Jon Pessah: Sports as a Mirror of Society

September 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Let me start off my saying that I know almost absolutely nothing about sports.

I know enough to get by, but rarely will you ever find me watching a game on television. In the rare instance that you ever do, there will probably be a very short time interval between when I feign interest to when my eyes begin to glaze over.

It’s not that I hate sports, it’s just a matter of sticking to what you know. Which is exactly why I found myself thoroughly surprised and delighted when sports writer Jon Pessah came to speak in one of my journalism classes.

Jon Pessah

[To be fair though, he spoke specifically about sports journalism and anyone who knows me knows that I can listen to just about anything in the context of journalism.]

While he had some choice words for the NCAA and LeBron James’ recent stint as a free agent, Pessah spoke mainly about the entertainment-heavy and profit driven motive of modern day sports reporting.

Formerly of the Washington Star, the Hartford Courant, and Newsday, Pessah’s experience with covering sports has given him a front row seat to both the changing industry of journalism as well as the domination of sports coverage by ESPN, the sports equivalent of 24-hour cable news networks like CNN.

And just like CNN, ESPN is subject to scrutiny when it comes journalistic integrity.

The sports juggernaut: ESPN

ESPN, which was brought to life as a father-son collaboration by NBC-affiliate sports writer Bill Rasmussen in 1979, was initially conceived as an outlet to provide additional sports coverage in Connecticut. It wasn’t until the marketing genius of VP John Walsh and the miracle of Sunday Night Football that ESPN began to draw the following that it has now.

Since then it has hired a host of retired athletes and talking heads to serve as anchors and commentators and dictated the shift of sports reporting to a primarily entertainment-based genre.

So what’s the big deal if sports reporting panders to the more profitable elements of the entertainment industry instead of straight news?

Well, it’s all in the numbers.

For instance, I had always written off steroid scandals, chalking them up as a fact of athletic life that some athletes use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. From baseball to biking, it didn’t really faze me.

Steroids have become a fixture in sports.

However, Pessah pointed out that the way the government treats sports steroid cases is different than the way it treats any other controlled substance by targeting athletes instead of distributors. And when you start realizing that an illegal substance is intrinsically tied to a multibillion dollar business, steroids becomes no laughing matter.

According to Pessah, the use of steroids, along with the fact that billions of tax payers’ dollars have gone on to build stadiums instead of rebuilding communities, are some of the issues that sports reporting no longer addresses. The investigative elements of sports journalism have seemingly fallen to the wayside.

Pessah was asked by a student whether or not he thought the demand for hard-hitting sports journalism existed. He retorted by asking whether or not young reporters going into sports journalism will be willing to avoid the financial temptations of the easy route of entertainment sports.

MLB keeps a tight lid on access for reporters.

Industry giants like the MLB and NFL, which keep a tight lid on access to its athletes and information, are another deterrent to hard-hitting sports journalism.

While I have no idea what lies ahead for the state of sports journalism, I’ve never been more interested in sports journalism than I am now.

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