Super Conflicted

The uncomfortable boosterism in media.
The uncomfortable boosterism in media.

Two summers ago, I was on my feet at Safeco Field only because it was the only way to see. As Felix Hernandez was putting the finishing touches on a perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012, the woman next to me began to weep. Her boyfriend turned to me and said, in a concerned tone, “It’s OK to look happy about this.”

But I struggled with that sentiment, as I did last night, after returning home from watching the Super Bowl with my parents. “Congratulations!” said a friend, who watched the game with my wife. I felt odd about not brightening up, but not as odd as I would have felt fist-bumping my friend over my hometown Seahawks’ 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XVLIII.

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It was the same super confliction I felt when my friend, the late Carl Ervin, invited me to participate in an anniversary celebration of my high school’s state basketball championship. “You were as big a part of it as anybody,” he said.

The first thing that flashed in my mind was, “But I was just the guy who wrote about it.”

I was “just” the sportswriter, the journalist. The chronicler. In my day, that used to mean remaining a layer or two disassociated from the thrill of victory or agony of defeat. It meant not being self-indulgent and celebratory while writing about a win, and not angry and vindictive while recounting a loss.

Back then, the journalistic equivalent of a selfie used to be any story in which the pronoun “I” appeared. Today, I’m not sure if social media is the chicken or the egg, but the Internet is fraught with self-shuttered photos of reporters at events they are covering. It seems like a lot of those images are from sporting events. I’m not sure if it only feels like that because of my longtime profession and the fact that I’m not combing the Web for, say, pictures of entertainment reporters from the red carpet at the Oscars. Still, I can’t imagine the national political correspondents for the Washington Post or New York Times posting selfies from the victorious Obama campaign headquarters (though, of course, there’s Obama’s own infamous selfie from the Mandela funeral).

In some ways, I can relate to the journalistic selfie impulse. Journalists are supposed to be pulling back the curtain for readers/viewers/listeners/followers. What makes me wonder is the insertion of self into the behind-the-scenes snaps. Then again, this isn’t just the generation of Facebook and Twitter, it’s an era of Photoshop and email spoofing – where “being real” is sometimes impossible to prove. Maybe including one’s self in a photo is like imposing a stamp of authenticity; I just feel like the root of the gesture is more narcissistic.

It’s difficult to speculate: Maybe if Facebook had been around during my sportswriting heyday, I would have been the Selfie King. I’m certainly an enthusiastic Facebook user today, though I feel as if I’m documenting my life (for my increasingly failing memory) and not validating it. There still is enough of a journalist in me that I have trouble celebrating something I may one day have been covering.

A Facebook post referred to on the website of Jim Romenesko, a media watchdog, provokes strong ambivalence for me. I know Sharon and admire her work on behalf of the industry. I just don’t understand the public display of allegiance by someone in my industry, especially someone in a leadership position, and even less so the public trash talk. I’m not saying that in a critical way; it truly does not compute with me. I also don’t understand that she doesn’t seem fazed. I was thinking that I’d be scared to death of being fired. But that’s how much the landscape has changed.

I am reminded of my days covering the Sonics in the NBA playoffs and rolling into a city to find the local columnist torching my city in print. Not the team I covered, but the city. The columnists I traveled with, the Art Thiels and Steve Kelleys, never felt compelled to fire back – and that felt right. These days, the throwdown between writers of “opposing” cities has become a media set piece. So is the boosterism that grips local newspapers and, especially, electronic media. It used to embarrass me when my own newspaper made such a big deal about the Sonics – more so that it seemed to cheerlead. I used to bristle when athletes and coaches would say I wrote a story “to sell newspapers,” because, in my mind, I never was. But I guess I always was, and today I’d also be selling the instant souvenir book.

Likewise, I felt uncomfortable sitting next to a competitor on press row who constantly berated referees for making calls against the Sonics. I couldn’t relate to that mentality. I never rooted for any team. I always rooted for the best story – period.

Florangela, Santana and me on game day.
Florangela, Santana and me on game day.
For the record, I do have a Seahawk-related selfie floating around the digital realm. The enthusiasm is staged because my wife, Florangela, knew it was the only way to depict any in me. This morning, she asked me if I was “happy.” Hitched to a Seahawk Super Bowl championship, the sentiment seems alien. I had to admit that I felt a certain sadness – that the run of Sundays in front of a television with the Sunday newspapers spread in front of me was over. Also, like at the end of every holiday season, I dreaded the fading of collective purpose and pride that has washed over our region. I mostly was sad because I couldn’t feel happy, if that makes any sense.

