< The Trouble With NBA Lockout Coverage

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The NEA, blessed with record ratings during last season's playoffs and stars like LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki, is on the verge of not having a season this year. Regular games have already been missed because players and franchise owners are fighting for their respective shares of the pie. It's a story as old as time, but not a particularly easy one to cover, especially for sports writers.

“After all,” says NPR sports reporter Mike Pesca, “most sports reporters are also fans.”

MIKE PESCA:

I think the number-one factor underlining all the sports reporting around this is that we really, really want to have an NBA season. It's a lot different from when UPS went out on strike or it's a lot different when Hormel did or Overnight or Verizon, where usually the labor reporter – sure, they’re human beings. They want workers to get a fair deal. But they’re sort of reporting things with less of a vested interest.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So like when David Stern, the commissioner of the league, who represents the owners, comes down and says, “This is the best deal I can give to you. You should take it,” the reporters say, “Oh my God, this is the best deal”?

MIKE PESCA:

Let’s take an example. When he says, “We're now in our nuclear winter” –

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

- a good quote. But if a similar quote, an Armageddon-like quote were given by the president of UPS when they were negotiating with the Teamsters, it would have been taken with more of a grain of salt than that quote was taken by the NBA writers, or at least the people who decide how much play to give the NBA story.

I’ll give you another example. There was a story a few weeks ago about the discontent among owners, and it portrayed David Stern as trying to hold together a coalition of owners, and this latest offer might eventually evaporate.

All that could be true, but in the reporting I didn't see it sufficiently noted. It's all in the NBA owners' interest to tell the public and the players - sort of the good cop, bad cop - watch out, my partner there is crazy. Who knows what he's gonna do. You better take the offer while we can.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Outline the narrative that you hear so often that makes you think, boy, these sports reporters are really out of their depth.

MIKE PESCA:

This is a case of millionaires versus billionaires, and when will they come to their senses? When do they realize that it is a privilege to play the game and settle their differences? Well, like how, why? I mean, we're talking about rational economic actors.

It doesn't matter if you're talking about  20,000 dollars a year or two million a year. There is still a rational economic calculus for each set of figures, and we hear it in moral terms. We don't hear it in rational economic calculus terms.

It doesn't surprise me. The conversation about sports is quite often a stand-in for the conversation about morality, It often becomes a morality tale:  This guy hit in the clutch because he has moral fiber and moral toughness.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

Or this guy, you know, blew the coverage on the pass because he's obviously - has character defects.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And this story’s particularly difficult, isn’t it? It’s so hard to track the money to determine which side’s telling the truth. How many sports reporters have expertise in forensic accounting?

MIKE PESCA:

If you read the good sports reporters, they’re good reporters. If you read people like Chris Mannix and Ian Thompson in Sports Illustrated, Henry Abbott writing for the TrueHoop part of ESPN, Ken Berger on CBS, Larry Coon who is a Web-only expert on the salary cap. These guys know what they're talking about.

My main complaint is the shorthand that is sometimes used in the headlines on places like ESPN, in quick-hit segments on sports radio, where it's usually presented that the players have screwed themselves out of money, because the act of canceling games is seen as a failure, is seen as stupidity, is seen as selfishness.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So, you know, if it's millionaires versus billionaires, and the sportswriters have a, a vested interest, they’re expressing the primal scream they think they're hearing from the fans, but they're not really necessarily examining the case.

MIKE PESCA:

Ninety percent of your audience thinks it is millionaires versus billionaires, and I can't believe they can't settle it. And the conversation that's being had on sports talk radio isn’t because the audience disagrees;  it's because the audience is going, hell yeah, preach on, brother!

[BROOKE LAUGHING]

I'm just saying that there [LAUGHS] should be a little more examination of the fact that these are negotiating tactics, as much as these are moral positions or smart or foolish choices.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mike, thank you so much.

MIKE PESCA:

You're welcome.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR.