On sports media (Pt. 2): Mel Greenberg, disciplined imagination and making the WNBA relevant

I often tell new writers - in both academia and sports - that sometimes the best way to improve is to identify a favorite writer to draw inspiration from as a "mentor writer".

Although I might be late to the party, I'm adding recently retired women's basketball pioneer Mel Greenberg to my personal list. Perhaps not for his writing as much as what he stands for.

In a Philadelphia Inquirer article yesterday morning staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick wrote about Greenberg's earliest contribution to the game.

Women's hoops guru retires | Philadelphia Inquirer | 04/24/2010

In the early 1970s, while Greenberg was working in the newsroom, tiny Immaculata rose to prominence with its first women's national title in 1972, and followed that with championships the next two seasons.

The success of coach Cathy Rush's Mighty Macs sparked interest here and elsewhere, so much so that by 1976, Inquirer sports editor Jay Searcy had asked Greenberg to put together a women's poll that would mirror the men's rankings. At the time, most newspapers ignored the sport, not even listing its scores on the agate page.

"Immaculata put women's basketball on the map," Greenberg said. In 1978-79, the Associated Press began carrying the poll, crediting Greenberg and The Inquirer.

"All of a sudden," Foster said, "papers started printing the poll. Then came the scores. Pretty soon there were people covering our games and writing about them."

The act of publishing rankings might seem mundane given our current networked society in which any random 11-year-old can find a blog space to number a few school names. However to have the vision to dedicate the kind of energy he did to this project  - and most of all putting the work into building the contacts to strengthen his work - is impressive. I think it's hard not to admire the story.

I must confess that as someone who just started covering the WNBA seriously in the final year of Greenberg's career I'm actually not that familiar with his work. However, reading about his retirement this week and looking back over his work, I must say that I find it quite inspiring. After reading a few of his articles you can sense that he's a man with a passion for the game and its growth. Even without ever meeting the man himself, it's hard not to admire someone with that much passion for what he does and the ability to channel it into a craft.

University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma called Greenberg "the godfather of women's sports" and when thinking about "professionalism" in the women's sports media, it's hard not to see Greenberg as the guy who set the standard. Although I really didn't know much about him until a year ago, I think it's fair to say from his blog yesterday morning - he wrote, "...again the Guru notes, it's not the basketball era that's ending here" - that he was more committed to something bigger than himself and his own ego. At some level, it would appear, he was focused first and foremost on the game.

Where is this going?

As I continue to think about women's sports and the media, Greenberg's steady focus on the game provides the inspiration for further analysis. When I look at his career, I actually see the vision of what I would want for women's basketball coverage.

Also yesterday morning, Helen of the Women's Hoops Blog directed our attention to ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer's column surveying common ESPN viewer annoyances. In the snippet quoted by Helen, Ohlmeyer describes how announcers are sidetracked by (sometimes arbitrary) observations, opinions, and issues that viewers find unrelated to the game. To resolve the issue, Ohlmeyer suggests that what's needed is a "focus on imagination and self-discipline in the booth" along with the "expertise and the skill of a weaver to seamlessly synthesize these elements and tie them to the action on the field."

Extending Ohlmeyer's point about broadcasting to sports journalism more broadly, without a doubt Greenberg's effort to put women's college basketball on the media radar exhibits imagination in that the things he did were not previously a reality for women's basketball. His effort to make connections with those in the game and leverage them to become a resource to document the game exhibits a level of self-discipline that I definitely envy. However, it's the synthesizing process that I find most interesting about Ohlmeyers piece, which he elaborates on by saying, "The discipline necessary to keep the focus of commentary tied to the action on the field requires a sensitivity to the moment -- a feel for when to spotlight the game and when it's safe to stray."

Finding the balance between spotlighting and straying could also apply to the distinction between news and commentary that Ohlmeyer described even further down in his article.

Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer: Examining common ESPN viewer annoyances - ESPN
A commentary is an explanatory treatise, a systematic series of explanations or interpretations.

