The email chain lasted for four years. After graduating university, most of us – friends from high school and college acquaintances – started our careers in positions that took about a tenth of our brain power. We fried a good portion of the remaining percentage every night on the type of substances that single men in their early twenties often acquire when they find a disposable income being added to their bank accounts following four years of student poverty. Any leftover creativity that wasn’t wasted on pleasing bosses or succumbing to peer pressure was spent on writing emails to one another.

That’s how it all began.

The messages were awful. We mistook crass – misogynistic, homophobic and sometimes racist jokes – for being clever. We were cynical and cruel, imagining ourselves to be smarter than we actually were. We corresponded throughout each day about the most mundane topics, trying to one up each other with sarcasm and bitterness, all for no apparent purpose. We wrongly considered ourselves too smart to be appreciated by the general public, and so, found appreciation in the inboxes of one another, never considering for a moment that we might not be nearly as unique as we supposed ourselves to be.

For the purpose of the narrative, it would be nice to pretend that it all fell apart because of the Toronto Blue Jays. However, truthfully, we got older, more mature. Our responsibilities at work and in life increased. Nonetheless, it was at the insistence of other members of the email chain that Andrew Stoeten and I take our baseball conversations elsewhere. Days later, I received an invitation from Stoeten to join a newly created blog called Drunk Jays Fans.

We blogged and blogged, received a little bit of notoriety, then a little more and a little more still. We’d grow giddy over gaining mentions on local sports talk radio, and get even more excited for thinly veiled references to our work popping up in newspapers. I think our proudest moment was learning from a journalist covering the Beijing Olympics that we were banned in China. Eventually, a television sports network contacted us about working together, and in a real-life meeting, an executive with the company spoke about us lending them our cool-factor. We were so serious about our future in sports media that we proceeded to mock the term the very next day in a post. So punk rock. So stupid.

Thankfully, the executive looked past our juvenile behavior and allowed us to record a podcast and associate ourselves with something that was a little more credible than Blogger. After a year, they hired Stoeten to write for their website, and a couple years later, extended a job offer to me to write about baseball. We sold our website to them. It went from Drunk Jays Fans to DJF, and we found ourselves writing about sports as a profession.

Stoeten has gone on to become an authority on Blue Jays hope and snark, something of a sports hipster icon in our city. Aside: He’ll punch me in the face for writing that.

I finally grew up, too. I gained some respectability, dropped the man-boy shtick and now oversee other writers, while reporting to one of the people who gave us a chance those years ago.

It’s a blogging success story. I think. At the very least, it’s been a journey that started with blogging, and that’s fitting. The term blog comes from an amalgamation of the words web and log. Put them together, and what have you got? Bippity. Boppity. Blog. The web part is easy to understand, but the log part, maybe not so much.

It refers to a ship’s log, something we’re most likely to associate with a Star Trek captain. Why would a diary or journal be referred to as a log? For centuries, ship captains used a weighted log as an interim anchor to measure distance. Andrew Sullivan, our foremost blogger, explains:

A ship’s log owes its name to a small wooden board, often weighted with lead, that was attached to a line and thrown over the stern. The weight of the log would keep it in the same place in the water, like a provisional anchor, while the ship moved away. By measuring the length of line used up in a set period of time, mariners could calculate the speed of their journey (the rope itself was marked by equidistant “knots” for easy measurement). As a ship’s voyage progressed, the course came to be marked down in a book that was called a log.

Nonetheless, the blogging journey for most hasn’t been what was anticipated.

There was a sense that such a revolutionary form of communication – offering a plain-language opinion without the pretense of absolute neutrality – would take over, and bloggers would be at the pinnacle of media empires by now. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggerating, but it’s certainly true that we mostly failed to recognize that bloggers weren’t all that different from columnists, and that the main contrasts between the two were 1) the medium with which they delivered their opinions; and 2) the credibility that the medium and outlet combined to offer.

