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In the 1988 baseball movie “Bull Durham,” Kevin Costner’s veteran backstop Crash Davis explains to Tim Robbins’ rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh how to handle press interviews: “You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” Crash says, listing them out one by one:
“We gotta play ‘em one day at a time.”
“I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.”
“I just want to give it my best shot and, the good Lord willing, things will work out.”
Sounds pretty boring, Nuke says. “Of course it’s boring,” Crash replies, “that’s the point.”
I always thought that exchange was about one athlete teaching another: Here’s how you avoid putting your foot in your mouth when reporters are around.
I was thinking about that scene — and maybe what it’s really about — when 23-year-old professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, announced this week that she was pulling out of the French Open.
Her decision came after she was fined and then threatened with suspension for declining to sit for interviews after her matches. “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” she explained in a statement posted to social media. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”
Crash’s advice in “Bull Durham” takes on a deeper meaning when you consider the context Osaka describes. What if those aforementioned cliches are actually about creating boundaries in a profession that demands a performance not only on the field or court, but then another performance at a news conference immediately afterward?
And what if those empty bromides Crash espouses aren’t enough, ultimately, to protect an athlete’s psyche?
Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to revealing their vulnerabilities in front of a microphone; for whatever reason, sports movies tend to gloss over this aspect of a professional athletic career. But the two-part HBO documentary “Tiger,” about the golfing great Tiger Woods, offers a look at how this pressurized environment can affect people. “Golf is basically a bastion of Caucasian America and Tiger was walking into this white world and just dominating it,” Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith tells the documentary’s filmmakers. “The magazine editors at S.I. wanted me to start peeling the layers away and seeing what’s going on there.”
Who doesn’t want to know more about the person behind this incredible talent?
But also: Imagine how it might have felt for Woods, a mixed-raced man at the beginning of his career, to have a white reporter from a major sports magazine approach him with that sort of energy and intention — to peel back layers as if Woods were a specimen to be dissected. “Tiger answered my questions,” Smith adds, “but wanted to give off that he was in control and everything was cool. You always felt that you weren’t getting to the bottom of it.” That can be frustrating as a reporter; we’re hoping for open, unguarded conversations. And some athletes are willing to do that. But no one has to expose themselves on demand, and it’s also reasonable for athletes (anyone, really) to erect some barriers in that regard. Osaka’s barriers were just more plainly laid out than most.
There’s so much more to sports reporting than sound bites generated from postgame press conferences conducted in front of a wall of logos. Good sports journalism happens all the time, with thoughtful analysis and one-on-one interviews that help us better understand these extraordinary people, but also investigative work that challenges the status quo of powerful institutions and uncovers corruption or an indifference to athlete safety. And sometimes it’s the athletes themselves who are the bad actors.
Hollywood usually gets it wrong when it comes to how journalism works, and sports writers, when they do show up, are often rendered as a clump of white men occupying the margins of a story, usually as an annoyance at best, a hostile presence at worst. Real issues of sexism or racism as experienced by reporters rarely make it on screen.
Just as rare is the sports reporter as a lead character. There are the occasional exceptions. Humphrey Bogart plays an out-of-work sports writer who takes a job as a press agent for a boxer in the 1956 noir “The Harder They Fall.” The movie is a blunt assessment of the unscrupulous wheelers and dealers working behind the scenes in the sport, and Bogart’s face goes from resigned disgust (he’d much rather be reporting!) to outright shame as he learns just how dirty these dealings are.
Spencer Tracy is a sports writer to Katharine Hepburn’s political reporter in 1942′s “Woman of the Year,” a romantic comedy that is less interested in the job itself than the chemistry between its two leads. “The Odd Couple’s” resident slob, Oscar Madison, is also a sports writer, but that’s more biographical detail than plot point. Same goes for Ray Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Are there films and TV shows that do capture a small slice of what it means to be a sports journalist? When I asked my colleague LaMond Pope, who covers the Chicago White Sox for the Tribune, he cited the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic “42” starring Chadwick Boseman.
In it, Andre Holland plays real-life Pittsburgh Courier sports writer Wendell Smith, who would eventually settle in Chicago, where he worked at WGN TV and the Sun-Times before his death in 1972. But prior to that, in the late 1940s, he was instrumental in getting Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to sign Robinson. Rickey (played by Harrison Ford in the film) then hired Smith “to travel with Jackie throughout the 1946 and 1947 seasons to offer support and counsel,” according to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “All the while, Smith continued to write his regular columns for the Pittsburgh Courier.”
