Yes, there’s sexism in sports, and it’s no more prevalent than in the media

In my previous life as a mainstream jock journo, I surely was guilty of a few sexist scribblings.

It doesn’t matter that it was during a more tolerant time and place. A time and place when we didn’t have the politically correct police parsing every syllable or turn of phrase we produced in print or on air. Even if written with a tongue-in-cheek quill—which it was—or to ruffle feathers—which it did—it still registered as sexist and today would result in a prompt and thorough scolding and scorn on social media. So, yes, guilty as charged.

I am reminded of my past indelicacies because the pungent odor of sexism is again awaft.

Everywhere you look, there is sexism in sports. On TV. On the Internet. In newspapers (what’s left of them). On the playing fields. In changing rooms. And, yes, in the press box. Definitely in the press box.

To believe, or pretend, otherwise is to believe Donald Trump doesn’t really live in the White House.

So, yes, sexism exists, most definitely in professional tennis, as we were reminded in the past two weeks.

Alizé Cornet

Alizé Cornet strips off her tennis top at the back of a court during a U.S. Open match. Code violation. Novak Djokovic and numerous other male players strip off their shirts—multiple times—courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Crickets.

That is an undeniable, undebatable sexist double-standard.

And, quite frankly, what happened to Cornet was, to me, far more offensive and egregious than anything that went down in the U.S. Open women’s final between young champion Naomi Osaka and her bully of an opponent, Serena Williams.

Unless Williams, or any among her mob of angry apologists, had access to chair umpire Carlos Ramos’s inner thoughts last Saturday, they cannot say with any level of certainty that he issued three code violations and docked 23-time Grand Slam champion Williams a game simply because she is a she.

The fact that Williams chose to play the gender card does not make it so.

Novak Djovokic

Williams had been on the uncomfortable receiving end of a good and proper paddywhacking from Osaka when Ramos observed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglu, flashing hand signals from his perch in the viewing pews. For that, Ramos issued a code violation. Cue the sideshow. A racquet-destroying hissy fit earned another reprimand. The hinges were loosening. Branding Ramos a thief and a liar cost Williams a game. Completely undone.

Nothing Ramos did or said suggested sexism was on the table. He was governing the match according to the rule book. Williams—no one else—made gender the issue, on court and during her post-match chin-wag with news snoops.

So, is sexism something we should be discussing today? For sure. But not as it pertains only to tennis, which occupies a very small corner of the sandbox.

Let’s talk about sexism and the sports media.

In the fallout from the Williams meltdown, many opinionists—women and men—have been barking on air, in print and in cyberspace about the evils of sexism in sports, but they’re living in a glass house and throwing stones.

Surely you’ve noticed all the pretty faces and big hair that surface every night and day on TSN and Sportsnet: Jennifer Hedger, Tessa Bonhomme, Kara Wagland, Kate Beirness, Lindsay Hamilton, Natasha Staniszewski, Sara Orlesky, Caroline Cameron, Martine Gaillard, Evanka Osmak…all babes. Talented, but babes nonetheless. They look like they arrive at the studio directly from a Vogue shoot.

Is that by design or accident?

I think we all know the answer to that.

The men, on the other hand…meh. They can have a face like Yogi Berra’s old catcher’s mitt and a body shaped like an igloo and still get the job.

And, of course, the men have all the answers.

A woman is allowed to look pretty and read the teleprompter (stay in your lane, girl) because, you know—hair, cheekbones, eyes, lips, hips, legs and boobs are the only reason she’s there, right? It’s left for the men with their large brains to interpret, break down and make sense of what the woman has just read. The more the woman reads, the more mansplaining there is to be done. Let’s go to the boys on the panel.

Is that sexism? Absolutely.

It’s moderately different on the print side of the sandbox, in that the babe factor isn’t at play. A woman who doesn’t look like Michelle Pfeiffer can still apply. And find work. But she better have game, because there’s an entire world of men out there convinced she doesn’t know a football from a facial.

