Que Sarah, Sarah

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Blogs With Balls 1.0 Recap

By Sarah Spain
Originally published 5/15/09 on MouthpieceSports.com

It’s Monday afternoon and I’m still recovering from hours of hand-shaking, air-kissing and card-pushing at the mutual admiration society that was the first annual Blogs With Balls convention. The event allowed many who have communicated with each other solely via e-mail and Twitter to finally meet in person. It was great to put faces with names (both real and aliases) and to get to know the personalities behind some of the most influential voices in sports and new media.

While there were certainly differences of opinion and moments of contention, in the end it seemed that most everyone agreed on a few basic points:

1. Talent and hard work will win out in the end, whether in mainstream media or blogging. As Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko so eloquently put it during his panel: "I hate bloggers who can't write!" It doesn’t matter how much you like sports, if you don’t know how to write, then blogging is not the profession for you. Period. The fear that uneducated, untalented bloggers will make a big mark in the world of sports is irrational. As with most everything in life, talent will rise to the top.

2. The terms “blogger” and “journalist” don’t mean what they used to. Many credentialed mainstream media members write “blogs” these days. That just means a particular piece they’ve written is intended for consumption online. Some “journalists” have even less access than “bloggers” (or, in some cases, simply choose not to take advantage of their access). Even the term “media” gets lost in what one panelist described as a “first person” world. Is Shaq a media member because he twitters about games? Are bloggers media members simply because they’ve decided to create a blog and write about something? Is the idea that media is limited only to credentialed members of the press antiquated? Dan Levy has a great take on this in his recap of the weekend. (http://onthedlpodcast.com/Blog_Podcast/Blog/Entries/2009/6/15_The_Official_Blogs_With_Balls_Review__What_Was_Answered_and_What_Questions_Came_Out_Of_A_Fantastic_Event.html)

3. Everyone should understand the importance of research and reporting. (Levy also covers this, in regard to a Bill Simmons podcast interview of Erin Andrews). Mainstream media members should not be the only people digging below surface level for a story. The most compelling stories—on the web or in print—are those that feature strong opinions based on facts.

4. The notion that blogs are written by those who want but can’t get mainstream media jobs is tired. Successful bloggers are as educated, talented and followed (if not more so) than many of the reporters who show up to the ballpark every day and get sound bites.

Which leads me to a topic that I spoke a bit about on my panel, but found really intriguing as it popped up in a number of discussions throughout the day: how does access affect coverage?

One of the earliest complaints about bloggers was that the anonymity of the web allowed any Joe Blow off the street to spout off about any number of topics without having to answer to criticism or back up his or her claims with proof. Those who used their virtual soapbox solely for the purpose of ripping athletes, teams or reporters gave a bad name to everyone in the blogosphere. Talented writers who wanted to give a voice to the fan and view sports with a fresh perspective got lumped in with the guys who posted unfounded rumors and hadn’t learned the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

I have an interesting perspective as someone who produces what most view as “blog content” but with the access of a credentialed mainstream media member. In my opinion, there’s a balance to be found between eschewing access and getting so close to the athletes you can no longer report objectively.

In an interview with Buzz Bissinger following their Costas Now appearance, Will Leitch wrote of bloggers: “We enjoy the distance that ignoring the press box gives us; it allows us to remain in touch with being an actual sports fan, and respond to sports in the way actual sports fans do. We're not chummy with anyone, and we're not out to get anybody either. The distance is (theoretically) what keeps us clear.” (http://deadspin.com/5020265/our-conversation-with-buzz-bissinger)

Yes, seeing Derrek Lee speak to the media whether he’s gone 0-for-5 or had the game-winning home run, does affect my opinion of the guy. He’s the most respected player in the Cubs’ clubhouse by his teammates and the media, both for his attitude and his work ethic. Knowing this, I cringe when bloggers or radio callers say he’s “not trying.” Not one tiny part of me thinks his early-season slump was the result of him “not trying” and that’s because I was at the ballpark every day, watching him put the work in and seeing his frustrations mount with every strikeout or double-play ball. That doesn’t mean I don’t cover his struggles objectively, it just means I have a point of reference to speak from when doing so.

Sure, rip a guy for throwing the ball in the stands after two outs (I’m talkin’ to you, Milton) but don’t give yourself the authority to make claims about him as a person if you’ve never so much as shared air space with him. Now, if you dislike a player because he’s a crap interview or he blames his mistakes on his coach or any other legitimate reason, chances are he’ll give you the quotes to back that up. Armed with truth, your opinion will be viewed as legitimate commentary, rather than just the spewing of another schmo searching for a spotlight.

Be funny, be edgy, be controversial, but consider the power of your words. I agree with what ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson said about considering your subject. Your intended audience may very well be different than your actual audience. (Jerod Morris’s Raul Ibanez fracas proves that - http://www.midwestsportsfans.com/2009/06/what-i-learned-during-the-most-bizarre-week-of-my-life/). If you would never say in person what you’re writing, figure out why. If you’re writing the truth (which is what everyone on stage at BwB seemed to imply is the goal) then you should feel comfortable backing up your statements to the very person you’re making them about. You get a pass if the post is about wanting to sleep with his wife, though.

Having said all that…the truth is, access or no access, if your shit is funny, compelling, original and smart, you can get away with a lot. If it’s not, you just sound like a dick.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. Talent will rise to the top. The panelists—and many of the attendees—at Blogs With Balls confirmed as much. The taste-makers and industry-changers are those with a unique take on sports and the skills to express that take. After meeting me for a few drinks with some of the speakers Friday night, a friend of mine from college told me, despite not being particularly into sports or the internet, how fascinating and inspiring she found it to listen to a group of people who are so obviously passionate about what they do. Blogs with Balls panelist Jeff Pearlman said as much in his wrap-up of the weekend. (http://jeffpearlman.com/?p=1853)

It was a pleasure to meet so many people who love what they do and are interested in making a difference in an industry that was stagnant for a very long while. Props to the guys from Hugging Harold Reynolds for putting it together and props to those from the mainstream media who had the balls to attend or appear on a panel in a room full of potential haters. No props for ESPN’s “Blog Buzz” segment, which didn’t have the balls to say the word “balls.”

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