The newspaper industry, with its determination to continue publishing news on paper and its corresponding blindness to the best emerging methods for delivering news, was surprisingly adept at adopting the blog format. It ended up being easy. They didn’t need to hire loose cannons to remain relevant. All they had to do was ask journalists already in their employ to write like a human being, and not a reporter, specifically for the World Wide Web. No one was reinventing anything. Columnists had been doing this in print for years.

At some point during this cross over, the differentiation between blogger and writer became blurred. We took on some of their characteristics, and they took on some of our traits. Some got hired by media outlets, but most got left behind, more than likely finding or maintaining better employment anyway.

I’m one of the few that got hired, and it’s afforded me an incredible perspective. I can write about sports without an obligation to protect any establishment. I don’t have to create false equivalencies in defense of poorly reasoned Hall of Fame voting from colleagues. I don’t have to maintain false outrage over anything that Dan Le Batard does.

It’s not perfect, though. There are struggles.

I’ve learned that most of what’s written and spoken about sports is absolute nonsense. The typical sports journalist isn’t particularly talented at insight or analysis. Their skill rests in reducing news and outcomes to clichés, either telling fans what they want to hear or shaping words to elicit a reaction. Of course, you’re either already aware of this, or you don’t really care much, because it’s just sports anyway.

As my colleague Richard Whittall once wrote:

You’re a normal person who watches the Yankees blow a ninth inning save after bringing out a reliever that’s blown three more saves than any other reliever on the roster. You feel enraged — you’re certain it was the manager’s fault for bringing on this deadbeat. And so you go searching for someone to tell you as much — and there he (invariably, sadly) is: the guy with his head shot in the paper, giving your opinion back to you with the veneer of expertise that comes from his role within the media organization that hired him.

What they’re not going to go looking for is someone to tell them about sample sizes and 162 games.

They don’t want to hear about that stuff not because they’re dumb or lazy, but because it’s sports. In the end, who cares? They’re not reading about it eight hours a day.

When you spend eight to 12 hours per day reading and writing about sports, you can’t help but learn more about it, but you also can’t help losing touch with the casual fans who likely have a much healthier relationship with sports than you do. Bridging that gap while remaining intellectually honest is a difficult construction project, and that’s why sports journalism is such a wasteland. More and more are willing to compromise their integrity to provide casual fans with validation, rather than genuine insight.

Instead of a better understanding of how games are being won or lost, fans are presented with condensed narratives of extremes. Sports stories are artificial extracts, or soap operas for people who would be embarrassed to be seen watching General Hospital. It’s an accepted illusion because it’s an interpretation coming from figures representing authority who wear nice suits on the broadcast and appear professional-looking in photographs attached to their columns. The most frustrating aspect of it all is that the authority to interpret sports is granted by the very people who want their own opinions validated.

When that authority is called into question, an uproar begins. We’re seeing it right now in the backlash against the aforementioned Dan Le Batard, who essentially allowed Deadspin readers to decide his baseball Hall of Fame ballot – and now faces a lifetime ban from voting for the Hall of Fame. By giving fans a voice, he questioned the authority of sports journalists on the issue they hold most tight-fisted: Deciding the legacies of the best athletes.

After ten years of validating readers and depending on the whims of the subjects they examine on a daily basis, baseball writers are given the privilege of playing St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of Cooperstown. They can grant admission into heaven or send the player to purgatory and hell. It plays on the sports writer’s greatest conceit, that they’re the star-maker, and not the athlete. They decide who among the rabble is made into a god.

The writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel’s mother is displaying the ultimate contempt — the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriter’s career by pandering to the emotional titillation of the reader/fan.

— Robert Lipsyte

This is what they’re protecting when they lash out.

So, what is there to do? For a writer born out of blogging – at a time when Fire Joe Morgan and Deadspin reigned – the temptation is almost always to point out what’s wrong with the industry of which they’re now a part. Although fulfilling for the writer – see above for an example of giving into this temptation – it doesn’t necessarily do much for the reader/sports fan, or at least it doesn’t do much more than the rabble to which they’re so vehemently opposed.

