To celebrate Only A Game’s 20th anniversary, a trio of longtime sports journalists joined Bill Littlefield to discuss changes in the profession, the rise of analytics and the concussion crisis.
Bill Littlefield: When we first started covering the NBA, the league was not the superstar-filled, glitz-and-glamour spectacle that we have all become accustomed to today. Tough question to answer briefly, I guess, but what’s the greatest change you’ve seen in the league over the last 20 years?
Then the access, which has just changed so dramatically. The camaraderie — it was almost like a big fraternity then. Now it’s definitely us versus them.
Bill Littlefield: Writers versus?
Bob Ryan: The media is the enemy. The media is perceived to be adversarial and the enemy. It wasn’t always that way.
Bill Littlefield: Much has changed, obviously, in the way sports is covered, and much has changed in terms of who covers it as well. These days big news is sometimes delivered via an athlete’s Twitter tweet. Is that redundant? I’ll be hammered for taking too long later for this but in any case, any athlete with a computer or an iPad or a cell phone, for that matter, can break his own story before anybody in the media gets a chance to. Is this an improvement?
Will Leitch: I think one of the reasons it’s become “us vs. them” in a lot of ways is because oftentimes it got to the point where we would beg an athlete to say something interesting, and then when they did we’d be like, “That is different than what people usually say. Let us all discuss this for 24 hours about what he meant when he said this.” Now you’re seeing this on Twitter. All we have ever wanted from athletes is to be honest and to be real with us. And then when they do it, now we’re like, “Wait, we don’t want you to do that, actually.” And now, inevitably, the difference is now they can go back and apologize or say they were hacked. I guess the hacked is the new, “He misquoted me.”
Bill Littlefield: Andrea, pro football, without question, the nation’s most popular sport. Doesn’t matter how you measure it. You have done extensive reporting on short and long term consequences of concussions. Has all of this changed the way you look at the game?
Andrea Kremer: From a personal standpoint, you always know what goes on behind the curtain if you’ve been on the sidelines. If you’ve been in the locker room, you see the indignities that the athletes suffer. It’s changed dramatically the way I think a lot of people look at sports.
But is it going to change how many people are watching it on television? No, the ratings are higher than ever. And is it changing how many people are going to the games? No, I don’t think that it is at all. And, if anything, so much of the emphasis is on the National Football League, but this has got to start at younger levels. People don’t start getting concussions once they get into the NFL. They’re starting at much younger ages.
But look, bottom line, why do you love football? You love football because of the hitting, right? You can’t take away what is at the essence of the game. It’s a violent game. This is not a news flash. And there’s ways to try to make it safer, but at the end of the day, come on, this is an occupational hazard.
Bob Ryan: It’s a barbaric enterprise, but we happen to love it. And it’s just that simple. If you outline what this new game of football was to someone who had never seen it and explained: it’s a territorial game and you have these very large people, maybe up to 350 pounds, that are smashing into each other, and you’re going to say, “This is legal?” And really, if you look at it that way … but we understand it. We understand its history. We understand its strategy. And we understand all these things that make it a very popular game.
Andrea Kremer: I joke with people and ask, remember in that Woody Allen movie, “Sleeper,” when they go back and they look at everything in the past? Can you imagine how football is going to be viewed? I mean, a lot of people say this, it’s viewed as though it’s played in a Roman Colosseum. I mean, there are analogies that can be drawn to that. But really, the way history is going to paint this sport is going to be fascinating.
Bill Littlefield: We see the incredible proliferation of statistics. In the old days, there was the score. And there was the high-scoring guy and then maybe there was the guy who got the most rebounds. And then if you were really a serious fan you knew who got the most assists. Does it diminish just the joy of watching the game – I mean for anybody except the 12 guys in the basement reading the computer printouts?
Andrea Kremer: This is lost on me because I’m about storytelling. I want to know about the story, whether it’s the storyline of the game or the story behind the game or the story of the individuals that play it. But there are plenty of people out there that are just absolutely obsessed with the numbers.Bob Ryan: A fan is free to embrace it or not embrace it. Nobody forces you to embrace it. You can get a sensory overload, there’s no question. Baseball got there first, and then football got there, and now basketball’s getting there. No, really, and we’re even getting hockey there and breaking down hockey.
But, I mean, to me it’s about the competition and also about the human factor, which will never go away, and the fact that some people do better in certain circumstance than others. And ultimately that determines things in the end a lot more than worrying about the analytics.
Will Leitch: Actually, I have to say I differ a little. One of the things I like about journalism now is, maybe we’re not ready for this and we don’t follow it too closely, but the teams do. The teams are paying attention to all of these analytics. And one of the things I love about being a fan now and being able to follow all this stuff is I can see things the way the teams are seeing it. For me to really understand as a fan of my team — of my sadly losing-to-the-Boston Red Sox-in-the-World Series St. Louis Cardinals – to understand the moves that they’re making I need to know that stuff. Because if I don’t, I am on the outside of the moves. As a media person we may step back and be like “this is confusing to us,” which is just going to make the people who run the teams laugh at us because they’re paying attention to it.
Bob Ryan: Well, even before all this came about in baseball, didn’t you know it was a bad idea to walk the lead-off man? Don’t do it. [crowd laughs]