Since this is my final CBS column of the year, I thought it might be worth trying to make it clear to those who don’t understand — and there are many of you — what motivates me as a reporter.
Let’s start with the word reporter. I take it literally. My job is to report back to people who don’t have the chance to talk to athletes and coaches or go into locker rooms or observe people and games up close.
I’m extremely fortunate that I get paid to do these things and have tried to never lose sight of that. That’s why (I hope) you’ll never hear me complain about the quality of the food (whether free or paid for) in a press box or read something I write when I’m covering a game or a golf tournament that could be written from my couch. I spend very little time in interview rooms because that’s not reporting; that’s stenography. I find their existence to be a pox because they make it easy for public relations people to control the message. I feel the same way about athletes’ websites, which put out “news” that is actually nothing more than an internet press release.
Frequently, when I write or say something that readers, listeners or viewers don’t like, I’m accused of “bias.” It’s funny, I never hear this when I say or write something people like. No one who loves the Army-Navy game has ever accused me of bias for fervently believing there’s no better or more worthy event on the sports calendar than the Army-Navy football game.
But I AM biased. Every single time I sit down to write or open my mouth, I’m biased — on everything. Years ago, when I taught a college journalism class, my first question to the students was this: define objective journalism. I almost never got the right answer because the right answer is this: there’s no such thing. We are all biased for a million different reasons. What we, as reporters should do, is recognize our biases and try to always be fair.
Now I know there are those who say I fail at this. Again, they are almost universally people who don’t like the fact that I am critical at times of various people, teams, entities.
When I wrote a column in The Washington Post six years ago saying that Randy Edsall was the wrong choice to coach Maryland’s football team — this was three games into Edsall’s tenure — many Maryland fans went ballistic. I wrote the column because I was appalled when Edsall declared he was “rebuilding” at Maryland after an embarrassing loss to Temple. The Terrapins had gone 9-4 the previous season and returned the ACC’s rookie-of-the-year at quarterback, among others.
Many Maryland fans were insistent I was anti-Edsall because I’m a Duke graduate and jealous of Maryland’s football program. Seriously? Does anyone believe any feelings I have for Duke football — none — would affect how I felt about Maryland football? When Edsall was fired four years later with Maryland people screaming for his head, the silence directed at me from College Park was deafening.
Of course Maryland people will tell you that I’m absolutely biased on the subject of Mike Krzyzewski — who is, as far as many of them are concerned, the devil (not Blue Devil) incarnate. Maryland fans aren’t unique in this feeling by any stretch, I just happen to live among them.
Of COURSE I’m biased where Krzyzewski is concerned. Not only do I respect him greatly as a coach — oh wait, he’s not a good coach, he just gets all the calls, right? — I know that he’s a better person than he is a coach. As it happens, because I’ve known him for almost 40 years (God, am I old), I can cite chapter and verse on the topic. Unlike the fans who can’t stand him, say he’s an awful person and HAVE NEVER MET HIM.
I also happen to be biased when it comes to Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Gary Williams, Mike Brey and others. But I didn’t go to any of those schools, so very few people object when I talk or write about them. Sometimes I wish I’d followed my dad’s advice and gone to Yale. I probably wouldn’t get into much trouble being biased about James Jones – which I am. Tommy Amaker, too.
There’s a local radio guy here in town, a Maryland grad, who is convinced that Krzyzewski is not only a bad person, but completely controls all of college basketball. I happened to be listening to his show one morning last March when he asked his partner if he though Krzyzewski would manipulate the NCAA Tournament committee to avoid playing Maryland.
I laughed out loud. First, Krzyzewski’s chances of manipulating the committee even if wanted to — check their draw last year even if they’d beaten South Carolina in South Carolina — are zero. Second, why would he want to avoid playing Maryland, a school he dominated for most of his career? The guy’s partner almost laughed out loud.
Later, when I pointed out to him how stupid the comment was — along with others he made in the past— his defense was, “I want you to know I respect Krzyzewski as a coach.”
Gee, thanks. That’s a little like saying, “I think Sidney Crosby’s a good hockey player,” or, “I respect Tom Brady as a quarterback.”
You see, here’s the thing, I don’t root — as Jerry Seinfeld once said — for laundry. The New York Islanders are probably the exception since I know no one on the team but pull for them since they are my boyhood hockey team. I stopped rooting for the Knicks when Pat Riley was coach — I’m biased against him and against Jim Dolan — and I’ve got up and down with the Mets, depending on who was on the team or managing the team. I gave up on the Jets, yay or nay, years ago.
I root for — and against — people. If I actually know them — unlike the radio guy mentioned above — I do try to separate who they are as athletes (or coaches) from who they are as people.
I have always said I think Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time — with all due respect to Jack Nicklaus. At his best, Woods dominated golf in ways no one, Nicklaus included, ever did. He just brought his career down prematurely by making a number of bad decisions: firing Butch Harmon being number two and his serial cheating on his wife being number one. One professional, one personal.
I watched Woods treat people badly on numerous occasions. For the record, I don’t include myself among those people. Some Tigeristas insist I hold a grudge against Woods because “he wouldn’t talk to you for your book.”
I’m honestly not sure what book they are talking about. Woods did agree to talk to me for my second golf book, The Majors, then cancelled the interview because — I believe — his father ordered him not to talk to me. I’ve written about that and have said repeatedly I didn’t blame him at all. My exact words to him back then were: “I will never criticize anyone for standing up for their father.”
I meant it then, I mean it now.
But when I tweeted last week that I was amazed by the over-the-top frothing of much of the media — led by my old employers at Golf Channel — over Woods’ latest return, out came the Tigeristas again. I was a hater; I never gave Tiger credit for being a great player…GREATEST PLAYER OF ALL TIME: that’s not credit? What I said was that I would be interested and a believer that Woods was “back” when he showed up on a major leaderboard on a weekend. Everything before that is just fluff for TV talking heads. It’s just as silly as people saying Rickie Fowler somehow turned a corner last weekend by winning the 18-man exhibition Woods made comeback XXIII in.
If you were to read my book on last year’s Ryder Cup – The First Major — it is filled with stories about how much Woods’ presence as a vice-captain meant to the players on the American team. Was I biased when I wrote that? Yes, by the reporting I had done talking to the American players.
I understand that there are always going to be people who find fault with anything any of us writes or says. Last week I tweeted that watching Jim Valvano’s ESPY’s speech for the 200th time made me “laugh, think, and cry” — as he exhorted all of us to do that night. One guy tweeted at me that Valvano was somehow responsible for the academic scandal at UNC; Duke lowering its academic standards to take one-and-dones and the latest Rick Pitino/Louisville scandal.
Overall though, I think people are good. Most understand why I love Army-Navy and most (not all) understand why I always give a mid-major my 25th place vote each week on my AP ballot. And why I cried at the end of Field of Dreams, even though my then-wife leaned over towards the end and said, “If you cry at the end of this, I’ll divorce you.”
Turns out she wasn’t kidding.
I can be cynical — or perhaps it’s just skeptical — especially where it concerns billionaire team owners; college presidents; the NCAA; IOC; FIFA and almost all agents. If people are jumping on a bandwagon (see Woods’ coverage this weekend), I tend to jump in the other direction. I know that will anger some people and that’s okay.
My job is to report, not to promote. I have no plans to change that approach any time soon.
John Feinstein’s new book is, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—which is currently No. 5 on the New York Times sports bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” was a 2017 Junior Literary Guild Selection.