Thursday, October 22, 2015

Independent's Day

Whether you're an NBA fan or not, you're probably aware that ESPN's Skip Bayless has made himself rich and famous by saying indefensible things about athletes, most notably LeBron James. Backed by nothing resembling facts or data, Bayless casts aspersions not just on performance, but on personal qualities underlying that performance, the worst kind of hackery. While he is castigated in some circles, he is also given prime television real estate and millions of dollars for his efforts.
Whether you're an NFL fan or not, you're probably aware that ESPN's Bill Simmons was let go by the company for saying defensible things about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. After first being suspended for calling Goodell a "liar," based on Goodell's, well, lying, during the Ray Rice investigation, Simmons went on the Dan Patrick Show and called out Goodell again during the deflated-footballs investigation. A few days later, ESPN president John Skipper announced that the company would be severing ties with the writer.

The contrast between the two situations has stuck in my craw because it makes clear something that is a problem in sports media. You can say anything you want about players, factually correct or otherwise, fair or otherwise, and there are no repercussions. Players can't suspend credentials or deny access to the team or talk to their media partners about retribution. For all the money and glory they can get, players have no power when it comes to dealing with the media. On the other hand, if you go after an owner or a commissioner, the true seats of power in sports, you will get slapped down in a hurry, even if you have facts on your side, even if you have right on your side.

New Yorkers are familiar with the concept. Read Juliet Macur's coverage of Alex Rodriguez in The New York Times to see how vicious, how personal, how invested in a player's failure one writer can become. Bill Madden of the Daily News has been running years of what amounts to fanfic about Rodriguez, repeatedly being not just wrong but venally wrong, with no backlash. Meanwhile, the Wilpon family is siphoning money from an entire fan base -- taking actual money from real people and pocketing it rather than improving the baseball team -- and has largely been handled with kid gloves. Look at the Daily News's "I-Team," which served by and large as Bud Selig's hit squad during the Steroid Wars while turning a blind eye to MLB's questionable actions during them.

Players are fair game for any sort of attack. Owners and commissioners are off-limits for even the most legitimate ones. There are exceptions in both cases, but that's the state of sports coverage today. It's that way because, and this clearly drove the Simmons issue, most distributors of sports journalism are either rightsholders or otherwise invested in the product. ESPN covers the NFL and has a long history of doing what the league wants. CBS, NBC and FOX all run nominally journalistic operations online, and all are partners with the leagues to one degree or another. Yahoo is independent. Sports Illustrated is independent, though some of its contributors -- Tom Verducci, Peter King -- work in television for the leagues or league partners. (Disclosure: I contribute to SI on a semi-regular basis and think the world of the magazine.) VICE Sports began as an independent, though its relationship with HBO, which is partnered with the NFL, may change that.

If Bill Simmons, the most powerful voice in sports, can't make a truthful argument against a commissioner without losing his job, what hope does anyone else have in a world where the biggest distribution platforms are in bed with the biggest leagues?

The most important issues in baseball aren't the use of shifts or the lack of balls in play or All-Star voting results. The most important issues in baseball are who gets which pieces of an eight-figure pie. You can't write about baseball responsibly and not write about the Wilpons scamming Mets fans, or the MLBPA rolling over for the better part of a decade to the tune of billions in lost earnings for players, or the false narratives constructed around 60 years of drugs in baseball. You have to write about business and labor and, yes, lying and deception. You have to be willing and able to call out the latter and back it up with facts and data. It becomes hard to do that when you're answering not just to your audience and your conscience, but to a rightsholder, to a league. Owners and commissioners are going to lie; who is going to call them out for it when doing so gets you fired?

Say what you want about the Newsletter. Say what you want about me. Say what you want about my relationship with the autocomplete function, but for 20 years I have had one constituency: the readers. Whether in the first Prospectus book, the early days of the BP website, the development of a regular online column, the last five years in this space or the hundreds of SI bylines, everything I've written has been with the intent of presenting the best information to readers without regard to what a player, a team, a league might prefer. I coined the term "informed outsider" at a time when people like me didn't get access. I've held that position because being an outsider matters more and more when everyone is being brought inside in one way or another.

I'd like to continue holding that position. I wasn't completely sure of that six weeks ago, but I am today. I've learned that I still have things to say about baseball, that I still have a passion for writing about the game -- and the industry. I've spent the last month being supported by a readership pushing the Newsletter to new people, and in the process passing along their support to me. I've been convinced that there's growth potential here, that if the numbers aren't where they need to be right now, that they can get there in the medium term.

Mostly, though, I want to continue to be an independent voice on the game I love, to bring facts and data and supported opinions to baseball fans. More than ever, we need sportswriters who are independent, whose first constituency is not a rightsholder, or a league, or a source, or a team that might hire them, but the reader. I'll be one of them, and I believe that there will be more to come.

Individuals will recognize and support quality if given that option.

True five years ago. True today. True tomorrow.