Mike Freeman isn’t the most popular guy in the press box. And he’s perfectly happy about it. Over the last eight years, the New York Times football writer has amassed an impressive body of work, combining perceptive, enterprising beat-style coverage with real Woodward-and-Bernstein stuff. (His 1999 investigation into an NFL drug-test-suppression-for-collective-bargaining-concessions deal began with an anonymous phone call and ended with five months of research.) But the thing that’s attracted the most attention over the last 12 months, and made him the Village Voice‘s Sports Journalist of the Year, was his whistle-blowing about conditions within the world of sports journalism.
Freeman’s year of writing dangerously began with ESPN: The Uncensored History, published this spring by Taylor. The book chronicled the network’s rise as a cultural and journalistic force, but also explored a disturbing pattern of sexual harassment, subtle racism, and overarching corporate arrogance. More than five years in the making, it was hardly a story that laid itself bare, with sources naturally reluctant to be named for fear of reprisal. And after reading about how female producers had to trade sexual favors for time in the editing room, it’s hard to watch SportsCenter the same way again.
Needless to say, the powers that be in Bristol were none too happy when Freeman’s exposé hit the shelves. They mounted what Freeman describes as a smear campaign, with ESPN flacks calling critics and trashing both him and the book. “Some of the stuff they said was just untrue,” he recalls. “They sent an e-mail that said that I wanted to see personnel records, things like that, to make me look like this wild, irresponsible, crazy reporter. I expect IBM to do that, I expect the CIA to do that. I don’t expect a network that prides itself on being journalistically sound to do that.” But not all the reaction was negative—ESPN’s offices and studios are now reportedly wallpapered with notices about sexual harassment.
Freeman’s next volley came on the Web. In November, on Sportspages.com, he posted an open letter that revealed the dark side of life in the press box. Naming names, he chronicled the backstabbing, sexism, and racism that’s as much a part of sports journalism as wrinkled Dockers and cold hot dogs. “The one thing that led me to do what I did is that sports journalism is the least policed arm of our business,” he explains. “When sportswriters watch pornography in the press box and a woman reporter complains, and then they curse out the woman reporter, there’s no forum for them to be held accountable for their actions.” Indeed when an athlete is caught behaving like this—as in the Lisa Olson story that Freeman broke while at The Boston Globe (in which several pro football players were found to be sexually harassing the then-Herald reporter)—it’s front-page news.
In his Sportspages salvo, Freeman also described how some of his fellow football beat writers would rather trash a reporter who scooped them than work harder the next time. The case he related was his own, where a band of Jets writers set out to get head coach Al Groh to deny a juicy quote that Freeman was alone in reporting. Freeman’s broader contention is that this kind of defensive journalism, combined with the inappropriate coziness between some reporters and their sources, often puts personal agendas ahead of unbiased reporting. And it wasn’t the first time it happened to him. “When I was on the Giants beat,” he laughs, “there was a writer who, if I wrote that the sky is blue, he would write, ‘Contrary to published reports, the sky is green.’ ”
In the claustrophobic world of sports journalism, his allegations have provoked more of a buzz than the six-packs Freeman has seen writers sneak into the press box. “Strangers will come up to me and say, ‘I’m glad you did what you did,’ ” he says. “And I’ll go to another press box and someone will say, ‘Why did you do that? Was it necessary to air our dirty laundry?’ ” Perhaps the most positive outcome of Freeman’s going public has been a serious initiative to create a black sports-journalists organization, which would battle the double standards on the beat.
Ironically, life on that beat has been pretty much business as usual for Freeman. “Since I’ve written that thing, not one of the people I’ve written about has said a word to my face,” Freeman reports. “People have asked me ‘How are you holding up?’ I’m not holding up from anything. I was never friends with any of those guys. I didn’t speak to them anyway, except for ‘hi-bye.’ Now there’s just no ‘hi-bye.’ ” And that’s quite all right with the year’s most controversial journalist. —Allen St. John
See Also: Media Blitz by Joanna Cagan
‘Times’ Sportswriter Goes Public With a Controversial Press-Box Critique