If a sportswriter cheers, does it matter to readers?

Posted: March 06, 2011

There are all sorts of rules when it comes to covering sports. Most of them are well-known but unwritten. A quick review for the unacquainted:

Whether climbing a ladder or talking to an athlete who just got out of the shower, the same principle applies - don't look down.

When cracking jokes - about a team, player, or fellow scribbler - always talk loud enough so the rest of the people in the press box will hear you and laugh and think you're clever.

Never be late to the free buffet. The food could go cold or, worse, run out.

And, of course, hold yourself in extremely high regard. If you don't wildly overestimate your own importance and the importance of a job that requires you to write about men who dress up and play games for a living, there's no room for you in the industry.

That last one has always seemed like the top tenet to some sportswriters I know. Most of them would disagree and swear that the no-cheering edict is the first and most crucial commandment - right up there with not saying "we" when referring to the local teams. (The press box would not be a good place for Ed Rendell.)

No cheering is a lesson that's taught in journalism school and then reinforced by the unofficial but willing press box schoolmarms. Tom Bowles has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University and he's spent more than a few years knocking around press boxes. That's why he should have known better. In fact, he did know better. But he cheered anyway. And then he got fired.

Bowles is a gearhead - loves watching cars go around in circles. Maybe he's sniffed too many gas fumes. Maybe that's why he lost his composure. He was covering the Daytona 500 for SportsIllustrated.com - he was a freelancer for them for years - when 20-year-old Trevor Bayne became the youngest person to ever win the race. Bowles got excited and cheered. As he told it, he wasn't the only person to do so - he said the media center "erupted" in applause - but he was the only person to admit it and defend it and then get indignant about it. And so SI fired him.

"I never would have thought that five seconds of appreciation for a sport I'm passionate about would get me fired," said Bowles, who moved to the Norristown area after college. "My story has taken on a life of its own."

It's become a big media issue, addressed by just about every outlet from NPR to ESPN. On Twitter, Bowles got into a spat over all this with two other NASCAR writers - his colleague at SI, Brant James, and SBNation reporter Jeff Gluck: "Exceptions to every rule. What happened [at the Daytona 500]? Exception. It's not 1929. It's 2011. Hiding it doesn't eliminate our bias."

He has a point there. There are generally two kinds of sports reporters - those who genuinely don't care about the teams they cover, and those who care but hide it. The assumption is that if you care, you become a fan, and if you're a fan, you'll grow soft and suck up to the people you cover. I don't buy it. I've been a Philly sports fan my whole life, but that's never prevented me from criticizing a team or player or coach or executive. I think Andy Reid and Joe Banner and others would back me up there.

And yet I've never cheered in the press box. It just isn't done - partly because most of us are too busy cleaning out the buffet (see: cold food/no food rule above), partly because it's not worth losing a job we're all extremely lucky to have. So what was Bowles thinking? Why would he risk such a great gig?

"It wasn't anything I consciously thought about," Bowles said. "It just kind of happened. You have to consider the historic connotations. Single-car teams don't exist in NASCAR anymore. This particular single-car team was down in the dumps for so long. It would be like the Yankees being down in the dumps for decades and then winning the World Series. And then you had this young kid being the hero. There was all this great stuff happening all at once. It wasn't a 'woo-hoo, look-at-me moment.' It was just a clap. I'm not saying everyone should be allowed to cheer. But was five seconds of clapping really a big deal?"

It was a boneheaded mistake, and it cost Bowles his job. So, yeah, it was a big deal. But the better question might be whether it's a big deal to the readers.

Sportswriters tend to be an insular lot. Too often we forget about - or, worse, hold in open contempt - the people we ostensibly service. Do the readers and fans actually care whether some guy with a press pass, some guy most of them have never met, gets excited or emotional during a game? Does it bother them or affect their lives? I'm honestly asking, because I don't know the answer, and I don't think most of my peers have ever bothered to find out.

Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813 or gonzalez@phillynews.com.

Follow him at www.twitter.com/gonzophilly


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