“Sorry, beat writers only,” says the media guy, standing guard at the New York Giants practice field two week ago. “Nothing personal, but as we get into the season, practice gets pretty sacred around here. Even Paul Zimmerman couldn’t get in.”Not even the fabled “Dr. Z,” Sports Illustrated‘s fearless football forecaster? Surely McMag’s chief tout would crash these hallowed gates, if he thought it might help him improve his lackluster record. But what could he glean from such
an anemic club’s practice standards anyway–that the line’s having trouble blocking? For that matter, what pearls would a spy disguised as a reporter for an alternative weekly pass on to a breathlessly awaiting rival coaching staff if he wanted to–that the Giants may run the ball up the middle?
“It’s just the paranoid nature of our sport,” a football PR honcho, explains later. “The fear is that something that happens in practice gets passed along.” The flack goes on to relate how one beat writer had almost blown it for all the others recently by misguidedly posting team practice info on a Web site, “four days before a game.”
After a miserable loss to Tampa Bay, security grew even tighter at the Meadowlands last Wednesday, as Giants workouts were moved indoors. The reasoning, according to team officials, was that Atlanta spies were rumored to be in the area, possibly perched on surrounding high-rise buildings. As a New York Post regular had earlier told an incredulous–albeit, barred–visitor: “You have to remember, it’s football, not real life.”
You could blame it on the fact that there’s only one game a week, just 16 games in a season, but, due in large part to pro football’s dictatorial hand, the sport’s everyday writing suffers from agonizing drudgery. Leaking a flea-flicker or two may not right the endless reams of pap overnight, but loosening the reins would go a long way toward sparing us the minimally informative junk that serves as coverage these days. Sidelines are off-limits, canned press conferences yield little, and players are programmed to be as careful with what they say as writers are with what they ask. “Reporters are trying to make a living, and you respect that,” says Jets well-travelled linebacker Bryan Cox of press coverage. “But with each city you get to know who to avoid, who not to talk to and why.”
Following the Giants practice, starting tackle Roman Oben shakes his head after politely finishing an interview. “Sports people ask you the dumbest questions,” he says, “like, ‘What’s going on in your mind?’ Since 10 different people have 10 different versions of basically the same story, you get used to repetitive questions, but sometimes it’s abrasive.”
As is Bill Parcells, when he barks from his bully pulpit that he’s “tired of reading this shit” (postgame Sunday, re the endless Jets starting QB controversy). But Parcells ignores the fact that (1) as coach, he’s created and fueled this issue from the get-go and that (2) by closing practices to everyone and forbidding his own assistant coaches to be interviewed, he seriously limits, to his own ends of course, an already narrow reportorial scope. The result is sport as tiresome to read about as it is to cover.
“If I were a sports editor,” says Daily News columnist Filip Bondy, “I would stop assigning that many pages to the damn thing [football]. Everything, including what I write, is entirely unreadable. The way it’s organized, it’s a bad-writing sport.” Bondy sees sports “write-ability” as “inversely proportional to the amount of equipment–in football, personalities get swallowed whole.”
“It’s difficult,” admits veteran Times football scribe Gerald Eskenazi, up in the stratospheric new Giants Stadium press box. “You’d think a team would like the public reading about its players with an open hand. We’re writing in a vacuum.”
Far down below, Jets and Dolphins cavort like toy soldiers, seemingly as far off as the distant Jersey oil refineries, now in panoramic view. Moments earlier a stats man had announced that Keith Byars’s five-yard reception, on a swing pass, was his 588th, making him the leading running-back receiver of all time. So removed from the action, beat writers depend on statistics, especially nuggets like this one. For a lot of people and a lot of papers, Byars will be the story, or at least, one story.
“You don’t want to miss what’s important,” says Eskenazi, adding that sports editors often thirst to know what other papers are going with, so as not to be left out. The process then becomes formulaic: coach gets asked about or singles out player, press seeks out same for follow-up–“like bees to pollen,” says Eskenazi. Stories are “repetitive,” he agrees, but that’s not necessarily bad, “since our journalistic instincts often follow the same lines and what legitimately may be the story.”
Like the ongoing saga of who calls signals for the Jets? Eskenazi explains that when he was a novice, fellow Times writer Dave Anderson gave him some advice: “When in doubt, do the quarterback. It’s the sexiest position in all of sports.” After the Jets’ win over Miami, the Times does indeed highlight the QBs–Marino’s failure, Testaverde’s success–as do all the other dailies (in his column, Anderson does Byars). On Tuesday, the locals all return to the pressing question of who’ll start the next game, Testaverde or Foley–a focus that makes for a predictably cranky Parcells: “[I’ll] just go back to what I see for that week, and just go. If that bothers anybody, that’s the way it is.”
Bondy, who goes with Testaverde in his Monday game column, says it’s unfair to blame writers for the sameness and heaviness of football writing: “It’s not a sport that brings lightness. It’s a fascist spectacle that takes itself very seriously. We’ve become pests, but when you have other sports where inPidualism is permitted, like tennis or soccer, there’s more stuff to grab hold of.”
Bob Drury, who covered the Giants for the Post in the early ’80s, concurs. “Even with an autocrat like Pat Riley,” he says, “you get to know the players. In football, they’re cut out of the equation. Everything is filtered ex officio through coaches and GMs. I feel sorry for desolate beat writers who are at the mercy of monotone, jargon-spouting coaches with all the personality of Al Haig.”
Drury says he long ago foresaw the coming of Ray Perkins and Jim Fassel types (former and current Giant coaches) and the gradual decline of eminently more-quotable mavericks like Al Davis and Mike Ditka. But listening to a writer who once traveled with the team conjures up a kinder, gentler era of football coverage. “I used to smoke dope with a starter,” Drury recalls. “I don’t think that could happen now.”
Not likely, though the image alone of a blustery Parcells dealing with such news–now there’d be a story.