Media debate: Is it OK to hang with players?

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Today I received an e-mail from a baseball beat writer who I’ve always liked. He was angry because, in a childish, off-handed way that I now regret, I termed it “pathetic” that he used to go to bars and drink with the players he was covering.

He argued—in a very polite way, I must say—that nothing is wrong with befriending the athletes we cover; that, as long as you’re willing to be professional, it doesn’t matter.

I strongly disagree. I’m also curious where others fall, and would appreciate comments on this one.

To me, if you’re a beat writer, you don’t roll socially with those you cover. Never. Ever. Ever. The reasons:

A. Perception: Even if you’re completely fair in your writing, people will never fully believe you. Let’s say you go drinking with, oh, C.C. Sabathia, and everyone knows it. Well, the next time Sabathia gets bombed, why didn’t your game story include more negative quotes? Or why didn’t it refer to that horrible wild pitch in the fifth? Or why …

It doesn’t matter if your intentions were 100-percent righteous. Perception, in the public eye, always trumps reality. Always.

B. The Inevitable Conflict: You’re at a bar, doing shots with Carlos Pena. He vomits on the tavern owner and is beaten up by 10 bouncers—who also kick your ass. Do you write about it? You’re at a dance club, grooving with David Wright, and he hooks up with Madonna. Do you write about it? Do you write that your team’s best player just made out on the dance floor with the world’s most famous woman? You have to, right? Or no?

How about this? You’re at a bar, doing shots with Brian Giles, and he gets arrested for public intoxication. Do you write about it? And how … when you’re in the cell right next to his?

C. Respect: I try not to care what others think of me. But I want to be respected by my media peers—I really do. This kills it. Absolutely kills it.

Anyhow, that’s how I feel. Call me old school. Or perhaps new school. Or maybe no school at all. It is what it is.

6 thoughts on “Media debate: Is it OK to hang with players?”

  1. Jeff, I think it depends on your intentions and your job. If you may need to write a story about them hooking up with someone or getting arrested, then drinking with them isn’t a good idea. If your job is to write about their on-field performance, and you can do that fairly despite hanging out with them (which is quite possible to do; just make sure they know they won’t get special treatment and make sure not to give it to them), then I don’t see a problem with it. Some of the greatest sportswriters ever hung out and drank with their subjects all the time; see Grantland Rice and Babe Ruth. Of course Rice didn’t write about Ruth’s carousing, and I don’t think he needed to. There’s still room for just writing about the game and leaving the off-field shenanigans alone.

  2. I’m with you on this one, Jeff. I think Mych…er, I mean “the anonymous Oakland A’s beat writer” should realize how little credibility he has when – hypothetically speaking – he repeatedly defends his good friend Bobby Crosby in print (or whatever the online equivalent is) despite overwhelming evidence that he’s a terrible, terrible ballplayer.

    I think there needs to be distance. No one benefits from slanted “reporting” birthed from alliances like Ahmad Rashad/Michael Jordan, Mike Wilbon/Charles Barkley, Bruce Jenkins/Dusty Baker, Stuart Scott/seemingly every pro athlete.

  3. What if a player’s onfield performance deteriorates because of his extra-curricular activities, and you know that because you’re out there with him doing the same stuff? To think a ballplayer would understand you “were just doing your job” is ludicrous, and you know that too. And that’s why you wouldn’t report it. Kiss your journalistic integrity goodbye.

  4. I guess it depends on your bosses.

    if some other writer does the shots with Pena and writes the Madonna story, will your boss then get on you for “missing it”?

  5. I think it depends on your goal.

    Is it to get the story or is it to remain credible in the eyes of your peers?

    Say you don’t have those drinks with Carlos Pena. He gets beaten up, doesn’t play ball the next day and the organization says he’s taking the day off. No one has any idea it’s because he was doing shots and getting the crap kicked out of him.

    But if you’re there with him, no matter if you decide to report what happened or not, at least you have the option. There’s a story there you wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise.

    I don’t know. I can see both sides of the argument.

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