous volumes. I want to live, and I want to die, over and over and over again.
And then I want to write about it from the place of love I discovered in a startling fever when I was five years old.
Fans are the heart of sports. The athletes and the coaches are the soul. The people who tell the story are the brain. When things are at their best, all three elements combine into a fleeting, unified whole. We're in it for the moments- the sweet ephemera that keeps you high, that keeps you coming back.
But the sneaky, waddling, frantic lackeys I witnessed this weekend are not the heart, the soul, or the brain. They're the fleshy tire around the midsection, weighing the body down. They're dead weight, and they need to be shed.
Here's my point: I don't want to march in lockstep with the drones of inadequacy. I can already tell it'll swallow me whole. My place is with the fans in the crowd. Failing that, it's in front of a television. And I don't have $150 to spend on a scalped ticket, so I'm not going.
In the end, though, the stale bitterness in Greensboro doesn't need me to sustain itself. It'll subsist in a decaying state until the dying breath. They can tout their lack of bias all day, but it won't save them. In fact, it's a handicap. It disconnects them from the bloodstream of the game. In the meantime, I'll be here at home, miles from the action, alone in my living room, wearing a Nolan Smith jersey and maybe a blue head piece with little devil horns.
And the truth is, I'll be less isolated than those writers. While they covet their limited access and race to scribble the latest banalities en route to filing their own, I'll be hanging out with the readers of this site and a thousand others across the internet. I'll have the voices of other lunatic fans within reach of a cell phone. We'll feel the throbbing pulse of the game in a way they've forgotten on press row. That emptiness can't touch us.
There's no deadline in our world. When we say 'Go Duke!', we mean it forever.