The Difference Between Sports Entertainers and Sports Writers
By: Larry Burton
People get upset when someone in the media makes a ridiculous statement about their team that the folks reading it know can’t possibly be true. The upset fans then light up social media calling the person and that story and that person an idiot and the people that are the most upset about a dumb statement or story are playing right into the hands of person that wrote or said what they did.
Why? Those people are not sports writers, people wanting to be taken seriously for the sports knowledge, they have cast their lot to be entertainers instead and like all entertainers, they want to be in the limelight. Saying and writing stupid absurd things gives them that limelight.
There are some, like Paul Finebaum, who have made their way to the limelight by unabashedly not claiming to be a sports authority, but simply an entertainer. I doubt Finebaum could explain the intricacies and value of the nickle and dime packages and the responsibility of each player in those packages, but he doesn’t claim to be great sports mind. He came from that background, but two decades ago found the grass greener by being an entertainer and the rest is history.
So when Paul Finebaum comes out and says Nick Saban is soft on discipline, he knows that isn’t true, but he knows that it will make headlines and get him in the spotlight. That’s what entertainers do, that’s why when when the buzz wears off that first statement, that he’ll issue another one saying Saban isn’t soft after all. He knows that will put him right back in the spotlight again. It’s not that Paul Finebaum is wishy washy or deceitful, he’s actually quite intelligent, but he understands what makes him who he is and where is role fits into media and he plays it masterfully. He is one of the best examples of a sports entertainer and you should neither be thrilled or upset by any of his “news” as most of it is slanted just to make people talk about it and keep his name in the limelight.
There are others in this venue, Colin Cowherd comes to mind. Suspended by ESPN for his ridiculous statements and in hot water with ESPN over them as they wanted a true sports show host and he wanted to simply be famous, he fled to Fox Sports where they are they happy to let him play his role as a dancing monkey who flings the occasional poo and makes headlines. He’s one of their top rated entertainers and they couldn’t be happier. He too saw gold in being an entertainer and not a serious sports spokesman and more power to him for realizing what he does best and makes him the most money.
The ones that upset me the ones who want to be thought of true sports writers, but can’t get the notice they want from their true sports writing and say things so outlandish that they jump into the spotlight for a 15 minutes and just beg to noticed like a small child making a scene. Such people are Danny Kanell, recently fired from ESPN. They wanted a serious reporter and man to give valid insight to college football and he wanted to be a star. When his reporting and insight didn’t get him noticed enough, he’d rant off something stupid just to make a headline and get folks talking about him. That made him expendable at ESPN as they had enough entertainers and didn’t need another reporter that few people remembered from his playing days, that alienated different fan bases and spent too much time saying stupid things to grab a headline.
Kanell isn’t bright or talented enough to be close to being on par with what Finebaum or Cowherd have pulled off and just too dim and boring to make it as an on air sports analyst. The point here is that it’s very hard, if not almost impossible to be both an entertainer and a serious sports media person. Perhaps the people who do that best are the folks who appear on ESPN’s College Football Gameday broadcast, where even the always funny and entertaining mascot head wearing host Lee Corso brings laughs and entertainment, but also comes up with good insight from time to time in the analysis segments. The rest can be entertaining but can also be spot on in analysis and tell moving and insightful reports when needed. To walk that tightrope is tricky and that’s why they make the big bucks. They can tell good stories too.
There are so many great sports writers and media people I have such respect for that I don’t want to list them as it would surely do an injustice to them trying to rank them and I’m sure I’d leave some great ones out. But I will break them down into categories for you to understand. Stories for this part are not based in factual situations and are for example use only as are many of the names used.
The great analysts – Who see breaking tendencies, weak spots and strengths that only the best coaches see and teach us just what they are and help us understand what’s going on in a different light. A great analyst will tell you, “McElroy hasn’t tried many deep balls and his last out route was short, looking at the grimace on his face after that throw, he’s either got to have some bad ribs or a shoulder problem.” They see the little things that only a trained eye would spot. They see that the right guard doesn’t have the quickness to cover an outside rush against a great outside linebacker. They notice a safety playing eight yards deeper than usual respecting a great outside receiver who has been wearing out a cornerback. Their great work gives us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and they make a game even more interesting than it is.