No one wonders if a male jock journo is a nitwit until he opens his mouth or writes his first article to remove all doubt. Conversely, it’s a given that a woman doesn’t have a clue right from the get-go. And she fights that misguided stereotyping her entire career, otherwise we’d hear more female voices in panel discussions.

Is that sexism? Absolutely.

Basically, sports media in Canada is a man cave and will remain sexist until it’s accepted that women have functioning brains.

Thus, before they tell tennis or any other sport/organization to clean up their back yard, they might want to look at their own first.

About 49 years from Day One at the Trib…good for Ted Wyman…good reads in the Drab Slab…a TSN WTF moment…CFL power rankings…Serena unhinged…and other things on my mind

It occurs to me

If you’ll permit me a personal note right off the top (and you must, because this is my blog), this morning marks the 49th anniversary of my start in the rag trade.

Yup, it all began in the mail room on the second floor of the Winnipeg Tribune building on Sept. 10, 1969, me an 18-year-old, know-nothing kid fresh out of Miles Madonell Collegiate working at what had always been my newspaper of choice.

After a brief time running incoming and outgoing mail to the various arms of the Trib operation at the corner of Smith and Graham, directly across the street from the main post office, I was shuffled up to the fifth floor, whereupon I became a midnight-to-8 a.m. copy runner and began scribbling non-byline Manitoba Junior Hockey League rewrites in 1970.

Legendary sports columnist and editor Jack Matheson was somehow struck with the notion that I might be a suitable replacement for a departing sports scribe, and my first byline appeared in print on Page 16 of the Trib on June 14, 1971.

It was back-of-the-section, bottom-of-the-page stuff—a short blurb about a Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association financial shortfall of $8,753—nestled between the Assiniboia Downs form chart and horse racing writer Harold Loster’s graded selections. Humble beginnings, indeed.

My first beat was local tennis, which I totally enjoyed. Then high school football, a good place to earn your chops. But Matty had me mostly on hockey, at all levels and all leagues, at home and riding the bus across the frozen tundra with Gerry Brisson, Muzz MacPherson and the Winnipeg Clubs in the Western Canada Hockey League.

Butch Goring

There wasn’t a hockey league I didn’t cover and, in fact, my final writing assignment at the Trib was to pen a sports-front, up-close-and-personal piece on local lad Butch Goring, weaned on the frozen ponds of Windsor Park/St. Vital and a Stanley Cup champion with the New York Islanders. Photog Jon Thordarson and I had visited Butch at his home. Spent more than an hour with him. The article and pics were in the can and good to go as a late-summer feature. Alas, the mucky-mucks at Southam had the bad manners to shut down the joint on what we called Black Wednesday, Aug. 27, 1980, and the Tribune was no more.

But, hey, here I am 49 years later, and old bag of bones still scribbling about shinny, football, curling and athletes in Good Ol’ Hometown, albeit from a distance. Don’t know when or how to stop.

Which means you’re right—there’s definitely something wrong with me. Like, does the term ‘get a life’ mean anything to me?

Apparently not. I might actually make it to 50 years.

Ted Wyman

A tip of the bonnet to Ted Wyman, soon to be the latest inductee to the Manitoba Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour. Ted’s been cranking out the good stuff for 26 years, earning his chops at the Moose Jaw Times Herald and Brandon Sun before bringing his act to Good Ol’ Hometown in 2003. He’s been a steady hand on the wheel of the Winnipeg Sun sports department since 2006.

Really enjoyed Melissa Martin’s piece on Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler in the Winnipeg Free Press last week. Melissa doesn’t stray into the toy department too often, but I always enjoy her take on sports and athletes. She’s my favorite scribe at the Drab Slab.

So I’m sitting in my local watering hole, watching the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders duke it out on Saturday afternoon. They were down to the short strokes, with about three minutes remaining and Gang Green clinging to an iffy lead. The end result was very much in the balance. And what does TSN do? It cuts away to the Calgary Stampeders-Edmonton Eskimos skirmish, which had yet to start. You talk about your WTFTSN moments.

