Years ago, my then-5-year-old niece spent the weekend with my wife and I. I was still a reporter at the time and had to cover a pro tennis tournament one of the afternoons she was with us.
I taught her a trick. Whenever we asked her who I was rooting for, she would say in her tiny 5-year-old voice, “fast games and talkative players!”
That became my default answer for the rest of my career when I was asked who I cheered for as a sports reporter. “Fast games and talkative players.” It was my version of objectivity in sports journalism, of rooting for the story.
But in our examination of the base principles of sports journalism following Tim Layden’s piece in Sports Illustrated last week, it’s important to turn the magnifying glass inward. If I’m going to be critical of other journalists’ attitudes, I should be critical of mine.
So let’s unpack “fast games and talkative players.” On the root of it, there’s no bias there. I’m not cheering for a given team or a given outcome. I don’t care who wins or loses. Yay objectivity!
Not so much.
“Fast games.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of game. A blowout, most likely. So that means I do not want a game with, say, a lot of pitching changes, or a match without a lot of deuce points, or extra innings or overtime. Even though that may be a better story, or a better experience for fans, I’m tacitly rooting against. it.
“Talkative players.” That means I’m rooting for a certain type of player to have a good enough game and be in a good enough mood to want to talk to a reporter after a game. I also want this player, or players, to say interesting things in interesting ways, instead of cliches. I want players to conform to my ideal rather than meeting them where they are.
Now, big picture — is this a big deal? Probably not. Is my old line a sign of bad sports journalism? I don’t think so. Am I an academic overthinking things? Probably. But while the sports journalist in me hears a funny, flip phrase I said to my young niece, the media critic in me hears someone who wants the events to conform to his narrow desires rather than accepting what happens. That doesn’t sound very objective to me.