Sports journalism and fandom: Can they coexist?

Mark Schlereth
(@markschlereth/Twitter)

This post was originally published on my JN 499 class blog at The University of Alabama, a course dealing with journalism ethics: https://uajn499.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/sports-journalism-and-fandom-can-they-coexist/

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When you’re a journalist, the first thing you usually do when you get to a stadium is pick up your media credential.

With that credential – a small pass on a lanyard with your name and organization usually written on it – you’re given access to the press box, the field and the interviews held immediately after the game.

But before you even get that far, before you pick up your media credential outside the venue, there’s one other thing you need to do first:

Turn in your fan card.

For most sports journalists, in my opinion, this is a non-issue, as it is widely understood that you should be objective in your writing. They go to the game, write about it and move on without a care in the world, personally speaking, about who won or lost.

Yet, for some in the industry, that tradeoff doesn’t seem to occur so seamlessly.

In a Sept. 18 blog post on his personal website, jeffpearlman.com, Jeff Pearlman, the former Sports Illustrated writer turned New York Times best-selling author, addressed the issue of journalists, or more specifically ESPN NFL analyst Mark Schlereth, “doubling as fans.”

“People here really think it’s OK for someone to openly root for a team, actually work with a team’s players – then cover that team sans bias?” Pearlman tweeted in regards to his blog post.

And that’s where the problem lies: Can a journalist reasonably do what Pearlman asks? As he writes in his blog post, he doesn’t think so.

As for me, I know I certainly have no qualms about Pearlman’s take on the issue.

When you’re picking up the credential, you’re making a trade – fandom for access (assuming you have it). It doesn’t matter that what you give in return for the credential – or any sort of event, for that matter, credential or not – isn’t tangible. If you can’t separate your personal feelings from this line of work, you do no one a service.

Though, unfortunately, one too many journalists conveniently seem to forget that, it seems.

David Miller, a communication specialist and adjunct journalism instructor at The University of Alabama, believes a journalist must squash those feelings for the team he or she covers.

“Some people have really high levels of professionalism and can separate being a fan from being a journalist,” said Miller, who previously worked as a Mississippi State beat writer and columnist for the Starkville Daily News and the Commercial Dispatch. “Some can’t. I’ve known other people who’ve covered college beats and they were in love with that school.”

In Schlereth’s case, though, it is, at the least, understandable why he may have issues dissociating the two.

As a longtime NFL offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, Schlereth, while held in a high regard by most as an analyst, may have biases toward those two teams – at least according to Pearlman – particularly with the latter – a city he still calls home with a team he still admittedly works with during the offseason.

Still, I’m not sure I can fully support Schlereth’s claim that “it’s no trouble at all,” which he said in a tweet responding to Pearlman.

Understandably, it’s a sticky situation, especially when it comes to former athletes turned to media members. These are players who, pardon the cliché, probably gave their heart and soul for their team(s), whether it be in college and or the pros. For them, particularly, I can see why it’s hard to remove yourself from an allegiance you had for so long.

Regardless, all journalists should at least try to hide it, if anything.

“I mean, you have to make it a point to, any time you feel your fandom coming up, you almost got to knock yourself down a little bit,” Miller said.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, one of its core pillars is to “Act Independently,” meaning, among other things, to “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

As someone who covers Alabama football on a daily basis, even as a current student at the school, I have to abide to these standards. So should Schlereth and the next guy after that, too.

When I began covering Alabama athletics in general during my freshman year on campus, I stopped caring about the wins and losses of its teams. I wasn’t going to “Roll Tide” anymore. At that point, it no longer mattered that I was a fan of the programs for years before ever attending the university, because I had a job to do.

And so what good comes out of severing these ties?

Take it for what it’s worth, but now, years in the making on the beat, I can honestly tell you I’m a better journalist for it.

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