Here are this week’s Canadian Football League power rankings…

1. Calgary (9-2): Bo Levi was brilliant; the defence not so much.
2. Saskatchewan (7-4): Four straight Ws.
3. Edmonton (7-5): Got it done vs. Calgary this time.
4. Hamilton (6-5): Wicked offence, wicked QB, wicked Speedy B.
5. Ottawa (6-5): Continue to be a puzzle.
6. Winnipeg (5-7): A bye week just what the doctor ordered.
7. B.C. (4-6): Still say they’re done like dinner.
8. Montreal (3-8): Took the week off.
9. Toronto (3-8): QB woes continue.

Last week in CFL quarterbacking…

It’s about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: Wow. Just wow.

Still baffled by Serena Williams bringing motherhood into the equation during her epic hissy fit in the women’s final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. “I have a daughter and I stand what’s right for her!” she shrieked, in full bully mode, at chair umpire Carlos Ramos. That simply does not compute. It makes no sense at all. What did Ramos’s rulings—questionable or not—have to do with Williams’ little girl? Can you say completely unhinged, kids?

Novak Djokovic

For those of you scoring at home, the last eight Grand Slam tennis tournaments have delivered eight different champions on the women’s side and only three on the men’s side. Meanwhile, the same three guys winning everything now—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic—have been winning everything since Wimbledon 2003, when Federer claimed his first Slam title. The scoreboard reads: Big Three 51, Rest of Guys 11. And who are those Rest of Guys? Stan Wawrinka (3), Andy Murray (3), Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro, Marat Safin and Gaston Gaudio. So, 10 champions total. In the same time frame, 24 different women have won Slam tournaments.

And, finally, this from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “I really hope the Maple Leafs pick a captain soon—so everybody can just shut up about it. The captain stuff: Relatively meaningless.” Interesting. In July, Simmons went on Tranna 1050 TSN radio and flapped his gums about the “relatively meaningless” Leafs captaincy for more than seven minutes. But now that he’s had his say on the topic he wants the rest of us to “shut up.” As if.

What the hell is wrong with Steve Simmons?

Either Postmedia needs to get Steve Simmons some help, or they need to get rid of him. Immediately.

I mean, only someone struggling with serious inner demons would be so callous and cruel as to recklessly attack a man whose hockey career ended abruptly at age 33 due to blunt force trauma to the head. A man whose many years of post-concussion symptoms included headaches, memory loss, sight impairment, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness and exhaustion. A man who was required to live what he calls a “reverse lifestyle,” sleeping during the day and awakening in the small hours of the night to watch TV alone. A man who was diagnosed by one psychologist as suicidal.

That man is Marc Savard, last seen in the National Hockey League on the night of Jan. 22, 2011, concussed for a sixth time and being gently escorted from the ice surface by teammates after Matt Hunwick of the Colorado Avalanche had layered him into the corner boards with a clean hit.

Only in the last year has Savard begun to see the light again. Literally and figuratively.

Yet, his descent down the deep, lonely, seemingly bottomless rabbit hole didn’t prevent Simmons from making the former Boston Bruins forward the target of a vicious, repugnant attack in a Sunday column that appeared in Postmedia online newspapers nationwide.

“Marc Savard basically disappeared when his career ended in Boston,” Simmons wrote. “Media called. Nobody answered. Now suddenly Savard is a media guy. My advice: If he calls, don’t answer.”

Marc Savard

Imagine being so bitter and vindictive simply because someone living on the dark side of life failed to pick up the phone when you called. But, then, drive-by shootings have become Simmons’s sick shtick. I might suggest that it must be bloody awful going through life spewing such undisguised loathing, but it strikes me that it’s his perverted pleasure, something only a woman or man with a PhD in psychology or psychiatry can correct.

