Catch a sportswriter in a moment of unchecked narcissism, and we might start talking about ideals — craft, practice and The Way Things Should Be. This is important to most of us and not a little boring to anyone who doesn’t have deep thoughts about mastheads. Either formally in a drawer somewhere or informally in our heads, we keep a small notebook of things we believe we should and shouldn’t do. This isn’t specific to writers — everyone has their own slant on professional ethics, whether in terms of hard and fast rules or otherwise — but we’re in the position of sometimes having occasion to share our informing principles in print. This is often insufferably pompous in the way laying down law is. You know those fraught and largely pointless conversations about the unwritten rules of baseball? It is like that: One person offering their common sense view of The Way Things Should Be, often without acknowledging that the definition of common sense varies depending on whose head you’re in.
Will Middlebrooks is dating Jenny Dell, who covers the Red Sox for NESN. This is a problem in all the obvious ways — reporter intimately involved with subject and all that — but it’s also an opportunity to talk ethics, if you’re inclined to do that. Kirk Minihane of WEEI.com thought this story deserved the full Intro to Journalism lecture, and the resulting piece is gloriously mansplainish, replete with circular thinking, tone-deaf analogies and a full-paragraph “Yes.” There are numerous caveats and considerations in the article, but they’re ultimately buried beneath certainty. It’s a Hot Take that knows it’s a Hot Take, but self-awareness doesn’t save it.
Most of the time, writing about sports is thoroughly unimportant. We can use the lens of sports to talk about a lot of crucial stuff — race, class, rape culture, gun culture, etc. — but most of us are in the business of spending the majority of our time writing about refereeing decisions and Javale McGee goof-ups. This isn’t an existential issue, at least for me. People like to reading about these things. An inessential job needn’t be confused with a meaningless or uninteresting one.
You might, if you’re somehow uncomfortable with the unimportance of what you do for a living, adopt a very serious tone and turn a story about two people dating into an essay on standards and practices. The problem is that this is a way of talking past the actual story, of showing yourself to be a self-absorbed ass who pushes your religion on people with very little provocation. You are a food critic in an Arby’s. You are unpleasant and unreasonable.
NESN should remove Jenny Dell from her job because she’s not living up to the lofty ideal of the sideline reporter? This story is not exactly Phil Ball taking an all-expenses-paid trip to Qatar. All impropriety is not equal. Dell’s job is to try to get Dustin Pedroia to say something interesting. This is a very difficult task not made much more difficult by the fact that she’s involved with the team’s third baseman.
This is a good place to note that I am barely a journalist. I do research and try not to write on lies, but I hardly ever report things firsthand. I’m mostly a consumer, not a producer of news. As someone who ingests a lot of sports reporting each day, I have much more of an issue with someone like Chris Broussard throwing anonymously-sourced nothing against the wall and congratulating himself for it than I do a sideline reporter dating a player. One presents a much more practical and therefore aggravating problem than the other. Broussard doesn’t frustrate me because he’s not hewing to an ideal; it’s because he’s right a quarter of the time and so I don’t know what to believe. Dell might break a story about a Middlebrooks injury before anyone else, right? That sounds useful enough, and I’m not sure anyone should be upset about someone else having the market cornered on Will Middlebrooks updates.
There are times, sure, even in a field as frivolous as sports journalism, that seriousness is required and a discussion of The Way Things Should Be can be edifying rather than self-indulgent. A sideline reporter is dating a player. This is decidedly not one of those times.