Monday, January 30, 2017

Meatless Soundbite Sliders with a Side Order of Blah

Many Patriots fans, sensitive souls that they are, are convinced the national sports media has it in for their team. This is untrue. All dynasties breed criticism just as they earn praise. It's part of the deal and should be welcomed by the dynasty's fans as a proof of its power.

It is true, however, that national reporters in Houston this week for Super Bowl 51 will approach New England interview sessions with a sinking sense of desperation and no little despair. When a team is in its 7th championship game in 16 years, what on earth new are you supposed to write or say about them?

This isn't an issue for New England or Atlanta writers and broadcasters. Their audience can't get enough information on their heroes and the villains on the other side of the ball. This makes for a week of hard work, but at least you know people are reading/watching that work. That's the most reassuring thing in journalism.

But for the out of town neutral media, which is about 90 percent of the total, the issue is quite different. Their audience is in two parts, stone cold pro football fans and a larger total of casual fans for whom the Super Bowl is as much social rite as sports event. Those folks want to know enough not to look like saps at parties come Sunday, but not much more. They may really be unaware of Bill Belichick's life and times except that he wears a hoodie and doesn't smile much. How to being them up to speed without boring oneself to death, or worse, repeating what you wrote/said for Super Bowls 36, 38, 39, 42, 46 and 49?

There are two solutions to that problem. You can make a pitch to the stone cold fans with the straight x and o approach. As every season is different from every other, there are some new Pats features of interest for those readers who have bookmarked Football Outsiders, know what DVOA is and pretend to know something about interior line play. In order of their important to New England's 2016 season, they are the revival of the offensive line under Dante Scarnecchia (a great quote BTW and I urge my former peers to jump on this one, it'll get one day off your schedule), the ability of the whole offense to compensate for the loss of Rob Gronkowski and the improvement of the defense after the trade of Jamie Collins. The last of those has already been done by the Wall Street Journal, but the Super Bowl is no place for originality. Trust me, with 2000 media on hand, nobody can come up with an exclusive angle.

A few national NFL beat guys and commentators will take that approach, but only a few. The others will have bosses who'll remind them that fans with a passion for that sort of thing are a small minority, and that they've been sent to Houston to drive up clicks and ratings, damn it. This will inevitably lead to the Super Bowl "controversy" non-story in which 1000 reporters all dutifully ask the same stupid questions of the same three or four people.

I don't know what Matt Ryan thinks of Tom Brady, but he'll probably hate him come Sunday after being asked to compare himself to him a bazillion times this week. Will Scott Pioli and Tom Dimitroff be asked to tell the world what Belichick is really like? You bet! Frequently.

But that'll be nothing to the biggest non-story of all. Brady, one of the all-time greats of the game, will spend the next four days evading questions on his relationships with a) NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and b) President Donald Trump.

Brady's a good ducker on and off the field, so I'm confident no reporter will get a sniff of a sack. The Goodell questions are totally legitimate. He's a player Goodell suspended four games on the flimsiest grounds imaginable. He can and should be asked what he thinks about that.

But the Trump questions to come will be unimaginably stupid and tedious. Personally, I have as much interest in Brady's political opinions as he has in mine. Don't know. Don't care. I realize celebrities who enter the political arena are fair game there, but there's a time and place for everything, and the offseason is the time to prod Brady about his life off the field, not the damn Super Bowl.

For me, it's a matter of professional pride. Any news or political reporter who asks Trump what he thinks of the Super Bowl this week (you know one will) stands revealed as a foof, a fraud, somebody cheating their audience and dodging the demands of their job with an easy out.

The reverse is true for sports journalism. Sometimes sports and the real world intertwine, as with the NFL concussion issue. A reporter must be serious, a columnist must take a moral position. But we shouldn't go dragging the real world into the mundane story of Star Quarterback Faces Super Bowl. That's just as lazy as "who do ya like Sunday, Mr. President?"

Dear distinguished former fellow colleagues. Do the hard work of trying to make the Pats more interesting to your readers than they are. Don't coast on dragging a controversial pol into the Super Bowl just because you can. Suck it up and ask Brady about Julian Edelman and Marcellus Bennett.

You'll feel a lot better looking in the mirror next Monday morning.


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