He’s also a hypocrite.

In January of this year, on Bell Let’s Talk Day, this is what Simmons tweeted: “Everyone I know has been faced with a problem. His problem. Her problem. A friend. A relative. A colleague. No reason to hide anymore #BellLetsTalk please RT this and keep RTing all day long.”

We now know that sentiment to be as sincere as a politician’s election promise, because here he is skewering a man who was laid low with mental health issues for close to seven years.

I’m uncertain if Simmons has suffered blunt force trauma to the head (it’s a safe bet that he’s been dropped on his head, many times), but I know concussions. I’ve suffered 10 of them. I can relate to every symptom with which Savard has dealt. But I’ll allow him to tell you about it.

“I had these terrible headaches, and any loud noise or bright light was…I mean, it’s almost indescribable,” Savard wrote in a revealing article for The Players’ Tribune in May last year. “If you’ve never had a concussion, I don’t know if words can do the feeling justice. Every little noise is like nails on a chalkboard, and you feel this dread so deep down inside your body.

“So I pretty much lived a reverse lifestyle. I was in bed all day with the blinds closed, in total darkness, in total silence. Then I would get up at 11 p.m. and watch TV on mute, with the brightness turned way down. If somebody called to check on me, I didn’t want to talk. I can’t really explain it, but everything seemed so…what’s the word?

“I guess the word is daunting. Just the thought of talking to a friend on the phone seemed like a huge mental and almost physical effort. I was so irritable because of my symptoms that it was hard to be around people—even the people I loved.”

In a November 2016 interview with the Boston Globe, Savard had said much the same: “There was a couple of years there where I kind of went off the radar, but it was only because I wanted to get my health back and get everything straightened out.”

Yet Simmons’s massive ego is bruised because Savard doesn’t have him on speed dial. Boo freaking hoo.

Simmons is a disgrace and should be an embarrassment to Postmedia and TSN. He glorifies a convicted woman-beater—former boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.—and he eagerly advocates the signing of a confessed woman-beater—Johnny Manziel—to a Canadian Football League contract, yet he discredits Canada’s medal-winning Olympic curlers and figure skaters in the most-dismissive and derisive of terms. And now this, bullying a man once laid low by mental health challenges who’s finally finding his way back and doing the odd gig on Sportsnet.

Simmons often crosses the line of fair comment, but the Savard attack is so far out of bounds, so repulsive and gasp-inducing that it suggests he needs to be saved from himself.

If so, get him the help he requires. If not, how in hell does he keep his job?

Cale Makar isn’t a “damned fool”…Steve Simmons is

Editor’s Note: I vowed I wasn’t going to write this blog anymore. I was fini. I mean, it’s not like my voice is essential, or that I expect my views to sway opinion. The sports universe can, and will, unfold as it should with or without my two cents worth. But geez Louise, the media mooks have gotten to me. I can no longer ignore them. So I’m back. Sort of. Kind of. This might be a one-off. But I doubt it.

***

Quiz me this, kids: If a sports writer doesn’t appear to enjoy sports or many of the athletes who play kids’ games, should he be writing about sports and the athletes who play kids’ games?

I agree. He shouldn’t be.

Steve Simmons: Damned fool is in the doghouse again.

So why hasn’t anyone at Postmedia told Steve Simmons it’s time to sack his bats and go quietly into the night? Maybe find a hobby that doesn’t involve character crucifixion. I mean, the Tranna-based opinionist has fallen into a mosh pit of insulting, callous, demeaning, shameful, dismissive, bitter, unnecessary name-calling commentary. He doesn’t offer opinion so much as he delivers nasty. He isn’t a writer. He’s a hit man.

His latest victims are a fledgling, 19-year-old college kid and a group of amateur athletes who hold down daytime jobs and actually lose money in pursuit of sporting achievement and glory.

