Every child, at some point, has that first moment where they learn that there is a gap between where society ends and real life begins.
Let’s say you’re third in line, let’s say for lunch. The cafeteria is serving fiestadas. (if you don’t know what a fiestada is, consider your eyes lucky and your stomach deprived). Once the fiestadas run out, the only lunch options left are peanut butter & jelly & cheese sandwiches (I am not making this up. Klem Road South School sold these abominations when I was a student).
From where you stand, you see there are three fiestadas left. You relax. Math is on your side.
Suddenly, some girl shows up who’s friends with the girl ahead of you in line. They squeal, they giggle—it’s amazing as a child how excited you can get running into your friends AND OH MY GOD YOU CAN’T BELIEVE YOU RAN INTO EACH OTHER EVEN THOUGH YOU RIDE THE SAME BUS AND ARE IN THE SAME BUILDING FOR EIGHT HOURS—and then the girl who was ahead of you orders a fiestada, and her friend orders one, and the dude ahead of you gets the last one.
Let’s say when you’re a little older, your family goes to Disney World. Your mother turns her ankle getting out of that trolley that ferries customers across battleship-sized parking lots. When you get to the park, they put her in a wheelchair. Your mother seems embarrassed and, at first, rejects/resents “all the fuss.” Soon, very soon, her resistance relaxes. Because now that she’s in a wheelchair, you don’t have to wait 3 hours to get on Peter Pan’s Flight—your family’s escorted to the front of the line. And you’re looking at all the hot sweating cattle standing in line like suckers, and you’re thinking “OK, universe. Now we’re even now with the whole fiestada thing.”
**By the way, line etiquette has become quite the scam the for too-rich. Check it out: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/disney_world_srich_kid_outrage_zTBA0xrvZRkIVc1zItXGDP
Line etiquette, like a lot of things, is arbitrary and yet often taken too seriously.
My sportswriting career is the same: inconsistent to the point that sometimes I question if it’s really real; at times, it feels like something somebody has made up, for reasons unknown; when it is in-gear, it can be tempting to emphasize what doesn’t matter (a 10th grader is a “lock” to play D-I) and miss out on what does (telling a good story; using two tape recorders ‘cuz one always myseriously goes all Area 51 and kinks out on you; remembering your editor wants pictures of the players’ faces, not their butts).
I ‘ve worked for two sports publications, one upstate and one on Long Island. Now, I’m no Jimmy Breslin…but I have learned a thing or two during my days covering balls. Among them:
–Receiving your press pass, no matter how insignificant the event its issued for is, is a high. You get permission to go to the head of the line…without having to turn your ankle!
I once covered a semipro basketball team called the Rochester Razorsharks. I was assigned to cover a playoff game. When I got to the arena, my pass let me slip right inside…where I was one of the first people to learn the game wasn’t going to be played. No one would say it was “canceled.” No one “in charge” knew why the game was off. It just was. There’d been no prior announcement. People who showed up at the arena and were simply told, “No game today.” I walked out of the arena, a bit put-out. I shared the news with the huddled proles waiting in-line outside.
I’d wasted time and money to go cover a game that wasn’t being played. Sucks.
But then I looked at the bright side. I was one of the first people to know I’d wasted time and money on a game that wasn’t being played. Sweet.
–People in charge hear that you’re a reporter and think that means you’re a public relations spokesperson.
Actually, even that’s putting it too lightly. They think you’re an unpaid intern who writes copy for them. I once met with the owner of the Rochester Raiders, an indoor-football team. I was new to the team and the sport, so my intention was to focus the story on the team’s best returning players and whatever new talent they were excited about. As soon as I sat down in the owner’s office, it was like those Bugs Bunny cartoons where Daffy’s starving, and he looks at Bugs, and Bugs morphs into a piece of steak? (do ducks eat steak?) This owner clearly decided before I’d even arrived what he wanted to talk about & how he wanted to slant my story. I’d ask a question and he’d just go off on a tangent. It was like interviewing Mad Libs. This did team me one fool-proof trick for getting your interviewee back on track:
–Nobody in sports wants to talk about steroids/PEDs.
The Raiders’ owner kept selling the angle that the Indoor League was the 2nd-best football league in the world, and that the Raiders were the best team in the league, so really that made them, like, the 33rd best team in the world, etc. He wouldn’t stop. So, when I saw an opening, I took it.
“In light of recent actions taken by the other major professional sports leagues,” I said, and his eyes lit, “what similar steps has your league and your organization taken to identify and combat the use of performance enhancing drugs?”
I’d say he looked at me like I’d farted, but that doesn’t cover it. If I’d farted, he would have paused, made a joke/asked if I was all right, and then kept right on with the hype job. I’d say after I asked that question, he looked at more like I’d stood, shown great stress while pooping in my pants, then removed the pants, dropped them on his desk, and walked out of the room singing like Catherine Ribiero:
Follow-up: a few days later I was interviewing one of the Raiders’ new signings, a wide receiver from Indiana. This guy was an absolute dream of an interview: he talked for miles, colorfully, about everything; he was funny; he was good with analogies; he was different…the kind of interview you don’t really need questions for, ‘cuz he just takes the baton and goes. After I had what I needed, I asked him the steroid/PED question. For 5 seconds, there was nothing. I thought the call got disconnected, until I heard his twangish, half-chuckling “What?” I repeated the question.
“You’d have to talk to the union. That’s a union thing,” he said. End of interview.
–I entered sportswriting thinking semipro athletes would jump at the chance to talk to me. I mean, I’m a reporter—any publicity is good publicity, right?
Truth is, semipro athletes are in a weird sort of purgatory. The closest any man comes to a biological clock is a semipro athlete. With one or two breaks, they could be in the big-time, making surgeon money; as semipros, they may not be able to afford an after-hours clinic. Semipro athletes make very little money, often not even enough to live on all year, and if they get to be 26 and still haven’t “made it,” that’s all it takes for some to be written off. So when you’re an intrepid reporter trying to get in touch with some linebacker who once played at Syracuse, or the power forward from Temple who once scored 8 points a game, odds are whenever you call those guys they’re sleeping, or trying to hustle whatever breaks they can get in life, or hungover from the night before, or about to board a Greyhound bus for the 15-hour ride to Palookaville.
–All athletes, professional or not, have been trained to respond to leading questions with the most lifeless, generic, literally thoughtless answers they possibly can.
I don’t blame them. You watch sports journalists of the highest ilk interview an athlete, and at best, they ask ridiculous leading questions. A few years ago, in the aftermath of the AFC championship game, the sideline reporter asked one of the New England Patriots if the player was “satisfied” with the team winning the conference title. This is like asking someone who’s waited for their wedding night to have sex if they were “satisfied” with the “You may now kiss the bride” smooch.
–Covering the Razorsharks in the playoffs one night, sitting on press row (which is always cool, even for a semipro playoff game), there was this guy down the row who looked like young Ringo Starr had a baby with Old Ringo Starr (SPOILER: it wasn’t Ringo). Despite this, he was sitting with a woman way out of his league (which forced me to confirm: yup. Not Ringo.). This dude was berating everybody. The home team. Their opponents. The refs. They weren’t clever barbs, to be sure, but he was relentless. I couldn’t believe security wasn’t booting the guy. He wasn’t talking to me, but he said some things that made me want to hit him. I turned to the reporter next to me and motioned at the yeller.
“He’s one of the owner’s sons,” the reporter said, sighing. “No one’s gonna touch him.”
So I suppose it is possible there are worse owners than the Dolans.
Not saying there are. Just saying it’s possible.
–Men take amateur sports way too seriously. Women don’t.
I covered a high-school baseball tournament last year. These tournaments primarily draw to types of people: friends & family of the players, and pro scouts. Since I was obviously not anyone’s friend or family, and since I was taking down lots of notes, a man wandered over and started talking to me. He was telling me all this stuff about his son: how hard he threw, how the coach was holding him back by playing him out of position, how maybe he’d switch the kid to a different school, ‘cuz if only he had the right coach he’d be able to get a D-I scholarship, etc. After a few minutes of informed back-and-forth (Matthew Miranda knows baseball), the guy finally came out and asked if I was a scout. Once I told him I wasn’t, he couldn’t stop talking about what scum scouts are.
A week after this tournament, I covered a girls’ softball game. Same town, same schools, same ages. I couldn’t believe what I saw. The girls talked to each other. On the field. During the game. Not just to their teammates—they talked to their opponents! Nicely! They complimented each other. I heard laughter. The people who’d come to watch weren’t complaining to each other about how coach X was holding back kid Y and how that made parent Z wanna punch X’s lights out.
–Finally, no matter how old you are, no matter how unlikely you think it is that you’ll ever end up even grazing the outskirts of the world of professional sportswriting…you gotta keep plugging at it. If you’re persistent, and lucky, and good, you may even see your name, in boldface print, in the Post, thanks to a joke you made that cracked up one of your childhood sportswriter heroes.