For many years growing up, I wanted to be Mike Lupica.
Lupica was one of the regular guests on The Sports Reporters on ESPN on Sunday mornings. He was quick-talking, quick-witted, acerbic before I knew what that word meant. He seemed to personify New York City sports media. For a kid who dreamed of nothing other than working in New York City sports media when I grew up, Lupica was the guy.
Things change, of course. Over the years, Lupica became kind of a punchline, a symbol of the outdated practice and ego of a certain kind of sports columnist. On Wednesday, news broke that he's among the employees of the New York Daily News to be laid-off in the latest round of cost-cutting measures newspapers have employed over the past decade.
Lupica's been a punching bag in sports blog culture for so long it's hard to remember how good he was, how revolutionary he was. Mike Vaccaro, my friend and mentor and competitor with Lupica in New York, said as much in an interview with The Big Lead many years ago:
Let’s be very clear about something: there is an entire generation of sports columnists working in the United States, dozens and dozens of them, between the ages of 30 and 50 who grew up reading Lupica and realizing: that’s what I want to do. That’s how the job is supposed to be done. You better believe I was one of those acolytes. And I’ll tell you something: if you get a rainy day, you should go to the library, pick up a few rolls of microfilm, and read the stuff he was doing in the ’70s and the ’80s. Read the stuff he was writing as a 23-year-old kid at the Post; it’s staggering. Read the stuff he did in his prime at the Daily News in the ’80s; it absolutely redefined the form. It’s my opinion that no one who ever lived wrote a sports column better than Lupica did from, say, 1979-89. Not Cannon. Not Red Smith. Not Jim Murray. No one.
Lupica, in his prime, was a first-ballot hall of fame columnist.
But there's more to life than a collection of columns. There is how you are as a person, how you treat people. Lupica is legendary as one of the worst people in sports journalism. Jeff Pearlman addressed this on his blog:
He has spent a v-e-r-y long time acting as one of the biggest assholes in sports media. I don’t say that lightly, or kindly. Lupica has treated so many so terribly for so long. I mean, the stories are endless. Blowing off young writers seeking help, wiping out co-workers who merely tiptoe on his turf, ignoring a friendly “Hello” from the neighboring scribe in the press box. On and on and on and on. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think—off the top of my head—I’ve met one colleague who sorta kinda liked Lupica. But it came accompanied by a, “Look, I know he’s a dick, but …” conditional.
That's the sad thing about the end of Lupica's career. Who he was as a person - the legendary snit fits over his press-row seat, etc. - overshadowed what should be a legacy as one of the all-time greats.
In a way, too, Lupica being laid off is symbolic of the evolution of newspaper sports journalism. It's one of my pet theories that digital and social media is changing the hierarchy of sports journalists. Lupica represents the era when columnists were kings, the stars of the paper, the ones in ads on the sides of busses. They were the superstars.
Digital media is changing that. Now, opinions are less valuable to newspapers because of blogs and social media. Opinions are like noses. Everyone has one. So when a columnist isn't at a game reporting but instead writing an opinion-based hot take off TV - something Lupica often did - it stands out as being lazy and less valuable than it once was.
Think of who the stars are in sports journalism now. Peter King. Adam Schefter. Jay Glazer. Woj. You may not be fans of their work, but they are the big names. And they're not columnists. They're reporters. They trade in scoops and information and tidbits and nuggets. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has access to information. That's not to say columnists aren't important or don't play a huge role, only that their status within the field seems to be diminishing a bit.
And that's the overarching lesson to take from Lupica being laid off. It's another sign that an era in sports journalism is ending.
That, and treating people well is always a good thing.