To me, Jeff Pearlman is one of the best sports writers in the biz. He's got a very understated but highly readable style and isn't afraid to show the good, the bad and the ugly of sports personalities. He even tried to show that there were some good aspects to a detestable character like Barry Bonds. So in the course of reading Pearlman's blog I came across this interesting story about writers befriending the athletes they cover.
Now, having had a little bit of experience in covering pro athletes (although Jeff covers baseball and I've done football) I can tell you I wholeheartedly agree with Pearlman on this one. I don't see how a writer can be buddy-buddy with his subjects and yet cover them objectively.
To me, a beat writer, on any beat whether you're covering pro athletes or the President, needs to be James Bond. You need to cover your subjects coldly and objectively. Your subjects need to know you but not really know you. By that I mean the subject has to know you enough that he/she feels like he/she trusts you with information. But at the same time, they can't necessarily know you on a friendly level. One of the best guys I've seen at this is Jamison Hensley, the beat writer for the Ravens the past 9 years. When I've seen Jamison around the media and locker rooms, I get the sense the players and coaches know him (obviously since he spends so much time around them) but that they don't really know him beyond what he does for a living. I respect that he can do the gig that long and maintain a certain distance. At least that's the way it seems to me.
Now I've certainly been around and covered athletes that I've thought, "He seems like a good dude." Derrick Mason, Haloti Ngata, Troy Smith, Marshal Yanda, Adrian Peterson and Mike Adams were all football players I've questioned and came away thinking were genuinely nice guys. But at the same time, I'm not sure I would want to hang out with pro athletes. After all, what do I have in common with a guy like Ray Lewis or even Todd Heap? The answer, probably not much. Certainly, as a reporter, you become comfortable with some guys more than others. I mean, why should I interview a moody guy like Bart Scott when I could talk to a guy like Ngata who is typically calm and accomodating even after the worst of losses.
I know from watching them that some of the columnists do buddy up to the players a little bit. At least some of the local ones. Having watched them interact, I always suspected that Jason Brown was one of the guys feeding Mike Preston info about the state of the locker room in 2007. Of course, I could be wrong. In Mike's defense, as columnist, he's supposed to be providing a fan's point of view but with insider access. And in Jason's defense, nobody wants to have their name associated with quotes or rumors about a locker room in disarray (which the 2007 Ravens certainly were). One thing I like about Preston is that he's not afraid to go into the room and face guys he's ripped in the paper. Jay Mariotti was notorious for ripping members of the Chicago White Sox and not going into the room to face the music. In Mike's case, he's helped by the fact that he's about 6'2 250+ pounds, whereas Mariotti is a twerp. Still, I respect that Mike is willing to go in there and take the barbs from guys like Terrell Suggs and laugh it off. He tells it the way he sees it and, like it or lump it (as Sidney Crosby might say) it's hard to knock a columnist for that.
I guess what I'm getting at here is that sports reporting is at the same time a difficult job and a rewarding job. It's difficult because you are dealing with the whims and moods of pro athletes, all of whom have more money than you'll ever see in a lifetime and most of whom have been trained since high school to regard reporters as the enemy. But at the same time, I can't think of a cooler job. You get to watch football games and be catered for free. People actually pay for the priviledge of reading what you write. And the best part is, publishers pay you to watch and write about games. So if you ever see a sports writer bitching about how hard his job his, let your boy at the Hangar know. I'll volunteer to ease his burden.