September 5, 2006

On Media: Nice sports columnists finish last

For The Courier-Journal’s newest sports columnist, nice ain’t gonna cut it. Today there’s too much media competition, too many tough stories to cover, too many Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds, too many situations where politics (see: Louisville Arena story) play a part for a local sports columnist to play nice.

If Eric Crawford is going to really make a name for himself, he has to make folks squirm.

Sports is a great spot for nice guys in journalism. The toughest part about being a beat writer for a college team (Crawford’s most recent assignment) is the drudgery of attending practices and press conferences, and digesting the game-day buffet. The job is to be there every day, hang out with the hangers-on who invariably hang around the team, and deliver witty copy. No real risk of hurting feelings.

But columnists, they’re the guys most likely to tell people things they don’t want to hear.

Crawford seems like a nice guy, but that’s an adjective he doesn’t want attached to his name (along with wishy-washy, reticent or shy). But the question about him is this: The next time Bobby Petrino is rumored to be a candidate for a new job, or when Rich Brooks loses to Tennessee by 60, or when he’s on the receiving end of that Tom Jurich stare, will he stand up and ask the next tough question?

I spoke to a former C-J sports editor about all this. Billy Reed was there from 1977-1986, at a time when locals really took sides in the UK-U of L debate. UK refused to play U of L in basketball. We needed a voice to inflame passions, and Billy was it. He played up cultural differences — urban vs. rural; Hall vs. Crum; and too often, black vs. white.

That was the big story, and there were no blogs, radio shows or sports weeklies taking on the topic. Reed has high hopes for Crawford.

“He is, like his dad (C-J columnist Byron Crawford), a nice guy,” Reed says. “Can he develop a tough skin? He doesn’t have to be antagonistic or off the wall, but does he have the courage of his convictions? If Mitch Barnhart screws up at UK, you have got to say so. You have to have opinions, and they have to be grounded in fact.”

Those convictions have to be based on fact and freely given on a frequent basis, Reed says. Crawford’s predecessor, Jerry Brewer, failed to spark much passion in his columns. Other than a spat with Petrino, he didn’t get much traction with the public.

While he could have been the one putting the heat on the folks ramrodding the U of L arena, Brewer and fellow columnist Rick Bozich took a head-in-the-sand approach, largely leaving the most important sports story of the past year to the news pages.

Maybe Brewer wasn’t here long enough. The Paducah native was the C-J’s first African-American sports columnist, and the position seemed a steppingstone on an ambitious career path. He got the C-J job after stints in Philly and Orlando, and left for a presumably better deal in Seattle, all before his 30th birthday.

Crawford, on the other hand, is our kind of guy. His dad is familiar to C-J readers. Eric spent three years as the U of L beat writer, and paid his journalism dues in Evansville. He grew up following local sports and can surely rattle off the starting five of UK’s 1978 national champions from memory.

He’s got a lot of media competition, though, and one of his challenges is to remain relevant in a society bombarded with other opinions. Start with the blogsphere, which has attracted the sports-obsessed, die-hard segment of the population. I can’t figure out why this is such a coveted demographic, but there are legions of them, apparently. Just at U of L, there is the Louisville Sports Report and Inside the Ville, competing for those fans’ attention in print, online and broadcast ventures. Lachlan McLean’s nightly radio call-in show on WHAS is another outlet for the get-a-life crowd.

Coaches are even getting into the mix. Rick Pitino’s Web site broke one of the biggest sports stories of the off-season — the coach revealed that guard Andre McGee was hospitalized for dehydration. Apparently unsatisfied with media accounts of his team, Pitino’s reports (reportedly transcribed and posted by U of L VP Kenny Klein) are finely detailed assessments of the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Sort of like what beat writers are supposed to do.

All of this doesn’t mean “sports columnist” isn’t the most important voice in the sports media landscape. It’s just tougher than it used to be.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com