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On the Death of the Athlete Interview

Dec 7, 2011, 2:32 PM EDT

ESPN's Tim Keown does a really nice job explaining why that is in a piece about the death of the interview in sports. His sentiments ring true, especially the "more information and less knowledge" aspect of today's media landscape.

One of the more enticing aspects of taking an entirely independent blog and affiliating it with a much larger media entity was the opportunities that would then present in terms of talking with the players we followed so closely from afar. As it turned out, said access is a whole lot better in theory than in actuality. That’s not to say access is bad or of no value at all, it’s just tends not to be what you might think or hope it to be before you actually have it.

ESPN’s Tim Keown does a really nice job explaining why that is in a piece about the death of the interview in sports. His sentiments ring true, especially the “more information and less knowledge” aspect of today’s media landscape.

Keown writes:

There is an abundance of information flying through the air, like
bits of paper in a whirlwind, but with a striking lack of context or
depth. The demands have no connective tissue, just 20 or 30 people with
separate agendas trying to get you to talk to theirs before the next guy
interrupts. There is no real interaction, no chance for them to follow
up or request clarification or elucidation or retraction.

You
attempt to answer the questions thoughtfully and honestly, but when the
media relations manager holds up his hand and says, “Thanks, guys –
that’s it,” you walk off the field toward your locker, trying to replay
your answers in your mind. Mostly it’s a complete hash, and you reach a
resigned conclusion: You have no idea how anything you just said might
be interpreted outside that clustered cocoon.

It’s interesting to see this take place in real time. As a greener member of the media, I tend to do a lot of observing on how things go when the crowd gathers around a player at Citizens Bank Park. You can tell by the question asked what each questioner’s agenda is for that day. The radio guys want one good sound nugget. The TV guys want something they can throw on air in a nice 30-second clip. The beat writers like Jim Salisbury try their best to keep a real interview setting alive, attempting to dig a little deeper. The best questions always come from the beat writers or the longtime baseball writers like Jayson Stark or Tyler Kepner.

I often hear the seasoned vets of the press corps waxing poetic about the days of Pete Rose talking for hours after a game or how they’d run into the Phils’ skipper at the hotel bar on the road and share some stories over a whiskey. It makes me wish moments like that were still feasible today.

But they didn’t have Twitter!

This all leads to the question of “why is the interview dead?” Which isn’t exactly easy to answer. Athletes, with the help of their PR handlers, know that they no longer have to be as open as they were in the past. Part of that is the media and fans alike place way too much importance onto the unscripted words of athletes. “OMG! Did you hear Jimmy Rollins said something about the crowd being quiet! How dare he?!?” We’re certainly guilty. That turns players off from being open and honest. Things *are* blown way out of proportion and taken way out of context. And they can show up, not just in newspapers as back in the day, but on the Internet, on blogs, on sports radio, on podcasts, on ESPN, on MLB Network, on YouTube… and it never stops. Today’s media consumer, for better or worse, lives for the headline-making moments.

There are plenty of those “gotcha” type stories these days where often times the question or conversation leading up to the player quote isn’t even given.

What’s also interesting is that while athletes are saying less and less of substance in the controlled environment of a locker room, they’re flocking to twitter and Facebook to do everything from tossing up nonsense, talking music and not-so-subtly meeting girls, to criticizing each other and their own teams.

Embedded sports media used to be the gatekeepers of access via the access teams and leagues had given them. That’s more limited than ever, but the fans have new access to players, so much so that the media are doing more and more stories on what athletes say on Twitter as compared to what they said in the locker room.

That’s not to say traditional access is fruitless. There are still brief moments when the TV cameras and radio personalities walk away from Roy Halladay after a game and Doc will be standing in the middle of the clubhouse with only three or four writers remaining and will drop some serious knowledge on you about how and why he talks to an umpire between innings.

Cliff Lee has had a few of these moments as well, but for him, there’s less mystique, less magic to it all. He’s very matter of fact about everything. It’s just “work hard and make pitches.”

And then there’s Charlie’s pre game powwow in the dugout. But Charlie is old school. Perhaps that’s what makes him so friggin’ awesome. He’ll open up about his days drinking with Mickey Mantle or dinner with George Steinbrenner in the 70s. He’ll even tell you about his days as a kid winning state marble championships.

Still waiting for one of those types of stories from Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, or Jimmy Rollins though.

To someone who never knew the interview during its living years, its proposed death seems to ring true. But you can still get those priceless stories, knowledge, and moments out of players.

You just have to work a bit harder.

>>Death of the interview [ESPN]