The college kid is Cale Makar, who, for reasons yet to be disclosed, reportedly declined an invitation to join the Canadian men’s hockey outfit for a few weeks of frolic at next month’s Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. For this, Simmons, without knowledge of the wherefore and why of Makar’s decision, calls the teenager “a damned fool.” It doesn’t matter if the young defenceman’s determination was based on counsel from his parents, his college leaders or his agent. Apparently a Postmedia columnist knows best. So the kid’s a “damned fool.”

Imagine that. Steve Simmons: Life coach. Who knew? And how utterly objectionable.

But there’s more.

Not satisfied with discrediting a teenager, the Postmedia mouthpiece has also put mixed doubles curling in his crosshairs. Admittedly a quirky event, it debuts as an Olympic discipline in PyeongChang, much to Simmons’ huffy disapproval.

It’s a recreational pursuit,” he harrumphs from his soapbox of sourpuss stirrings.

The winner of the men’s and women’s downhill at PyeongChang will get the same gold medal as the winners in mixed doubles curling. Doesn’t sit well with me,” he adds.

Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris: Steve Simmons doesn’t want them at the Olympics.

Well, excuse our Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris all to hell. The nerve of those two Olympic champions, turning a “recreational pursuit” into an Olympic dream. And, hey, it’ll be such bad manners if they earn the top step on the podium in South Korea and accept gold medals. Can’t have that in the world according to Steve Simmons. Daredevils of the downhill ski slopes are gold-worthy. The curlers? They’re lesser-thans. Give ’em trinkets made of tin foil, right Stevie?

Simmons is such a prig. His commentary is mean in spirit and gratuitous in nature and has become chronic.

Canada wins gold in Olympic hockey: Steve Simmons says get rid of it.

Some examples…

Marcus Stroman: Steve Simmons says he’s an annoying kid.

As for individuals, Kevin Durant is “gutless,” Venus Williams is “92 years old,” Marcus Stroman is an “annoying kid” who needs to “grow up,” Brooke Henderson also needs to “grow up,” John Farrell is a “traitor,” Phil Kessel is petty and “small,” Roger Goodell is a “flim-flam” man, Chad Ochocinco is a “big mouth,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

None of that is necessary, and the steady outpouring of gratuitous cheap shots should be an embarrassment to Simmons and Postmedia.

But no. He insists on wrapping himself in the robes of the villain scribe, assuming them to be garments of honor in a profession that supposedly values the tell-it-like-it-is posturing of the late Howard Cosell. Well, there’s nothing honorable about Simmons’ contrarian shtick. He doesn’t write with the skill, the cheek, the witty irreverence, the knowledge, or the delicate touch of those who came before him or many of his peers today. He comes at the reader with the sledgehammer of the unpolished practitioner, and it’s become tawdry, tiresome and tedious.

And nobody at Postmedia has noticed this? Damned fools.

 

The sports media dealing with social/political issues is nothing new

Stick to sports? Why?

Why should jock journalists and opinionists be limited to one-trick pony-ism, writing and gabbing about nothing other than wins and losses, home runs and touchdowns, free throws and three-pointers, and how much air there is in Tom Brady’s balls?

Sam Lacy, Dan Bankhead and Wendell Smith.

I mean, I’m guessing that if Twitter had been around in the 1930s and ’40s, Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith and other black sportswriters might have used their 140-character allotment to say something significant about segregation in baseball. Twitter didn’t exist back then, though. So they used newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American as pulpits from which to openly lobby for desegregation.

For example, when Major League Baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis died in 1944, Lacy used his Afro-American platform to scribble this about the appointment of Happy Chandler as MLB commish: “It appears that his choice was the most logical one for the bigoted major league operators, of which there is a heavy majority on hand.”

Similarly, in the chaotic 1960s, when young heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and became Cassius X then Muhammad Ali, (white) sports scribes refused to use his Muslim name in their copy (it wasn’t until October 1970, six years after the fact, that the New York Times issued a directive that sportswriters were to call him Muhammad Ali) and they weren’t shy about spicing their prose with biting social commentary re “Clay,” race and religion.

Here are two examples from New York columnist Jimmy Cannon:

The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of mass hate…Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.”

And…

Jimmy Cannon

I pity Clay and abhor what he represents. In the years of hunger during the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion.”

The noise became amplified, also more threatening and vicious, when the champ refused to step forward for induction into the United States military in 1967.

Red Smith, legendary New York columnist: “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”

Really? Those protesting the Vietnam War were “unwashed punks?”

Jim Murray, legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, who mocked Ali by calling him Abdul the Bull Bull Ameer: “Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of the greatest heroes in the history of his people, has decided to secede from the Union. He will not disgrace himself by wearing the uniform of the Army of the United States…From the safety of 103 years, he waves his fist at dead slave owners. Down to his last four Cadillacs, the thud of Communist jackboots holds no dread for him. He is in this country but not of it.”

Really? Dead slave owners and Communist jackboots in a sports column?

So, you see, when ESPN anchor Jemele Hill went off on Donald Trump on her personal Twitter account recently, calling the United States president a “white supremacist,” she wasn’t digging a shovel into fresh, unbroken ground. Social/political commentary in print and on air is older than the contract Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first black player in baseball’s major leagues. Do you think the names and words Jesse Owens, Adolph Hitler, Nazis and Aryan supremacy have never appeared in a sportswriter’s copy?

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star is among the elite wordsmiths in Canadian jock journalism today, but social/political commentary on his Twitter account heavily outweighs the sports content. Why would anyone find that objectionable?

Red Smith

I think it should be a personal decision, based partly on who employs you,” he said as a member of a Sports Illustrated panel. “But if you’re informed—or even just feel strongly about something—and you’re comfortable making your voice heard, then you should be able to say what you think. Sports are great, but they’re not the world. It’s okay to live in the world a little, too.”

On the night of the 2016 American presidential election, with Donald Trump winning the White House, Steve Simmons of Postmedia tweeted: “The saddest night in American history.” That is, of course, a totally illogical comment, especially coming from a non-American, but is he not allowed his emotional, if uninformed, opinion? Does it reflect on Simmons or Postmedia? I would submit the former rather than the latter, and numerous followers suggested he “stick to sports.”

If I have an issue with sports opinionists and their social/political commentary, it’s when they say nothing at all. Or when they’re inconsistent.

Ray Rice is pilloried for beating up one woman. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is given a pass on his thick file of repeated domestic violence. (I suppose the arrival of Johnny Manziel to a Canadian Football League outfit will be greeted with literary high fives.) That isn’t merely inexcusable, it’s the abandonment of responsible reporting.

Sports and politics/social activism are bedfellows, and to think otherwise is to live in a Utopian world. Social media has upped the ante, to be sure, but jock journos have always been there to write and talk about it. Usually in more than 140 characters.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

If newspapers don’t like pro sports franchises controlling the message, then do something about it

Let’s not be naive about this controlling-the-message business.

We all do it. Or at least we attempt to do it. Government does it. Coca-Cola does it. McDonald’s does it. General Motors does it. The Catholic church does it. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills do it. Parents do it. Professional sports franchises do it.

And—I hope this doesn’t come as a bulletin—newspapers do it, too. Every day.

peg papersWhat do you think is happening in most newsrooms in North America this very day? I’ll tell you what: Editors are gathering around a large table (or small, depending on the size of the sheet) and, either in person or via conference call, they’re deciding what message(s) to send to the great unwashed. Not only that, they are deciding how to torque said message, depending on the whims and biases of the editorial board and/or ownership.

A member of the Winnipeg Jets has a slight brush with the law?

Who’s the player?” a managing editor demands to know.

Patrik Laine,” the sports editor advises him.

Oh. We like him. He has 20 goals. We can’t bury a nice kid like Laine. We’ll bury the story instead. Report the facts but, remember, he’s just a kid. Kids make mistakes. Be gentle with him.”

There’s one more thing…Ondrej Pavelec was with Laine. They both got arrested.”

Perfect. Pavelec is in the minors now, so we don’t give a damn about him. There’s your lede—young, impressionable Laine’s being led astray by former Jets goaltender who once spent a night in jail on a drunk driving charge and kept it a secret from the club while negotiating a multi-million-dollar contract. We’ll bury Pavs.”

Yes, newspapers can be that deceitful and conniving, and the faster they get that click bait on their website the better.

There’s more.

Newspapers control the content in the Letters to the Editor section. They control the online comments that accompany articles to the point of censorship. The Winnipeg Free Press is forever running propaganda pieces about rising readership and circulation, even as print newspapers and their ink-stained employees throughout North America are falling like bowling pins. The Winnipeg Sun will do the same if the numbers are favorable.

Spin. It’s all about spin. Promoting and protecting the brand.

So, can newspapers tsk-tsk the Jets or Winnipeg Blue Bombers from dictating club spin and vigorously controlling the club message if the dailies are doing that very thing? Seems to me it’s a goose and gander situation.

In our 140-character, dot.com, Snapchat, Instagram world, the divorce rate between pro sports outfits and newspapers has advanced rapidly, and breaking up is not hard to do for the clubs. They have devised a method of spreading their gospel that is brilliant in its simplicity: Poach the best available print journalists from local rags and pay them to do the their official bidding on the team website. Presto! You’ve strengthened your product and lessened your reliance on theirs.

They won’t stop there, either. Pro sports franchises will find fresh ways to increase the disconnect between press row and their inner sanctums, thus making it more difficult for news scavengers to perform their duties.

newspapers2What must newspapers do to combat this? Well, bitching won’t help. They can caterwaul about lack of access as much as Jets’ coach Paul Maurice whinges about the National Hockey League schedule, but that doesn’t solve anything. They have to be innovative.

The way the Sun and Freep work the Jets and Bombers beats is dog-eared. Dated. They still cover the two clubs the way we did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It seemingly hasn’t occurred to them that the traditional game story died the moment a fan could reach into a pocket or purse and place a breaking news story in the palm of her or his hand. Really, is anyone waiting for a newspaper to land on their doorstep in the morning so they can read about something they watched and heard on a hand-held gadget 12 hours earlier?

Same old, same old doesn’t work in this push-the-send-button climate. Coverage needs to be more off-beat and upbeat, with more personality and cheek. Snappier and snazzier. More bloggish, if you will. Hit ’em with hot takes rather than an antiquated reliance on monotone, rehearsed quotes in a comatose post-game story that drones on. Have some fun with it, even if it puts noses in ivory towers out of joint.

And newspapers must remember that they have the greatest weapon of all in their arsenal—harsh truths.

Truth sells. Ditto opinion. Not the kind of lap-dog opinion that Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman or Bombers CEO Wade Miller want to read. We’re talking opinion that readers among the rabble want. Unvarnished, unharnessed and honest truths that you’ll never find on a club website.

Newspapers must stop choking on their indignation and feeling sorry for themselves. It isn’t up to pro sports franchises to revert to the old ways of doing business, it’s up to the newspapers to discover new and better ways of doing their business.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

Shhhhh…this is a press box…please don’t disturb the writers who are eating popcorn

Most people, I dare say, have not spent an afternoon or an evening in a press box, observing the little girls’ and boys’ games that big girls and boys play for great gobs of money or international acclaim.

So allow me to tell you a little something about the press box.

The press box, as I remember it, is generally occupied by gruff, hard-bitten, beer-swilling, middle-age wretches who failed miserably at sports and are now settling that score by writing nasty things about those who didn’t fail miserably at sports. And those are the female journalists. The men are unspeakable.

press-box2Again, as I recall, your basic male jock journo is white, middle-to-vintage in age, thinning on top, a confirmed heterosexual, unkempt, unfit (I’m being very kind when I say that), he’s dressed like he ought to be retired in Florida (with his pants hiked up to his arm pits), he’s usually seen filling his face with free popcorn or hot dogs (with the obligatory mustard drippings on his wrinkled golf shirt), and it’s not uncommon for him to be recovering from a hangover when he arrives at the rink or stadium for a night-time assignment.