In my younger days, following the Sonics was the most important thing in my life, followed later by cheering on the Pilots (replaced by the Mariners) and Seahawks. Before I covered the Sonics for The Seattle Times, I delivered that very newspaper to fund tickets to Sonic home games. A couple of seasons, my friend Jim Osmundsen and I went to almost every home game, a vast majority of them losses. His Mom would drop us off at the Coliseum (now KeyArena) and my Dad would pick us up, or vice versa. The moment the Sonics won the 1979 NBA championship is burned into my memory; it seemed like every car in the city was honking. A few years earlier, in 1976, my father and I covered the first-ever game in Seahawk franchise history for a neighborhood weekly newspaper. It was an exhibition against San Francisco, of all teams, and I remember we received a commemorative dish, which I have stashed away somewhere. It was neat watching the Super Bowl win with my Dad, but I didn’t get teary eyed the way I thought I might (or thought I should).

Dual 12s by me.
Dual 12s by me.
Seventeen years of daily newspaper sportswriting, reinforced by another 14 years in other sports media businesses, has rung the fan out of me. It took me 13 years, plus a few months of being a “non-practicing” sports journalist, to even attend a game involving professional athletes. The prospect always had conjured feelings of going to work. In the meantime, I didn’t even cheer at my daughter’s high-school basketball games. At the time, I rationalized that, by not spending my time yelling at referees or her coaches, I’d actually later have vivid memories of the pride I felt watching her play, and I suppose I do. After the 2012 summer with the Mariners, I allowed myself to start watching NFL games on Sundays. This season, I even took my father to a game at CenturyLink, for his 80th birthday. I snapped a selfie and even stood and jeered when the St. Louis Rams had the ball – but, honestly, only because I thought I’d be ostracized if I sat in silence. I even spent a night documenting the way Seattle was lit up for the Seahawks.

For an old-school sportswriter, educated and then drilled professionally to gingerly walk the tightrope of “objectivity,” fans are Venus to my Mars. It’s near impossible to comprehend the forces that compel someone to declare, scream, tattoo, or riot in name of anything short of family or flag. It’s scary to watch the media tilt more and more toward catering to the whims of the maniacal. Yes, in business, the customer always is right, but some of us figured that the media industry would get a pass on that maxim. Fans don’t like bad news, but there has to be a bearer, doesn’t there? Otherwise negative developments always will feel like an ambush.

I covered the Seahawks for the Times for one season, 1989. It was the last go-round for Steve Largent, the Seahawks’ Hall of Fame receiver. The team was so bad, it earned the high draft pick with which it chose Cortez Kennedy, its Hall of Fame defensive lineman. I wrote a thoroughly researched piece about football taking years off the lives of professional players that was largely ignored. I also wrote a story quoting several joint experts as saying the Seahawks’ star running back, Curt Warner, likely would not recover from a second injury to his knee. He didn’t, but Seahawk fans and players didn’t want to know. The day after the story appeared, I was told by a Seahawk media relations official, “There is a locker room full of players who do not want to see your face today.”

Part of my 12th Man effort.
Part of my 12th Man effort.
Fifteen years ago, I went into that locker room. It wasn’t that bad, certainly not as bad as facing a world full of jubilation that you don’t feel.

I’m going to the Seahawks’ victory parade, just like I went to the Sonics’ in 1979. I know it won’t be the same. I’m going because I feel like I’m supposed to. I did my 12th Man part – I’ve worn the gear, screamed at a game, lost a friend who really would have relished this and even watch a playoff game at the funeral reception of a revered mentor (it was streamed in, by the way). Still, I know I’ll feel disconnected, empty, zombie-like, the same as my trumped-up fandom along the way. Just like that afternoon with Felix Hernandez, I know something special has occurred. I know, like the guy said, “it’s OK to look happy about this.” My mind recognizes, but my heart won’t comply. I exchanged texts this morning with a good friend of mine, another ex-sportswriter. He said he felt bad that he’s lost “the fan I once was. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a sportswriter.”

Like him, I thought being a sportswriter would put me in the middle of a magical world, and I’d drink it all in. I never bargained for the experience sucking the fan out of me.

“Is there something wrong with us?” I wrote back.

If that makes you feel sad for me, thank you. At least we’re on the same page in that regard.

2 thoughts on “Super Conflicted

  1. Hairy

    Extremely well written, Glenn. Sort of like “The end of the innocence”. It is difficult, for me, not to cheer (at least to myself) at a sporting event. I do understand how you have had to harden yourself to be impartial. I had to do it when I wrote. It does take away from the thrill of the event. One of my great memories is being with Gus Williams and watching him rise and cheer “Gaylord…Gaylord” when we went to Gaylord Perry’s 300 victory. Total enthusiasm. I miss it…

  2. Mark Matassa

    Excellent post, Glenn. I agree that sportswriters may be leading this trend, but I’ve seen it on other beats too. But I’m with you. That’s why, unlike some political reporters and editors I know, I don’t have any photos of myself with the senators, Congress members, governors and other bigwigs I’ve covered. I’ve been friendly with many — as I think reporters do with sources on any beat — but never rooted for a candidate or issue.

    Anyway, great piece. I hope it gets read widely. Thank you.

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