Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Journalism, Sports, High Blood Pressure

(I know. It's not particularly high blood pressure.
This was not taken during a Saints game.)
These days, journalists and editors debate furiously over where the media is headed in the age of the Internet and social sites. I submit that Ebert had it right — he brought tremendous expertise to his particular beat, writing informed (yet accessible) reviews, and was just himself online. He was simply an articulate human being, who saw the world as compelling a spectacle as anything on screen. He succeeded not because he reviewed movies, but because he reviewed life.

The truth isn’t necessarily a matter of being open to all things for its own sake; it’s being open to that which steers you closer to the truth. Wherever you fall, whatever you believe, you should be there because it’s the most accurate place to be. In a world of false absolutes, accuracy is a real absolute. Anyone who wants to make an anarchy of accuracy lacks respect for the truth. Don’t buy anything they’re selling.

Specifically, many are objecting to this suspected killer's face adorning a prominent spot on a popular magazine. Every time something of this magnitude happens, we revisit this debate — and given how often mass killings occur and how much media we consume nowadays, it's amazing we ever leave it. For the record, I have no problem with this cover.

Commatose (7/22)
After enough time both writing and editing, I went from loving the Oxford comma to wishing it would drown in its own ink. That feeling suited me perfectly for graduate school English courses. (For those of you who have never taken a graduate English course, that was a literary device called "irony.")

If oil ever ceased to be profitable, people would stop drilling for it. If computers were ever supplanted by a more advanced technology, IT people would stop servicing them.

But no matter what happens on the ledger side of journalism, people will still get into it. Why? Because like teaching and similar pursuits, journalism is a calling. It's something that will be done as long as society exists (and even if anarchy were to reign). There will always be an audience for investigations, informed editorials, breaking news and other goings-on. And there will always be people inclined to seek out such information and present it in a professional manner.

It's one thing to see Drew Brees being stuck at ESPN's front gate while driving a float in a silly SportsCenter promo; it's another entirely to see the president of Jefferson Parish delivering the Advocate with a smile on his face. Newspapers are supposed to pledge allegiance only to the truth. Sometimes that truth is unflattering to newsmakers, and that's most often true of politicians.

It is in no way exploitative, prurient or invasive. But it does put in stark visual terms what people otherwise might gloss over in their minds. Some of the most arresting images in history, such as Emmett Till's disfigured corpse (which his mother wanted everyone to see) or Vietnam's multiple atrocities, are painful to see. But sometimes those images are what we need to see most.

We are Saints fans. Vibrant, irrational and unsinkable — much like New Orleans itself. All teams say their fan bases are the most rabid, but few are as organic as the one you'll find right here. The Saints have never belonged to anyone else, nor could they. And the feeling is mutual — many players settle in this crazy town for life after they've played their last, and they're family.

Our fanhood often blurs the line between team and city — and beyond. When was the last time you saw a T-shirt with a spiked helmet that read, "Defend Cincinnati"? Would Dallas Cowboys fans ever call their quarterback Romosus? How many citizens, ravaged by one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, would promptly think, "Please don't let our team vacate to San Antonio"?

Goodell: "Men, there's no excuse to start Tim Tebow. Winning, despite the cliché, is not the only thing. Persecuting Christians always comes first! That's what our fans care about on Sundays ... and Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and two extra weeks if we can hack it."

Tom Coughlin: "Ah, Tebow is mediocre! If he played better, none of this would matter. In fact, I guarantee that we'd all clamor for the guy if he improved. Superstar skill combined with name recognition? Are you kidding me?"

E(Other)CIU: "You're in the wrong conversation! This is the sarcastic one!"

Coughlin: "Er, I mean, Tebow is a boss! But as a head coach in the NFL, I do not do what it takes to win at any cost."

Collins, on the other hand, is black and gay, a member of two groups that face very real hate all the time. People who have no inkling of Collins' career stats or presence on the court would be happy to spit in his coffee, call him a scumbag to his face or worse. Very little of the criticism I've seen against Collins this week has anything to do with his game — it's all about his announcement, which gave homophobes a new guy to hate. That's real hatred, and Collins refused to let its perilous potential keep him from being true to himself.

Tebow, to his credit, has also been true to himself. But he suffers far less in terms of innate hate. Were he on par with Roger Staubach, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham or other religious legends, Tim's religiosity would barely matter. But no matter how hard Collins plays from here on out, he will always be the gay NBA guy in a nation still coming to grips with homophobia. The difference is stark.

The Saints mean so much to south Louisiana. When New Orleans was underwater, the team became a rallying point for the city, a metaphorical and literal symbol for rising up. And part of that was that we'd stuck with the team for 40-plus, mostly losing years. Resilience. Mention Drew Brees here and you might as well be talking about your socks. And sometimes, they'll hate your socks.

Three days later, I hunkered down at home (I was living with my parents then) to watch the game. My sister, then 16 and not yet a Saints die-hard, was in her room with her boyfriend. Dad was watching the game in his den, as he preferred to do. Mom was still at work. A typical Monday night. I thought about grabbing a snack from the kitchen. Then, this happened.

For the most part, people aren't demanding the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves change their names. Why? Because they manage to encapsulate the "strength, courage, pride and respect" of America's indigents without dwelling on skin color.

Winning should be an enjoyable experience, even when expected. Too much a good thing — when the only question over the decades is, how thoroughly will we slaughter this week? — leads only to exaggerated heartbreak when they lose. And all that much more first-world-white-people-problem snickering from the outside world as a result.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is a stacked competition from the outset. Bob Costas once said that the league might as well have a two-tier structure with a few major-market teams competing, and the rest just selling ballpark ambiance. Owners are free to buy stacked rosters, which the then-Florida Marlins notoriously did in 1997, and the New York Yankees pretty much always do. Teams like the Kansas City Royals rarely inspirationally surmount such obstacles. They can't afford to. That's too close to real life for a lot of us.

ESPN — along with everyone else — should give the Ragin’ Cajuns the dignity that they deserve. No more “Lafayette,” “ULL,” “LAL” or whatever else they use either out of ignorance, confusion or political pressure — call the team what’s on their uniform. Just like everyone does with every other team.

Feeling bully (11/04)
A lot of factors make a team (or other organization) a champion. Hazing isn’t one of them. It doesn’t make anyone better at their job and it doesn’t foster equal relationships. It exists solely for the thrill of the executor, who in most cases has had the same thing done to him previously. There are plenty of ways to foster team cohesion that don’t involve actions like Incognito’s. Maybe the Dolphins should try some of them out. Clearly, they need to.

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