With one click of the Send button last week, New York Times football writer Mike Freeman ignited a firestorm of controversy about the attitudes, behavior, and even reliability of some members of the New York City sports press corps. Writing an impassioned open letter to Sportspages.com, a Web site widely read in the industry, Freeman described an environment of backstabbing, sabotage, racism, and sexism that can leave writers, especially black and female ones, feeling isolated, smeared, and distrustful. “In New York,” Freeman wrote, “writers have elevated the sport of nastiness to Olympic levels, fabricating stories about competitors to the team officials they cover, portraying black writers as lackeys for black athletes, and treating some women reporters as an inferior species.”
And, he alleged, it’s an atmosphere that ought to make back-page aficionados wonder if they’re getting an accurate story when they pick up the morning paper: “Increasingly, the ugliness between writers in New York is beginning to leap onto the pages, doing a disservice to the readers we are beholden to.”
In particular, Freeman accused five Jets beat writers—Rich Cimini of the Daily News, Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post, Bob Glauber of Newsday, Randy Lange of The Bergen Record, and Barry Wilner of the Associated Press—of deliberately setting out to disprove a quote from Jets coach Al Groh that Freeman was alone in reporting. (The quote in question, which came from an unnamed Jets player, had Groh saying, “The nation is watching a bunch of pathetic losers.”) “The writers decided among themselves,” Freeman said in his letter, “that the quote was inaccurate and, as a group, also decided they were going to get Groh to deny it.”
Each of the five reporters vehemently denied this behavior to the Voice. “It was not portrayed accurately, in my mind,” says Newsday‘s Glauber. “There was no conspiracy about this quote. . . . I am deeply, deeply offended by Mr. Freeman’s accusations and I am embarrassed for the entire press corps.” The Post‘s Cannizzaro says he “was really taken aback because I’ve known Mike a long time, and have always treated him like a gentleman and he’s treated me like a gentleman. . . . Personally, the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that his facts were wrong with regards to the incident that he brought up.”
One of the accused writers, the Record‘s Lange, did verify part of Freeman’s Sports- pages.com account. In it, Freeman wrote, “[The AP’s] Wilner even said, ‘I’ve had to chase a bunch of Times football stories. I think this is a good time to stick it to them for once.” Of that, Lange says, “Wilner’s quote was accurate to my knowledge, but even that was taken slightly out of context because there was no effort to ‘get Mike.’ ”
No one contacted by the Voice could corroborate Freeman’s specific allegation against the Jets beat writers, and he has not revealed his sources. But in extensive interviews with the Voice many writers not only verified his descriptions of racism, sexism, and vindictiveness, but expressed satisfaction at seeing them made public.
“I felt this tremendous surge of relief because I felt like I wasn’t the only one,” says a female journalist who asked not to be named.
“I was happy he wrote it,” agrees Mike Wilbon, a columnist for The Washington Post, who’s a friend of Freeman’s and was complimented in his Web post. “It took a lot of courage. We don’t have a watchdog in our business, and we need one. We dissect everybody else’s business and we don’t have anybody look critically at ours. So I’m glad he did it.”
Wilbon, who like Freeman is black, says he’s witnessed incidents of backstabbing and bigotry in the business. “You get wind of it. Sometimes a player will tell you, ‘Hey, you ought to know what’s going on.’ ” It happens elsewhere, too, Wilbon says, but in his experience, not with the venom that it does in New York. “A lot of out-of-towners, they know it’s true. When they cover stuff in New York, they see it,” he says.
“It took great courage to point out a lot of that behavior in the press box,” says Tara Sullivan, a general assignment reporter for The Bergen Record, who’s known Freeman since her days at the Daily News several years back. Especially, Sullivan points out, since press-box rumormongering can affect people’s very livelihoods. Reputations make and break journalists. “Unfortunately it does make a big difference,” she says. “It’s a huge word-of-mouth business. You don’t read ‘New York Yankees beat writer wanted’ in the classifieds. It’s all word of mouth, and you kind of need to be in the network to advance in the network.”
Word of mouth on Freeman, depending on whom you ask, is that he’s either an excellent journalist who takes reporting extremely seriously, or a “paranoid” writer who clearly has significant “insecurities” about his role in New York.
“He’s an outsider,” says the Record‘s Lange. “And he wants it that way, from what I understand. That’s his method.”
It’s a charge others scoff at. “Freeman’s more of an insider to what goes on than half those guys because of his work ethic,” says a New York-based journalist who requested anonymity. As for the descriptions of life in the press box, the source continues: “It was exactly how he said it. And he missed a lot, too.”
Freeman’s accounts of the travails of black sportswriters come from first-hand experience. As he explains to the Voice, “I’ve been told by officials on teams that I’ve covered that other writers have used race as a way to belittle the scoops that I’ve gotten.” The Washington Post‘s Wilbon backs him up, suggesting that white writers complain that they’re excluded from the good scoops. “I’ve had people say that to my face: ‘You can get those stories because you’re black.’ I say, ‘That’s interesting, because last I checked the coach and all his assistants are white. What are you talking about? Why can’t you get that? What, are you excluded from that, too?’ ”
When he was just starting at The Dallas Morning News, Freeman, who has also worked at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, says a veteran reporter there made reference to him while on the phone. “He said, ‘Hey, we got our new affirmative action nigger today.’ That was my third day on the job. I went around the partition and said, ‘Hi, I just want to introduce myself, I’m the new affirmative action nigger.’ ”
The difference in New York, says Freeman, is that the resentment and prejudice are more insidious here—rumormongering and efforts to discredit replace in-your-face bigotry. And, he tells the Voice, the situation for women reporters is “10 times worse.”
In Sportspages.com, he wrote: “In New York, if a female writer is having a conversation with a player in the locker room, the two must be making dinner plans, or so go the rumors.” It’s an allegation that several sources have backed up for the Voice. In one example of press-box sexism, Freeman described an instance of baseball-beat writers watching pornography on their computers during a game. When a woman writer objected, according to Freeman, one of the male writers loudly rebuked her. The Record‘s Sullivan confirms having witnessed this scene.
Several female sportswriters also echoed other Freeman contentions. They described an environment in which their ability to do their job is sometimes questioned, in which smear campaigns about their personal relationships with players and professional tactics have been conducted, and in which they’re at times expected to sit back and enjoy sexist or off-color jokes.
“I sympathize with what he’s saying,” Newsday columnist Johnette Howard tells the Voice. “It’s not that different in some regards from what women go through. I think some black guys are thought to have an advantage with black athletes because they’re black. It’s the same with women. Again and again you hear, ‘Oh, he’s just talking to you because you’re a girl.’ ”
Sports Illustrated‘s Jeff Pearlman adds: “There are definitely writers out there who, when they see a minority or woman writer, jump to the conclusion that they aren’t as good or as qualified or both. You hear rumors about some woman writer or radio personality who slept with so-and-so or did something to get where she is.”
Of course, no matter how many sources confirm Freeman’s general concerns, the fact remains that he took an unpopular step by going public. One that even some of his supporters had concerns about. And one, some argue, that amounts to airing minor job complaints in an inappropriate manner.
Freeman’s letter, says the News‘ Rich Cimini, one of the five accused writers, only reveals “petty stuff that really has no news value for anyone else to read.” Baltimore Sun columnist Don Markus—who responded to Freeman on Sportspages.com’s message board, advising him to quit the New York scene—told the Voice, “Whenever sportswriters complain about their working conditions, the reader doesn’t care.”
But some journalism veterans welcomed Freeman’s action. “These things very seldom get aired,” says Sandy Padwe, an associate professor at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. “Well, I’m glad that he aired them. There’s no reason why the press box should be insulated. Why is the press box any less open for discussion?”
As for what the Web posting means for Freeman, some of his colleagues worry about his job and reputation. “I don’t know if it’ll change a lot of people’s opinions of him,” says Sullivan. “People who want to think poorly of him probably feel now like they have a lot more ammunition. People who already have respect for him, like myself, now just feel like we have even more. The bottom line is, Mike is a fantastic reporter, and he’s really, really good at his job. A lot of people feel threatened by that. If you’re good at your job you become a target.”
Especially, according to many, if you are black or female in an overwhelmingly white male industry. “And I know Mike’s felt that way for a long time,” concludes Sullivan. “And I think he just felt like it was enough. And I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him at all.”