The blogging journey, that started with email chains brings me to believe in one question that a sports journalist should ask before preparing their column, analysis or commentary: How does this help the reader, listener or viewer become a better – more knowledgeable, entertained, informed – sports fan?

That’s it. That’s what I’ve come to understand. We’re a part of a service industry, now. It’s not our duty to make myths, create gods or exaggerate narratives. My personal log entries reveal a ship that has sailed from serving itself to serving others (perhaps, this column excluded).

Comments (27)

  1. spot on. great stuff Dustin. it’s been really fun to see you grow as a sports writer over the last few years.

  2. Too many words. Go Leafs!

  3. stoeten for jays GM! or at least mayor of toronto

  4. Perfect. There are so many MSM writers who either know nothing about the sport they cover or are somehow inclined to not reveal it because all they do is write what the idiots in the comment section are saying.

  5. You hit on the core question about sportswriting: is it about the person who reads about and watches sports for 40 hours a week, or is it about the average joe with a real job who wants to be able to contribute at the water cooler? And what does that writing aim to accomplish for the reader? There’s no definitive answer, it’s just a question of audience.

    The best writing edifies, but it’s also up to the reader to be willing to listen. For this reason I’ve found I enjoy reading about football and basketball more than baseball lately. Because I don’t really know how those sports work, I can get a lot of enjoyment out of an article that does little more than explain what the defensive line’s role is, while there’s a much narrower range of baseball stories that can teach me something without making my head spin.

    • Brilliantly stated …. know your audience ….

      As an example …. Christina Kahrl’s pieces at Baseball Prospectus were filled with obscure literary and historical references, which I loved because it added flavor to the piece and gave me a sense of her personality.

      At ESPN, she’s had to tone that “personality” down quite a bit, which still leaves her pieces as terrific writing/reporting, but leaves me slightly saddened.

  6. The thing I find most amazing, is how sport writers continue to breed from people who have never played a sport at a competitive level in their life and pretend to know what they are talking about.

    • Is that you, Arenciba?

    • Brilliantly stated …. know your audience ….

      As an example …. Christina Kahrl’s pieces at Baseball Prospectus were filled with obscure literary and historical references, which I loved because it added flavor to the piece and gave me a sense of her personality.

      At ESPN, she’s had to tone that “personality” down quite a bit, which still leaves her pieces as terrific writing/reporting, but leaves me slightly saddened.

    • Maybe those former competitive atheletes should learn to write.

    • Actually you’d probably be surprised how many of those guys played college ball.

  7. Great article Dustin. I’ve been following DJF since about 2007 and I miss your writing on that site. It was great reading about how you and Stoeten got your start.

    Reading about the Deadspin Hall of Fame stuff got me thinking…the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has tried to become more accessible to fans by allowing a fan vote…whereby fans could vote through the web and the cumulative total represents one music writer vote. So in the end, it is trivial and really doesn’t mean anything, but I think it would be cool to have the Baseball Hall of Fame do something similar…in the end fans would only be one vote so they wouldn’t impact anything really, but it would be cool to see the results and make the fan feel that they are part of the process…even if their actual impact in reality is negligible.

  8. Much of what you say is why I never refer to sports writers as journalists. They rarely, if ever, exhibit actual journalistic ability, little analysis or investigations basic regurgitation and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Great piece.

  9. fuck off Parkes, this is so like you.
    gay.
    you’re right though, your writing is terrible and no one cares.

    • Here’s to homophobia, monosyllabic grunting, and general douchiness. You are to sports fandom what fat and lazy is to a heart attack. Keep raising the bar, Parkes. A+.

  10. Great piece Dustin. I think, maybe your best.

  11. was meant as a joke.
    terrible, I know.

  12. Sweet stuff.
    We would never read this in a newspaper, which basically proves (one of) your point(s).
    Keep on rocking the joint, dude
    Loving it.

  13. “Why sports writing is terrible”-written by: A terrible sports writer

  14. Write more. Please.

  15. Point well stated. The bottom line is, know your target readers, before you even begin writing.

  16. great writing by the admin.
    some of the points are really exceptional

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