There is nothing high brow about the male jock journo when observed in his natural habitat. As much as wry wit can be found in abundance in the press box, it is also a cesspool of irreverent, caustic, biting and ruthless humor. Adult humor. It would be rated R. You’d probably allow your 10-year-old daughter or son into a peep show before exposing her or him to three hours in a press box.

Seriously. If the scribes were to scribble what was said in the press box, they’d be sued, arrested or shot on sight. Yup, it’s that raunchy and raw.

Perhaps that’s changed. After all, I haven’t sat in a press box perch in almost 20 years.

I doubt it, though.

I mean, a football beat writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeff McLane, was ordered out of the press box during an Eagles game on Sunday because he was a loud-talker. Seriously, the guy got punted for being a loud-talker.

Now, I realize that the so-called City of Brotherly Love has a rep for being less than a warm-and-fuzzy locale. It was said long ago that the citizenry of Philly go to the airport just to boo bad landings. But come on. They kick a guy out of the press box for being a loud-talker? That’s like telling Santa he can’t go on his annual gift run because he’s fat and jolly. Santa is supposed to be fat and jolly. He has to be fat and jolly. And a male sports scribe has to be loud.

Well, okay, I suppose a case could be made that a male jock journo need not be loud. But trust me, he is. It’s in his press box DNA. So is being obnoxious.

I don’t pretend to know exactly what went down between McLane and the Eagles public relations staff on the Sabbath. I wasn’t there. But I’m quite certain that there was more at play than the Inquirer reporter being a loud-talker. There had to be.

Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press has addressed the larger issue of professional sports teams attempting to control the message by eliminating the naysayers and those in the Fourth Estate who dare ask the difficult, uncomfortable and challenging questions, and I don’t think he’s far off the mark. Actually, he’s likely spot on.

The question I ask is this: Does anyone really care if the press box is full or empty?

Not likely. Among the rabble, there is little sympathy for the devil and, quite frankly, I’m not sure that the girls and boys on the beat should care if they’re sitting in the press box or not. I mean, is the free popcorn really that good? If it is and that means writing fluff, will the last jock journo to leave the press box please remember to turn out the lights?

What does a press pass for the Winnipeg Jets actually get a news scavenger these days? Access? I suppose that depends on your definition of access. To the Jets, access is making a player available to say “we just have to keep our feet moving and play the right way.” Then some PR flunky arrives to rescue him from the indignity of a post-game interrogation. To the jock journo, that isn’t access. It’s a waste of time.

John Ferguson
John Ferguson

The most interesting insight in Wiecek’s excellent piece was confirmation of something many of us already knew or suspected—the Puck Pontiff, Mark Chipman, is a control freak of the highest rank. The way the Freep sports columnist tells it, the Jets’ co-bankroll is known for his in-game temper tantrums and, for fear a scribe might alert the rabble the next time he holds his breath and stomps his little feet, the Puck Pontiff banished the print posse to the press box outback. They’re now in a different area code and time zone than His Hockey Holiness’s bunker. Ballsy move by Wiecek, especially given that the Drab Slab is the official newspaper of the Jets. Whatever access he already didn’t have, he’ll have even less. Not that he should care.

John Ferguson didn’t worry about crap like that back in the day. His atomic explosions as Jets general manager are as legendary as his fists during his playing days as one of the toughest hombres in National Hockey League history. At worst, he would wince if we wrote about him dumping a bucket of ice on the Buffalo Sabres’ bench or kicking/punching holes in the walls of his bunker on press row, but he usually greeted us with an embarrassed wink and a grin.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.