Costas Now Panels Touch a Nerve

Leave it to HBO Sports to tackle the juicy topics. Last night’s Costas Now, a live townhall format broken into five different panels covering different topics in sports media, invited the major players from both sides of the debate created engaging, inspired debate – at least in three or four of the panels. More than entertainment, last night’s guest provided insight to how the major players actually feel about these hot button topics. This show, and hopefully more in this format to follow, somewhat make-up for HBO’s decision to bounce Inside the NFL next season, great football program in a land littered with excess.

Buzz Bissinger, representing print media in a discussion on the impact of blogging and the Internet, clearly had a personal agenda. One of the kings in today’s blogosphere, Will Leitch of Deadspin, received the brunt of Bissinger’s emotional attack. Citing excerpts from Deadspin that included lewd language, Bissinger launched the same tired argument shared by most traditional, veteran media members – blogs are not real journalism, they degrade what the real journalists do, it’s unprofessional, no substantiating facts. His tone was overly confrontational, emanating the feeling that Bissinger personally blamed blogs (and Leitch) for killing off his beloved newspaper industry, making them irrelevant, which is absolutely not true. Representing bloggers, the so-called immature and obscene group in the argument, Leitch came off more professional than Bissinger, allowing the old-timer to spew venom without losing his cool.

If anything, Bissinger was culpable of the exact accusations he made of the blogosphere – misinformed, uneducated, and solely opinionated. Generalizing blogs as garbage is an extremely slanted opinion. By now, after all these years of pristine journalism experience, the concept of sample size. Using one or two blogs to generalize comments about thousands, or millions that exist is inappropriate. I take offense, as I work hard on this blog and a few others to state facts, while publicizing my viewpoints for the benefit of discussion, and to establish a reputation to market myself since I don’t have access to the public forum Bissinger, and others are afforded. If blogs are killing journalism, why do most major media outlets now host blogs, luminous writers post blogs almost daily. Did he forget them?  Clearly, Bissinger is Internet illiterate, unaware of the benefits of blogs, podcasts, and the like. He only knows that new media will eventually kill off those in his generation that fail to adapt, and he acted defiant in accusing bloggers everywhere for making him less relevant in today’s world.

Print media will not disappear, those that embrace new media will continue to be the best reporters around. Remember, bloggers without press credentials still rely on so-called mainstream media to deliver sports news, they then open a new forum that engages the fans interactively, rather than only dictating to the fan. This generation of sports media has room for both, contrary to Bissinger, and his slanted view. Braylon Edwards was the third member of this panel, virtually a silent partner, and not the best selection. HBO should have tapped one of the many athletes who maintain personal blogs. If his team was not busy mouthing off to the media, Gilbert Arenas would have fit perfect – or any of the bloggers on NBA.com, or star players that maintain their own website. Curt Schilling is never at a loss for words, appeared in many segments of the show, has anyone heard of 38pitches?

Sports radio, the disruptive predecessor to Internet blogging, opened the show. Aware or not, HBO put Michael Strahan next to Chris “Mad Dog” Russo on stage, immediate cause for fireworks. Strahan has refused to speak to Russo and radio partner Mike Francesca after they pulled a traditional sports talk two-face on him eight years ago, playing nice during an interview, then bashed him on the radio afterwards. And Strahan is one of many on that list. It opened an interesting dialogue on the fine line between pleasing the athlete and pleasing the fan. Russo lamented, and rightfully so, that he accentuates the negative because thats what fans want, that’s what fills the lines up, drives the ratings, brings in money – all measures of success in sports radio. Criticizing athletes opens radio personalities to creating these rifts with the players. Sports talk is for the fan, driven by the fan. Strahan can criticize Russo for not confronting him directly during an interview, he can’t chastise him for attacking his play, or his actions. Athletes are public figures, playing sports, a game for the fans. If Michael Strahan holds out of training camp for contract reasons, radio hosts have a right to the opinion that he’s wrong, he may cost the team a game, he should not be a captain. Fans hold these same opinions, they tune in to hear opinions, they call in to state opinions, they show up at games to express their feeling. Yes, talk show hosts need to be more upfront with athletes, say their peace. But, at the same time, athletes need to desensitize and realize its a job, just like playing the game is their job, and its not personal. Athletes are just as responsible. When they act like Strahan, shutting off the media when they don’t like what they hear, it forces talk show hosts and even print to more carefully choose words around the athletes. Then when callers want to attack a player’s performance the media has to engage in that debate – it’s their job.

Because neither Russo, Francesca, or Mitch Albom, the third member of this debate, engage in the Howard Stern side of talk radio the issue of guy talk on sports radio did not gain much traction. The prevailing thought of Program Directors and talk show hosts trying to make a name for themselves that edginess and sex drives ratings, sports alone can’t, is wrong. Mike and the Mad Dog prove it everyday, most of ESPN Radio does. Pop culture always has a place, especially as sports and entertainment become more intertwined, but sports alone can be presented in an entertaining fashion. The key is engaging the audience. Hosts that rely on alternative topics to attract fans simply lack sports journalism skills.

Skipping the fluff panel that was sports television, manned by Joe Buck, Dan Patrick, and Mike Tirico, where the lack of an alternative voice to challenge the sports personalities turned this into a boring session of laughs and game of who can answer the questions without criticizing the employer the best. They all failed. Tirico tried to make it serious, but Buck refused to allow it. Sadly, many interesting topics fall into this area, start times for the games that Buck broadcasts and its impact on next generation fans, Fox’s modernization of game coverage, the on-field interviews of coaches and players during the game, live mic’s in locker rooms, diminishing ratings, thoughts on games slowly migrating to the Internet and if that changes their coverage, the question of broadcasters remaining unbiased to teams. None of these were seriously addressed to my dismay.

Crunched for time in this 90-minute event, the session on athlete and media relations was cut short. When John McEnroe can’t get an opinion across, you know they need more time. Interesting seeds for future discussions came up, notably Selena Roberts, a fantastic print journalist formerly of the NY Times now at Sports Illustrated, using an example of her inability to speak with Lebron James to prove how athletes have distanced themselves from the media. Another great topic, worthy of having an older athlete from the era when players and reporters drank scotch at the bar together, a seasoned reporter that has witnessed the shift, and a modern athlete that leads the sheltered life. Tiki Barber and McEnroe, while experiencing both sides of the fence, are not the best examples since athletes tend to open up to former athletes more than true media members. Again, worthy of more time, different panel.

Perhaps the touchiest subject ended the night, racism. Jason Whitlock and Michael Wilbon, both African-American, pull no punches about the misgivings of black athletes, they play no favorites, however Costas raised the pervasive issue facing white media members. If he, or I, or any regular white American discusses race relations that criticize an African-American for feeding a certain stereotype, the commentary is considered racist. When Whitlock or Wilbon present the same case, it’s praised. Both journalists argued that’s not the case, cited examples such as Tony Kornheiser, who engages in race talk with Wilbon on PTI, and a few other notable writers. The examples are far and few between, Costas is exactly right. White reporters face a double-edged sword, high-risk, low-reward place for entering the discussion. Having a Whitlock and a Wilbon, who see the reality, realize that its the Barry Bonds witch hunt was not race related, regardless what Bonds thought, is great for sports media, great for the social perspective of this country. Unfortunately, that watchdog must be the same race as the people that criticize, simple as that.

As time expired, Costas announced another townhall style show dedicated to the race in sports topic is scheduled. HBO deserves a star for hosting this informative, interesting show. For a first attempt, they get an A-. Most things worked, some aspects should change, but the live audience, live panel, hard issues make this format of Costas Now a keeper.

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