Sports, Media, and My Childhood

It was June of 1998, a day long before Twitter, Gmail, blackberries, SMS or any of the other myriad things I write about here. I was barely a high-schooler, and vividly recall reading a USA Today article about the record-breaking month for which a Chicago Cubs outfielder was on pace.

I was younger, obviously, but also still a bright-eyed teenager coming to grips with the resurgence of the game that once taught me about the loyalty and joy of sports before crushing a young kid’s hope within the 15 years before that moment. I cheered as McGwire’s 62nd home run sneak over the left field wall in St. Louis that September on an 11 inch TV I stealthily moved into my bedroom. I could cheer the return of the game on the back of these athletes.

Now I love the game, but like everyone, I’m suspicious of the athletes. I’m critical – I wrote my collegiate thesis on how the sports media, both on and offline, covered the steroid scandal of 2005 in light of what sports fans were looking to read. Do we want to hear more of this? No, not really. What’s changed between 11 years ago and today? Well, for one thing, we stopped caring about the greed of players’ unions as the inescapable vice of professional athletes and started pining for the purity of the game. However, there are a few bigger things in the works here regarding professional athletes, the sports media, access and doubt.

As Dan Shanoff wrote this morning:

Accusing one person specifically of doing something wrong? You better have specific evidence to back it up.

But accuse everyone of doing something? You’re in the clear! Accuse away!

That was the lesson of the [Raul] Ibanez thing last week, especially combined with the Sosa thing this week: Cynicism rules.“

I only linked to the coverage of the Raul Ibanez blogger-media-steroid accusation debate from last week that Shanoff is mentioning without going into too much detail, but suffice to say, Dan is right on. Here’s the difference: in 1998, we didn’t have any reason to suspect – or the means to blog and twitter – a sudden surge of power, we now have a motive and ability to express our discontent. The crime with a blogger calling on Raul Ibanez’s tremendous season was not the accusation, it was that it singled out the player.

The other change? Athletes now have the ability to remove that filter, too. Ibanez felt within his rights to respond directly to his accuser. Blogger or journalist, it didn’t matter – the playing field is now level when it comes to media relations.

Sports Illustrated covered the Athlete-Tweeting phenomenon in May, and the telling quote may have been from the real life version of The_Real_Shaq:

Another attraction: Twitter lets athletes speak on their own terms. “In this world we live in now, everybody becomes media,” says Shaquille O’Neal, who has an enormous Twitter following of 950,000. “If something is going to be said, hey, it’s coming from me.” Journalists may lament athletes passing over the middle men. But honestly, what’s more interesting, a “we gave 110 percent” from the postgame podium, or a tweet like this from Shaq last week: “Dam manny ramirez, come on man Agggggggggh, agggggggh, agggggh.

Baseball has changed since 1998, along with our impressions of slugging athletes, communication and more. The communications revolution just so happened to coincide with the Steroids Era. Who knew that we would get something so fake and so authentic at the exact same moment of history?


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