Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Plea to Sports Journalists Who Think They’re Good at Their Jobs

To local and national sports journalists, sportscasters, and sports television/radio personalities everywhere,

I started swimming when I was almost seven years old and swam all the way through college (don’t look me up – I wasn’t very good). I was one of my only friends who was a swimmer. Most of them played football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, baseball, tennis, etc. The big name sports. I grew up competing in a sport no one understood and not a lot of people cared about but that never bothered me. It’s pretty boring to watch most of the time. People can’t fathom why someone would want to put themselves through going back and forth a thousand times between two walls, staring at a black line in a cold pool. I’m not quite sure why I found so much pleasure in doing that, either.

But every four years, this often forgotten sport makes it semi-big time and I’m sure I’m not the only former swimmer who schedules her entire week around watching the coverage. NBC puts eight days of Olympic Trials in prime-time slots and gives it fair coverage during the Olympics-much more in Beijing than previous Olympics thanks to Michael Phelps. Phelps’ quest for eight gold medals made a lot more people interested, invested and care about swimming.

But you guys? You ‘covered’ it, but only because you had to. You wrote a couple commentaries and some basic sports stories, but that’s about it. A few of you wrote some great stuff [thank you!]. But for the most part, your coverage – well, it really sucked. It was horrible. It was clear then, and even more so today with Olympic Trials taking place this week, that you just don’t understand swimming. But what offends me is that you don’t care that you don’t understand swimming.

You put in a lot of effort and time to learn the intricacies of the other sports you cover on an hourly basis. The research you do to uncover interesting and relevant statistics are nothing short of fascinating. With all this information you create engaging stories that fans and non-sports fans (er, me) get excited about and then they tune in to see how it plays out. And yet, I’d say only a handful of sports reporters have taken the time to make an attempt to understand swimming so they can craft those same kinds of stories that resonate with avid fans and the average person.

I worked in my university’s sports information office for two years after graduating from college. I was responsible for covering soccer, basketball, crew, swimming and lacrosse. I had to work my ass off to understand these sports because I knew absolutely nothing them. I had no idea how I was going to write game stories that actually made sense to people who knew the sport when I didn’t. In one of my first basketball stories I wrote: “Bob Smith from XYZ College tried to make a shot but it didn’t go in, so Joe Johnson from ABC University grabbed the ball mid-air and ran down the court with it.” I was really impressed with myself for using ‘mid-air’; the coach was not at all impressed that I didn’t just call it a rebound. 

Now I know how that coach felt. Reading your stories about swimming make me cringe. I read one story where the headline said a girl had narrowly missed making the Olympic team, but as I read on I learned she had finished 23rd in the event, not even qualifying for semifinals (top 16 in most events). Only the top two people make the Olympic team, so 23rd isn’t that close. Just because her time was only three seconds off the eventual winner, that’s 300 one-hundredths* of a second. In a sport like swimming, that’s a lot of time. One one-hundredth* makes all the difference – just ask Milorad Cavic from Serbia, who lost the 100m butterfly by that margin to Phelps in 2008.

“Well, the title made you read the story, right?” “Who wants to read about a girl who apparently missed an Olympic berth by so much?” I hear you. My issue isn’t with the headline, it’s with the story itself. Why not find out if it was the girl’s career best time? Why not mention the team(s) she swims for? Why not frame it in a way that says even though she didn’t make it, finishing 23rd is an incredible accomplishment? Out of every swimmer in the country who competes in that event, she is essentially ranked 23rd. That’s pretty damn good. So instead of the 90-word blurb this sports reporter wrote, maybe spend a hot minute finding a way to make it a story, something a lot of you do really well with the bigger sports. All this would take is a little investigating and caring enough about your job as a sports (ALL sports) reporter.

After me ranting about this for the last 800 words, here’s my point: Take the time to learn about sports – and I’m not just talking about swimming, but the other smaller sports – so you can, at the very least, cover them in a way that is interesting to fans and the average person. Do your job and homework. Talk to someone who understands the sport really well and learn from them. I’m not asking you to invest even a fraction of the time you spend collecting stories, stats, and interesting tidbits about LeBron James or Tim Tebow. I’m asking for 16 days every four years of quality swimming coverage where I feel like you actually care about covering it.

I know in sports the hours are relentless. It’s a 24/7 job and a lot of you "just don’t have the time to commit to learning about every sport in great detail." What sets great journalists apart from the others who want to be great is the former do what it takes to do their jobs well because it's that little extra they put in to everything they do that makes them stand out in the crowd.

My second plea is to NBC: I think I speak for most swimmers and fans when I ask you to put Rowdy Gaines on the deck and get Andrea Kramer out of the natatorium and as far away from the pool as possible. Her questions to swimmers make my skin crawl. Most of the time I can tolerate her when she covers other sports, but not in swimming. I truly believe the coaches do two things before sending these elite athletes to the blocks for the final heat: they give them last-minute advice and encouragement, and they prep them on how to deal with her questions and how not to laugh on camera. Ryan Lochte looked like it literally pained him to talk to her after Wednesday night’s race because her questions were so wretched. Get another (former?) swimmer to help out with the color commentary and send Rowdy poolside, because he is the difference between providing great coverage and mediocre coverage (at best).

*Thanks to @dkutrufis21 for pointing out that swimmers don't use milliseconds to describe time, but hundredths, tenths, etc. (Five years out of competitive swimming has left me a little rusty on terminology!) Even the critical should be open to being criticized.

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