The artists – Who could paint a portrait of what was going on with just their words? My earliest heroes in sports coverage were the ones who I could hear on the radio and not just find out what the score was, but listen to someone who painted a portrait so clear that I felt I was there. “It’s a crisp fall afternoon with billowing white clouds and the smell of fresh cut grass and popcorn in the air as folks are settling into their seats while awaiting the coin toss today as the USC Trojans in white take on the Crimson Tide of Alabama in their Crimson home uniforms here in Tuscaloosa in what is sure to be hard fought contest. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is in a crimson and white hounds tooth blazer with that trademark matching hat with his play sheets rolled up in his hand looking in the stands at the capacity crowd while Coach John McKay is huddled with his coaches in one last meeting before we get under way.” I’d hear that on the radio and I could just envision the whole thing in my mind.
The story tellers – No matter how one sided a game could get, a good story teller could keep you tuned in by telling us all something like, “Into the game comes Jimmy Fulton, a scholarship freshman from just 25 miles out of Norman who is not only playing in his first college football game, but seeing in person his first college game too. When a lightning strike hit the family barn and started a fire two years ago, the Fulton’s lost all of their farming equipment and it was uninsured. To replace the equipment and keep things going meant the family would have no money to send their son to college as they planned so starting his senior year he played his first game of football in hopes of getting a scholarship to a university. He was on no one’s radar but when his high school coach called Coach Barry Switzer and told him about the 6’5” linebacker he had that could throw football players like bales of hay, Switzer dispatched an assistant to go and see him in person and see this raw talent for himself and determine if he was a jewel that nobody else had discovered. Assistant coach Gabe Gilmore called coach Switzer at home at half time and said not only was a jewel in the rough, but a future All American, Switzer told him to get the kid committed and to keep his mouth shut. Switzer told me yesterday before the game to keep my eyes on this young man, because with the money he’ll make in the NFL one day that family was going to have a fleet of new air conditioned farm equipment sometime about four years from now.”
Suddenly the game wasn’t all about anonymous faceless folks in uniforms and helmets, it was about someone who now knew and appreciated.
Some can do that in print. While some writers can only recite stats, plays and interviews and news, some have the ability to put that in words for our newspapers and media devices. While the reciters serve a valuable purpose in the need for information, a story teller makes those stats, plays and interviews come alive in a different way.
The reporters and broadcasters who did their homework and made us all smarter – They knew their stuff and because of that, so did we. “Alabama has only had one fumble so far all year in 10 games, so giving up three in the first half of this game has to have the coaches scratching their heads wondering what’s going on.”
Another good example would be, “We heard before the game that one of the Auburn defenders was favoring a bad ankle and apparently, so have the Gators. The Florida coaches and receivers have figured out that Auburn Cornerback Duwayne Gabbart’s inside right ankle sprain means he having problems making a quick cut to his left and they’re exploiting that slow cut and finding some room when they break their routes that way.”
Also, isn’t something like this interesting to know? “You know folks, that when big number 73 comes out of the Alabama lineup for rest at left tackle Alabama’s rushing production goes from a 6.4 yard per carry average to a 3.5 and the quarterback’s completion ratio goes from 65% to 41. They better hope that wasn’t a limp we noticed as he came off the field a few plays ago.”
Lastly, the unique finders – Do you ever see a week where most every outlet are all telling the same story in just about the same way? Then you’ll find one or just a few who have stories than no one else is covering. Stories that relieve you from the blah of all the “me too” folks in media are fun to come across. For example, this week is the start of practice and everyone will be telling you what they saw. The problem is, they all saw the same thing so there are dozens of stories all telling same basic story. So this is a great time for some to come out with something totally different.
Unique finders are great to help fill the gaps between the stories that are similar and give someone who wants something different. We thank all those folks too. They find stories of history, intrigue, humor and more and give us a break from the ordinary.
Now you know the types of writers and broadcasters there. They all have roles to fill that are important. Understanding who they are may help you react differently when you read something that upsets you. If they are an entertainer, that’s them just doing their job. If they’re supposed to be a serious media person, then know they’re just desperate to be noticed. So Mr. Finebaum, we applaud you for doing your job and doing it well.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter