Picture two dozen or so short, dumpy nerds milling around in a tight 8x10 bundle, clutching smart phones, murmuring conspiratorially, and eyeing with wary deference the world’s greatest athletes arrayed around the room’s perimeter. While those athletes chat and dress or ice sore joints and in all other ways comport themselves like real, living humans, this hushed writhing mass of sad-sack interlopers fills and claims the center of the room like a giant fart cloud, present and unpleasant and grimly tolerated, adding nothing but discomfort to the scene.
Got it? OK, that’s the sports media.
Someone somewhere suddenly says a player’s name in what sounds like an announcement or introduction – Kris Humphries! – and a giant handsome man approaches this horde with the demeanor of a cut-up standing to deliver a doomed book-report. The horde becomes a swarm. Suddenly there are bright white lights inches from the player’s face and a dozen hands stretched towards his mouth clutching handheld voice recorders. There is a quiet energy as men and women work in subtle ways to jockey for better position, a lean here, an elbow there. Already a question is being asked. The mass presses more tightly together.
Just to the side of this spectacle veteran Paul Pierce appears, dressed and ready to leave. “I’m going now. If y’all got any questions, ask ‘em now.” This is a dare. Players are not introduced to the scrum simultaneously. There is an order, and by violating the order, Pierce is asking the room to cast aside protocols and exist, however briefly, in chaos. A nervous laughter ripples through the room. Pierce seizes on the discomfort, senses his edge. “I’m not kidding. I’m going right now. Any questions?” There is a moment of awkward silence, no more than a breath or two, but already this gambit has succeeded. This moment’s hesitation was the intended effect, and the payoff follows closely behind: “No? Alright. I’m outta here.” And, like that, he is gone.
Attention returns to Humphries, from whom the assembled media was unwilling to disengage. He is asked nothing in particular, his answers are pure boilerplate. The faces nod quietly as he recites from muscle memory the standard responses, as if this is what they wanted. Then he is thanked and he, too, leaves. Everyone is satisfied, everyone got their quotes and sound-bytes.
Soon thereafter, as these faces hunch over their laptops in a cramped press lounge, working to beat a deadline, a Wizards PR person quietly and efficiently distributes by hand a team-printed two-sided sheet containing every quote given by every player in that locker room, not twenty minutes earlier.
Seahawks running-back Marshawn Lynch has made the news this season for giving aggressively brief and nonsensical non-answers to questions asked during media scrums. Back in November it was “yeah” in response to every question he didn’t answer with “maybe.” This followed episodes in which Lynch accrued $100,000 in fines by the NFL for blowing off the media altogether.
Lynch’s “yeah” session rankled certain members of the sports media, who view this and similar acts from professional athletes as at least a breach of protocol. Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports considered the impact such behavior might have on Lynch’s career:
Look, to be fair, we mused on Twitter last week after Lynch failed to speak following the Seahawks’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11 that maybe he should just give basic answers to fulfill his requirements.
That said, this is a bit ridiculous, too. It’s immature. There’s no value — we’re now writing about Lynch and what he didn’t say, as opposed to the fact that the Seahawks beat the Arizona Cardinals and now stand two games back in the NFC West. He’s a grown man, and he can take two minutes to answer a few questions about football. It’s not that hard.
Is it the end of the world? No, but how do the Seahawks view this? It’s likely just another reason for them to roll their eyes and perhaps not bring him back, even though he still clearly can run the football effectively. The Seahawks brass was tired of Percy Harvin being a story for non-football reasons, and it certainly could reach the same conclusion with Lynch.
Let’s set aside the question of whether the Seahawks would cut loose a star player who “clearly can run the football effectively” for giving the media a hard time, and focus in on Edholm’s stated position here: he suggested Lynch should do the bare minimum to “fulfill his requirements” but objects to the specific manner in which Lynch has done that very thing. And not on the grounds that it is hostile to the media or indifferent towards fans or even that it leaves NFL reporters high and dry for content around which to form their sizzling hot takes. No, his gripe is that the content Lynch did provide is interesting enough as a story to overshadow “the fact that the Seahawks beat the Arizona Cardinals and now stand two games back in the NFC West.”
In other words, Edholm disapproves of Lynch’s behavior because the fans and media are more interested in what he did say than in what he should have said: a stream of boilerplate that, by Edholm’s own suggestion, does nothing more than satisfy a minimum requirement.
Lynch made an interesting media story, and the sports media is grumpy about it. Who the hell do these guys work for?
Back at Verizon Center, the media assembles in a cramped little room just off the press lounge, sitting on plastic folding chairs in rows aligned haphazardly in front of a trio of large television cameras. Friendly colleagues sit together like cliques at a school assembly. There is quiet chit-chat. One reporter, a pretty woman, becomes the center of conversation in the way pretty women are always the center of conversation when surrounded by chronically single men. She handles this very graciously.
A door at the front of the room opens and the vibe of the room immediately shifts as the assembled media snaps to attention. All at once reporters quietly and quickly position their recording devices in a neat row on a table at the front of the room, as if handing in homework, while a tall man in shirtsleeves takes a seat on the other side, before a microphone. A portable microphone is handed off by a Wizards PR person to the most prominent media member in the room, seated at the front of the class, and the questions begin.
They are called “questions,” but, as Barry Petchesky pointed out on Deadspin, they are much more like prompts – Coach, talk about your team’s effort in the first half – and the “answers” are fully known in advance by anyone who has ever read a post-game recap. Because the Wizards won, the coach liked the players’ energy. Words like “pace” and “energy” and “focus” are tossed about for their impenetrable banality, good when good, bad when bad. That the values assigned to these words are tethered only to some unverifiable internal team standard gives them profound utility in satisfying both the coach’s and team’s preference for saying nothing of substance and the sports media’s crippling inability to process, in any comprehensive way, any exchange of sufficient detail to rise to the level of actual exposition. This is a fair transaction: the local kiss-ass passing for a media big-shot won’t ask anything real and so the coach won’t give up any real answers, rinse and repeat.
Tonight this transaction is interrupted, however briefly, when a blogger asks a real question with real specifics. The coach rolls his eyes and the blogger is told to “look at the tape” for an answer “to that one.” Moments later, after the coach has hustled out of the room and while the assembled media gathers itself to rush after him into the now-open players’ locker room, a helpful and more experienced media member turns to the blogger and warns him, in friendly, seemingly-apologetic tones, that the coach doesn’t like to answer real basketball questions.
So, let’s dispense right away with the notion that what Lynch didn’t say was any more substantive than what he did say. When players blow off the media scrum in this exact way – as Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder recently did following a sterling personal performance in a win – they may be placing themselves in the crosshairs of increased media scrutiny, and that is almost certainly counter to whatever motivation spurred the comically terse session in the first place, but their biggest crime, by far, is failing to play their role in the completely self-justifying ongoing media Mad Lib that is game coverage.
In condemning Russell Westbrook’s “execution” answers, Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports’ Pro Basketball Talk took aim at Westbrook’s failure to respect the transactional nature of media interactions:
Setting aside the part about Westbrook disclosing how he feels about a particular reporter, the act of not answering questions seriously is growing tiresome.
As I mentioned the last time, the reason these guys get paid what they do is because of fan interest in watching them play, and the exposure from the media only helps in bringing the stories (and the players’ personalities) closer to those that spend the dollars consuming the product.
Because of this, I believe players should take the (very small) media obligation portion of their job somewhat seriously.
First of all, the role of media members from a post-game scrum in driving the popularity of one of the very best basketball players on earth is significantly overstated. The horse has already left the barn on that one. Whatever role reporters play in establishing the popularity of NBA players is fractional. Pollakoff’s argument suggests a world in which the outrageously oversized remora that is the sports media pre-dates the sports themselves, rather than having greedily assembled itself around the enormous popularity of organized competition. The media is in attendance because the event is popular, not the other way around.
