What makes an “authentic” sportswriter? In this summary of HBO’s Costas Now from last April, Buzz Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights) answers this question as he rants and raves and rages against the blogosphere’s encroachment onto the territory of traditional sportswriters. His insistence that W.C. Heinz remains the standard by which other journalists must be measured (Heinz’s novel, The Professional, was published in 1958), is a manifestation of a generation’s anger, and anxiety, about contemporary society.
Bissinger’s frustration is a visceral reaction to what the man sitting next to him represents. Will Leitch is the founder of Deadspin, arguably the most widely read sports blog on the internet. Leitch’s offense isn’t necessarily that he fails to appreciate the brilliance of W.C. Heinz—he knows The Professional, after all—it is instead that he fails to possess authenticity, presumably because he is not a trained journalist. Or maybe because he doesn’t smoke a cigar and wear a fedora? In either case, what is true of Leitch is true of many of his cyber-colleagues: he’s actually a really good writer.
Thus, Bissinger’s contention that the ability to “evoke” the essence of sports can be found only in traditional sports media is a red herring. The real issue, one that has incited heated debate in conventional news circles as well, is that the internet has fundamentally altered the terrain on which we view and discuss sports. Is this all for the good? Well of course not, but that’s not the standard by which we should judge, is it? What is ironic about Bissinger’s accusation that blogs are poorly (or crassly) written isn’t just that he refuses to acknowledge that some blogs demonstrate exceptional talent (check the archives of the now departed Fire Joe Morgan for confirmation). It’s that he ignores the fact that the vast majority of conventionally trained sportswriters aren’t exactly W.C. Heinz, either.
Bissinger’s lament represents a last stand of sorts for “old school” sportswriters. Yet, easy as it is to say that changing media have passed him by, we shouldn’t reduce this moment to a false choice between traditional journalism or “new media” blogs. Rather, how might we envision sports media that accommodate a variety of forms? And, how might those forms continue to re-shape the landscape of sport?