That blurring of lines — between reporter and mentor/protector (one employed by the team, no less) — is unusual and not the type of setup most newspapers would allow. But the movie makes clear how essential Smith (a former ballplayer himself) was to Robinson’s well-being in those early days. Smith was the only Black person consistently by his side, and he had an intimate understanding of the dynamics and personalities at play. It’s such a witty, knowing performance from Holland. Early on, he tries to prep Robinson for the press scrum at his first practice: “You know how when you’re at the plate, you want to see the ball come in slow? You want to see these questions come in slow, too.”
Pope told me he went back and rewatched the film recently and it “does a nice job of avoiding some cliches. One small moment that stood out occurs right before spring training. Smith says, ‘Pittsburgh Courier readers need to know how it feels.’ Robinson responds, ‘It’s OK,’ to which Smith responds, ‘That’s not exactly a headline.’ It’s not the lines, but the conversational tone that resembles exactly what it is like with some clubhouse interviews.”
There’s another exchange in the film I really liked, as well: “You ever wonder why I sit down behind third base with my typewriter on my knees?” Smith asks. “It’s because Negro reporters aren’t allowed in the press box. So guess what? You, Mr. Robinson, are not the only one with something at stake here.”
Shannon Ryan covers college football and basketball for the Tribune and when I asked her thoughts about Hollywood’s depiction of sports journalism, she noted that even when characters are only part of the backdrop, “women in locker room media hoards are depicted with sexual undertones.” And she pointed to a study analyzing the Aaron Sorkin sitcom “Sports Night,” which found that the female journalists on the show “were depicted as acting unprofessionally, displaying motherly qualities, choosing their personal lives over work, being deferential to men for ethical decisions and showing a lack of sports knowledge compared to the male characters.”
To the show’s small credit, at least it was mostly about the job. “I would love to see a movie or television show depict the true daily hustle of sports reporters,” Ryan said. “I’d love to see a show or movie about a female sports reporter who isn’t sex-crazed, looking for love or ignorant about sports.”
“Ted Lasso,” which returns for a second season on Apple TV+ next month, finds rich comedic tension in the relationship between a team and the media that covers it. Jason Sudeikis stars as an eternally upbeat American managing an English football (soccer) team — a sport he’s never coached! at any level! — and the show mines all kinds of humor from these press events. James Lance plays reporter Trent Crimm, and if his urbane swoop of hair didn’t immediately peg him at Ted’s kind-sorta nemesis, his introduction does, as he stands up and lists the many reasons Ted is unqualified for the job. “Is there a question in there?” Ted gently asks. Yeah, comes the response: “Is this a (blanking) joke?” In the pub, fans are watching this unfold on TV, and one bloke turns to his friends: “I love journalists.” Back in the press room, it’s pandemonium: “Can you even name any footballers?!” a reporter asks. “Who won the league last year?” says another. Ted’s ears are ringing and finally the team’s owner (played by the great Hannah Waddingham) steps in: “You must forgive my fellow countrymen,” she says. “Somewhere over the last few years we seem to have abandoned all sense of manners and hospitality.” Turning to the assembled media: “My, my, aren’t you a salty bunch.”
Her observation is telling. It’s not hard to find reporters who approach the job with a chip on their shoulder. Hollywood tends to reinforce that perception. “The Natural” from 1984 stars Robert Redford as a baseball phenom named Roy Hobbs, attempting a late-in-life run at the big leagues, and Robert Duvall as Max Mercy, a reporter obsessed with uncovering secrets from Hobbs’s past. My colleague Pope said he loves the movie. “But the sequence in the locker room between Hobbs and Mercy before the final game always makes me cringe.”
Here’s how that moment plays out: Hobbs asks, “Did you ever play ball?”
No, Mercy says. “But I make it a little more fun to watch — and after today, whether you’re a goat or a hero, you’re going to make me a great story.”
Good reporters never forget that we’re writing about human beings, not stories.
But sometimes the stories just write themselves. As the debate sparked by Osaka continues, yet another tennis player, Petra Kvitova, has pulled out of the French Open after hurting her ankle in a freak accident while taking part in — wait for it — her press duties.