The real problem with Pollakoff’s gripe, though, is the suggestion that the normal rote responses the members of that scrum were anticipating reveal any authentic part of Russell Westbrook’s personality. Pollakoff is using “personality” to mean “managed brand,” and the idea that the media is engaged in disseminating that brand in a way that has monetary value to the players and therefore ought to buy the media members a level of participation in their non-reporting is fucking gross. For once a player didn’t just inoffensively usher his brand on tippy-toes through a media session, and now here’s members of the media bleating about their arrangement.
That fans have learned infinitely more about the authentic personalities of players like Westbrook and Lynch than they ever will about the authentic personalities of reliable spokespeople like Peyton Manning and Grant Hill ought to go entirely without saying. Pollakoff isn’t talking about the media being a tool via which a player’s genuine personality is honestly communicated to fans, he’s talking about the media cynically safeguarding the facades of brands. Media access is used to hide personalities. The language of his gripe expresses the opposite of its meaning.
The first question Westbrook answered was “the second quarter run, why did that change the game?” First of all, what the hell does that even mean? Was Yoda asking the questions?
Westbrook’s answer: “Execution. Thought we did a good job of executing.” It says something that it’s unclear whether this first answer was a part of Westbrook’s trolling, and it was at least another two answers made up of virtually the same language before those present seemed to catch on. There is no honest answer to that question, and whatever stripped summary is offered to affirm the reporter’s presupposition will necessarily only distance fans from any genuine understanding of the game’s tidal shifts. Why did it change the game? Because our execution shifted the momentum, of course, in much the same way that astronomical phenomena can shift your horoscope.
Westbrook didn’t choose “execution” by accident: this is another of the sports world’s loanwords, a malleable concept that describes either the process by which success is achieved or the success of that process, and means roughly nothing to anyone. Like “momentum,” “execution” means nothing so much as “I have no specific answer to your question.”
That these types of words and concepts make up the native language of the sports media is a reflection of the hard truth that no one in the scrum has the first clue what is actually going on out there. Each moment in a given sport is an infinitely complex sequence of physical actions and innumerable observations, reflexes, and reactions. That anyone should be assigned to strangle these accumulated moments into some sort of narrative structure, complete with themes and traits and morals, is fucking insane. A single game of basketball is full of thousands of these moments.
It’s true that whatever allows players to provide non-answers to the media also doesn’t disallow them from speaking expansively, but, by the same token, the access with which the media bears down on players with lazy prompts and unverifiable metaphysical concepts like “momentum” also grants them the opportunity to dig into the specific action of the game or draw out the real personalities of the players. It’s at best a lack of imagination that pins them in the khaki-colored confines of miserable prompts. They can’t make coaches and players be more expansive and forthcoming, but they can damn sure ask them real questions, and it would be a real service to the fans if they did.
It would also require a level of interest and a degree of sophistication that is frankly beyond a lot of these schmos. The easiest way to describe a sporting event is in flimsy intangibles, and granting those intangibles moral characteristics conveys a shield of cheap moral credibility to the scribe. It’s impossible to disprove that a team needed to play with more focus, and, anyway, more focus never hurt anyone.
And so the media takes the easy road and then pressgangs the sport’s participants into playing along. Coach, talk about affirming my spooky narrative retelling of that endlessly complex game we all just watched. It’s no wonder the players and coaches get exhausted and petulant. It’s to their credit they’ve consented to participate at all.
But this is, of course, a two way street, and, after all, there are players who have some use for eager errand-boy media members who’ll do the leg work of spreading an on-message brand far and wide. More broadly, this is the utility of the sports media for teams and their leagues, and it’s a cozy deal for everyone. Ultimately this is the core of all the criticisms of the grumpy non-answers: don’t rock the boat, we’re all in this together. The normal exchanges are lubed and transactional precisely because they are transactions. Most members of a media scrum are less reporters than they are messengers.
Whatever jubilation takes place in a post-win Wizards locker room is largely dissipated by the time the media is granted access.
The players can be divided fairly cleanly into three categories: those that do everything they can to get the hell out of the locker room before the media can really assemble; those that do everything they can to linger away from media access as long as possible in the hopes that the press will get their fill and depart; and those that chill at their lockers and generally don’t give a damn about the big sweaty tangle of overdressed media types. Andre Miller is among the first group. John Wall is among the second group. Rasual Butler is among the third.
It’s possible to detect some sort of pattern even in this small sample: Andre Miller has been a star in the league, has had enough of the attention, and now, in the post-stardom twilight of his career, understands the real questions aren’t for him, and if he can beat the traffic he can escape unscathed. John Wall, at the other end, is entering superstardom and there is no way in hell he’d be allowed to leave without talking to the media. His best chance is to hang back as long as possible and hope most of the media members get what they want from someone else, or get too close to deadline or too bored of waiting to hang around (and, at any rate, wait they will, and so there’s no reason for him to rush). Rasual Butler is a veteran who has never been a star and has almost no expectation of media interest. The media is basically as indifferent to his presence as he is to theirs.
On this particular night Wall is taking longer than usual to wrap up his shower-then-training-room-then-dress routine (and that’s saying something) and the press is beginning to encroach noticeably upon the space around his locker. Butler is quietly dressing a few lockers over, more or less invisibly but for the attention of one single late-arriving reporter with whom he seems to share some knowledge of the Houston area. They banter back and forth quietly until, out of nowhere and to the complete surprise of Butler and the nearest member of Washington’s PR team, someone in charge announces that Butler will be made available to the press, and immediately.
This is very plainly a stalling technique designed to buy Wall some time at his locker and clear away the intrusive press. The taken-aback PR man screws up his face and says “Butler?!” and the man himself makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to hide his annoyance.
Here’s the thing: Rasual Butler is patient, thoughtful, and articulate, and he’s seen a lot of the NBA. His answers are generally relatively candid. And the press has no interest in talking to him. The few media members who dare exit the orbit of Wall’s locker saunter over disinterestedly and stand around as if skeptical that Butler can form words.
Butler takes a half step into the middle of the room and raises his eyebrows. There is a single camera, operated by the Wizards organization itself, a small handful of barely curious reporters, and the same friendly reporter with whom he’d just been chatting. No one says a word. “You’d better hurry up, John’s gonna start soon,” Butler warns. A few people chuckle but no one says a word. “I’m serious, you gotta hurry, John’s about to start!” The Wizards cameraman, flustered and embarrassed, mutters to himself in exasperation and raises his own question, something harmless about the team’s momentum. Voice recorders are raised for the answer.
The very moment Butler begins to speak, Wall steps away from his locker, fully dressed, and upon this movement virtually everyone immediately slides away from Butler, leaving him speaking to just two remaining media members, one of whom was just engaged with him in an entirely different, seemingly-enjoyable, non-scripted conversation, a genuine human interaction. Butler shakes his head and continues with his answer, which is substantive. To his left, Wall does his best to give complete but inoffensive and generally unrevealing answers to the same five questions he is asked every night. It’s an obvious chore, but he takes it as seriously as anyone, politely offering a neutered brand-level version of himself that is, to his credit, only superficially different from and in no way better than his off-camera self. These guys are all wonderful, and even if they weren’t, they’re all just guys, doing a thing as well as they can where everyone is watching.
Disengaged from the brief media attention, Butler takes a swig from some sort of bottled health shake and resumes the final stage of preparing to leave. A blogger, having had enough of boilerplate bullshit and incurious prompts and transactional brand-management, decides to try something different.
“So, here’s a random question,” he ventures, and Butler, still mid-whatever final action would make him at last ready to go home, takes a single generous step forward toward the questioner, betraying none of the annoyance that defined his presentation to the scrum.
The question is unimportant, and silly. Butler laughs into his protein drink, chokes a tiny bit, smiles, and talks like a human. It’s a fun and fleeting few moments of a real person being real, and the scrum has no use for it, whatsoever.
Miserable Shitehawk is a piece of crap blogger who eats canned fish. He’s written under various pseudonyms at various places. Follow him on Twitter @madbastardsall.