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Sports Are Coming Back. Is Sports Media Coming Back With It?

When games return this summer, things will look a lot different. Can journalists continue to cover sports like they once did?

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Beat writers are in a strange place right now. Last Monday, The Athletic’s Levi Weaver wrote a story reporting that Texas Rangers pitchers are ahead of their hitters—baseball is back! The same day, Weaver wrote a story that effectively made a counterargument. Joey Gallo, one of the team’s outfielders, tested positive for COVID-19. “It almost didn’t strike me how weird it was,” said Weaver, “just because nothing’s normal.”

It gets even weirder. Sent out to report on their sport’s restart, beat writers have discovered lots of reasons why it’s either highly fraught or totally inadvisable. But the writers know that if the leagues don’t come back—if MLB, the NBA, or the NFL go the way of Ivy League football—then a lot of them will lose their jobs.

“My livelihood is predicated on baseball existing,” said Weaver. Of the rites-of-summer stories, he added: “Am I encouraging irresponsibility by reporting on this as if I’m excited to have baseball back? It’s a fine line to walk.” The anxiety a writer feels about what they see at the ballpark is competing with an anxiety about keeping their job.

In the Before Times, preseason stories were mostly teaser trailers for sports. Even if a team was going to suck, a writer could sell the young quarterback getting reps or the lottery pick those Ls were designed to secure. This is the first year preseason stories work as an appetite suppressant.

On Monday, Russell Westbrook announced he’d tested positive for COVID-19. The Nets have so few healthy players that Jamal Crawford is playing basketball again. Two full teams were yanked from the optimistically-named “MLS Is Back” tournament. Florida, the home of the NBA bubble, set a single-day record on Sunday with 15,300 new cases of the coronavirus. “Ultimately, no one is playing football in the fall,” a university official told Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, effectively ruling out six months’ worth of weekend entertainment.

Sportswriters aren’t scared of bad news. But any illusion of normalcy disappeared the moment they tried to collect it. Weaver talked to me while waiting for the Rangers’ manager to start his Zoom call. Last week, after the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton bounced a line drive off the head of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, Stanton wasn’t brought out of the closed locker room for interviews. Dieter Kurtenbach, a columnist with the Bay Area News Group, had to sign forms so he could sit in the Oracle Park press box and watch a Giants practice from long distance. “I think I gave Rob Manfred rights to my kidney when I walked in there,” said Kurtenbach.

For all the slurs about the “toy department,” most sportswriters I know consume a lot of hard news. A few weeks ago, if you asked how they justified restarting sports in the middle of a pandemic, many would have retreated to a soft spot in the zone: I’m all for sports coming back, as long as it’s safe.

Since then, the writers’ own reporting has revealed that “as long as it’s safe” really isn’t a tenable position. To name one example, nearly one-third of Clemson football players have reportedly tested positive for coronavirus.

“Let’s say that you’re not worried about a 21-year-old college running back getting fatally ill,” said Joel Anderson, a Slate writer who cohosts the Hang Up and Listen podcast. “Well, that person is going to be around staff members, coaches, family members—all these people that could have underlying health issues.”

“Anything could happen, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s just go ahead and continue to play sports.’ I think it’s absurd.”

Sportswriters know what happens when they reveal doubts about the restart. Someone in their mentions will say: “You WANT the season to be canceled!” But the writer doesn’t want that.

“It’s nonsensical that anyone in my position would not want sports to happen,” said Dan Wolken, who writes about college sports for USA Today.

“But at the same time, if I as a columnist am trying to convey the notion of ‘Oh, to hell with the virus, let’s just play ball’—that would be completely dishonest and disingenuous.”

The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss noted in a recent column that he has a “financial interest” in the NBA bubble maintaining its integrity. All sportswriters do. “I want to see this work,” Strauss told me. “I want to see it go well. The optimal outcome is that they do these playoffs and nothing goes wrong and everybody’s entertained.”

If the leagues pull the plug again, sportswriters are going to face professional armageddon. More armageddon. The media’s dismemberment—well underway before the virus took hold—has in recent weeks visited publications from The Athletic to the Boston Herald. Dozens more writers have taken a pay cut or a furlough.

“What happens now when there’s no fucking sports?” said Kurtenbach. “They’re going to accelerate whatever it is that they were doing.”

Beat writers have done a decent job of jazz-handsing their way through the last three months, pivoting to find stories in sports nostalgia, pop culture, or both. (Weaver elected the Athlete Music Halls of Fame and Shame.) But these stories won’t fix the American economy on their own, and the transactions stories that goose web traffic every few weeks depend on a season actually happening. Tom Brady to the Bucs is a great story, but only if the Bucs play football.

What the pandemic has revealed is that sportswriters have a codependency with their beat that’s pretty unique. This week, movie critics will take a small hit because they can’t write about Tenet. But they’ve got Tom Hanks and Andy Samberg movies to keep them busy. Covering a political convention is a status marker just like having a seat in the Super Bowl press box. But even if Donald Trump doesn’t get an indoor convention in Jacksonville, political writers still have a campaign to cover.

How will reporters criticize a sports restart they desperately need to work? Well, it turns out sportswriters are masters of cognitive dissonance: at recognizing that sports can be both rotten and a great way to make a career. College writers drag the NCAA, then hype March Madness. An NFL writer files a piece on brain injuries, then wonders how Cam Newton and Bill Belichick will get along. For his part, Weaver covers baseball with amazing, wide-eyed creativity, then grills Manfred on the awfulness of minor-league pay.

This year, covering sports—if they happen—will require sorting through more cognitive dissonance than ever. “It just all gets thrown in the pile of things that I would like to think that I’m going to talk about in therapy later,” Weaver told me, “but probably will just get pushed down until a date to be named later.”