It started one morning when my cell woke me. The voice on the other end seemed a tad unhappy with my column.
“You have no f-ing ethics! You have no f-ing morals!’’ screamed the voice, only not with the cleaned-up version. It was a well-known Chicago sports figure, and I’ll just leave his name out of this. I was a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and had just written about him.
After 15 minutes of hearing f-bombs, I finally heard him ask for my opinion on the matter. When I started to answer, he dropped another f-bomb and started screaming and ranting again, so I yelled one back at him with a “you’’ on the end and hung up.
Within five minutes, my boss called and said this sports person had called him. “Did you say f-you to him and hang up?’’
Yes, I did.
“Well,’’ my boss said, “you gained a lot of respect from him for that.’’
I bring this story up to demonstrate the strange relationship between sportswriters and sports figures. It’s been in the news lately. And the media have lost their way, partly by being too soft, praying to God that maybe they could be friends with the athletes, who they see as the cool kids, and partly by. . .No, that’s all. Just by being too soft.
But in the past few weeks, basketball player Kyrie Irving has said he isn’t going to waste his delicate time as an artist talking with “pawns,’’ meaning sports writers. Curt Schilling, left out of the Baseball Hall of Fame by sports writers who judged that he’s a good pitcher but a bad human being, said they had no place judging him because they don’t know anything about baseball. And even Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski went viral over his testy exchange with a student reporter.
The criticism of Krzyzewski was so harsh on social media that he ended up calling the kid later to apologize.
Here’s what happened: Duke had just lost. The student reporter asked Krzyzewski, “I was just curious what the next step forward is . . .’’
Krzyzewski: “Yeah, why don’t we just evaluate this game. You know, I’m not into what our next step forward is right now. We just finished a hard-fought game.’’
He asked the kid what his major or toughest class is. Answer: Econ.
“OK, so, say you just had the toughest Econ test in the world,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you walked out, somebody asked you, ‘What’s your next step?’ You see what I mean? Just that you have some empathy in — just give us time to evaluate this game and then we’ll figure out, just like we always try to do.’’
And the Internet blew up on behalf of the kid. I learned right then that social media is a snowflake, and that’s not going to help get the respect of sports figures. At what point did we become so sensitive that a harmless minimal moment required national condemnation?
I’ve had multiple stalkers and death threats during my career as a sportswriter. Someone threatened to burn down my house. Someone said he was going to rip my ears off. You hear interesting things as a sportswriter, assuming you have your ears.
Asking me to show a little empathy — and then answering my question, as Krzyzewski did in this case — does not seem bad. A little condescending, but whatever.
ESPN’s Dan Dakich, former longtime college basketball coach, said on Twitter that it makes zero sense for a coach or player after games of hard work to have to explain himself to a group that literally has no clue about any of it. He said, “Make no mistake. Coach K and all coaches aren’t paid to handle questions . . . They are paid to win.’’
Now, that’s more like it. Dakich is acting in the aggressive, bullying coach/media way that I’m used to.
Krzyzewski is also paid to make Duke look good. But when a 70-something legend picks on and talks down to a kid at the school he represents and it goes viral, well, that’s a bad look for a school, especially a snobby one like Duke.
And when Irving said he was too important to talk with sportswriters, who were interfering with the safe space he needs to perform the art of basketball, Charles Barkley didn’t understand.
“They don’t pay you $40 million just to play basketball . . .’’ he said. “Being with the media is part of your professional obligation.’’
Obligation? Irving is making the point that he’s above reporters. He’s the king, and they are pawns. It’s the same point Schilling was making. And while I felt Krzyzewski was plenty polite after the heat of a loss, it’s really his point, too.
They don’t respect reporters. On that front, they are right. I’m not 100 percent sure why these guys talk with us at all. I’m guessing it’s because the more they get their product out into the sports discussion, the more tickets they sell.
The lesson today’s sportswriters don’t get is this: Taking snarky potshots from afar doesn’t build respect. Kissing up to athletes doesn’t make them respect you either. If you let a bully keep bullying you, he’s just going to do it more and more.
Schilling is right that reporters are too much of the story in the Hall of Fame. They shouldn’t be voting at all. But if he thinks players will be unbiased when voting for their friends, well, good luck, Curt. Give the baseball writers one thing: Schilling keeps whining every year and posts on Twitter suggestions that writers should all be lynched. And then the writers keep voting against him.
Schilling has asked to be taken off the ballot next year. And you know what the baseball writers have done?
They’ve said he’s staying on the ballot. He’s on the batting tee, and they want one more swing at him. This is a battle with no final round.
That’s a hell of an f-you.