When people read columnists such as Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Bill O'Reilly or Rick Reilly, they aren't expecting an unbiased presentation but rather the writer's point of view based on the facts as the author sees them. Balance has never been the guiding light of columnists, and the Internet age has taken this to new highs -- or lows, depending on your frame of reference.

In news stories, fairness, context and accuracy are the cornerstone of the trust that ultimately determines the value of the writer and the publisher. In commentary, fairness is almost always in the eye of the beholder -- which makes the clear separation of the two imperative. ESPN quickly recognized and addressed the confusion here, but it's important that these types of editing oversights are few and far between.

My concern is with those "lows".

While he rightfully accepts the lows as a sad reality of the current media landscape, the problem is that some of the lowest of the low have major consequences because millions of people read it. Even sadder, much of it appeals to people's rawest impulses meaning that people will accept it as "truth" without questioning it. It's a huge problem in politics and I don't think it's a partisan assertion to say that some of these commentators are harmful to our society because people believe them. At some point, people have to accept responsibility for their impact on society and find ways to be provocative without completely straying from the truth.

While it's more significant in politics, the same applies for women's sports and their effect on our culture.

The problem is most of the tendency toward "self-absorbed opinion", as Ohlmeyer describes it, usually comes at the expense of depth. Yes, I hate to inform you: sometimes our subjective opinions lack substance. Sometimes, our opinions are even - brace yourself - blatantly wrong. I know some people really like their opinions and obviously we're entitled to them. I'm certainly not suggesting that somebody out there has a "perfect" perception of things. Yet the problem still remains that journalists are supposed to have informed opinions at the very least. And what we're seeing now is an acceptance of journalism -- particularly sports journalism -- that lacks any measure of an informed opinion.

Substanceless self-absorbed opinion hurts women's basketball simply because there's relatively little of substance out there to counterbalance the nonsense. "Internet writers" certainly help add to that quantity of coverage of women's basketball and at least create a stronger "web presence". The WNBA has done a good job of reaching out to bloggers, even iinviting two Swish Appeal writers to the 2010 Draft. In addition, the web presence of players like rookie Jene Morris who tweet and make themselves accessible to fans has to been seen as valuable.

"So it is good to see that bloggers or different people are starting to focus on the WNBA and that we are able to tell our stories more than we have been in the past," said Washington Mystics general manager Angela Taylor in an interview with Swish Appeal back in February. "I just think media's changing, it's evolving so with these new platforms that we have - especially online it's just good to see the greater coverage."

However, the tension is that blogging lends itself to the type of unbalanced opinion-driven writing that Ohlmeyer alluded to as leading to some "new lows". While bloggers for men's sports can just toss in their opinion because there's an abundance of information and history already out there, the fact is that bloggers for women's sports -- who, in my experience, care deeply about the growth of their sports as much as watching them -- are working from a different starting place.

"We don't have that much depth when media is covering us necessarily on a regular basis," said Taylor.

It's difficult for people to understand how a game works if nobody is mainstream news outlets don't dedicate resources to in-depth coverage of women's sports and bloggers generally don't have access. I am not advocating that everyone should like the WNBA or that everyone should cover it. What I actually find problematic is that there is large group of people producing content about women's sports that  a) don't care for the subjectmatter and write ill-informed pieces that they know will hurt the game going in or b) care about the game but don't have the time and resources to dedicate to providing in-depth coverage.

If women's sports doesn't have the balance and fairness of "news", the lows of commentary can actually do more harm than good. More opinion is simply insufficient; what's needed is more people to actually produce a knowledge base about the game itself if it is ever to grow.

To me, that's what is meant by depth.

A large part of producing that knowledge base is simply a matter of making the effort to document what happens within a team, on or off the court, before writing about it.

Earlier this year, University of Washington point guard Sarah Morton addressed the issue when asked about her response to some of the negative attention the media has given the team and particularly coach Tia Jackson.

"I feel like if you're not on this team understanding what we're going through it's kinda hard to make a judgment about Coach J when you're not realizing what's really going on," said Morton. "Even to parents we're like, ‘Hey mom, dad: you don't really know what's going on.' We're there, we experience it, we go through it and we like Coach J so if you don't have anything positive to say - and that goes for everyone, like any outside folk - we don't really listen to what they have to say that's negative."

Now of course we could dismiss her comments as defensive: the sports information director was standing right there and nobody would openly tell a group of media members that they think their coach is bad. Furthermore, UW did struggle to an extent where questioning the coaching might have been justified. In addition, in a city like Seattle with multiple competing sports teams - not only UW men's sports but also the MLB, NFL, and increasingly MLS - media outlets are sometimes more concerned with the bigger draws.

"The media has always been a challenge," said New York Liberty general manager Carol Blazejowksi in an interview with Swish Appeal. "I don't think just for New York. When you're one horse in a one paper town it's a little bit easier. But when you have multiple media outlets and then you've got how many professional teams in this marketplace? It's difficult. There's a lot of clutter here."

Nevertheless, Morton's point is valid: for a journalist to simply make judgments without the attempt to understand and communicate the entirety of a situation is a disservice to readers and the team. The fact that people I talk to know more about Tia Jackson being on the hot seat than the details of UW's strengths and weaknesses should be seen as problematic. And this is not a shot at the people who cover the team regularly and do an outstanding job. It's about the fact that prior to a turnaround this year, it was inexplicably easier to find information about why Jackson should be fired than the team itself on the whole.

As long as nobody covers women's sports in depth and people are only spurred to action when there's negative news, women's sports will continue to get lost in the clutter of the sports world and never establish any sort of relevance.

"I think a lot of times, it's the score or maybe it's a two paragraph article," said Taylor. "These are the best female basketball players in the world. This is the longest-running professional women's sports leagues in the States. So we want to be relevant as that -not as a novelty, but really considered and valued for what they are...not talking about it's not the men it's not the NBA [but] here's what the Mercury looks like or here's what the Dream look like."

In order to be relevant, what the WNBA needs is more of is "an in-depth conversation and discussion about the relevancy of the WNBA it's teams and its players as athletes", according to Taylor.

Adding to an in-depth conversation by writing an informed opinion of a situation that includes some measure of grounding in facts rather than speculation does not mean that journalists should avoid writing negative things. Nor is it tantamount to becoming an extension of the team's public relations effort. The idea behind a conversation would seem to be that people exchange multiple perspectives to get a complete picture.

The objective, again, is simple: bringing readers closer to the game by reporting on what's actually going on.

While WNBA fans often complain about what the league is not doing to promote itself, in the cynical world we live in, they cannot do everything themselves either. People outside the league will have to assume some of that burden. Right now, it's not just that they're not doing it - in many cases it's just that the superficial level of coverage ends up further marginalizing the league. And although the speed of the internet can be a bad thing, it has afforded the league multiple passionate new perspectives out there that can help the league become more relevant at some level.

However, even with these new platforms and greater coverage the fact remains that if "bloggers or different people" replicate the same "self-absorbed opinion" based coverage of the game, it will ultimately make no difference. Bloggers, probably moreso than journalists, want to "write what they want" and that's fine to an extent. But those truly interested in helping the game become more relevant would be well served to take inspiration from Greenberg: using all this new media to enhance a disciplined imagination.

There will never be another Mel Greenberg, however he represents a type of journalism that women's basketball could use more of.

Relevant Links:

Over the past week, we've had a somewhat organic, loosely connected series of articles about media coverage of the WNBA (I say "somewhat" because most of it was planned). I think it's our goal to somehow bring this insight to our coverage of the WNBA this year. Wish us luck.

On sports media (Pt. 1): "A good columnist's thinking doesn't end until the event does"

Bing partnership and groundbreaking TV deals show "how the WNBA is evolving"

Jene Morris: A Social Media Mastermind in the Making?

"The Persecution of Excellence": Why sensationalistic journalism is bad for women's basketball

Dream Operating Officer Speaks to Gwinnett Post

WNBA Draft – thoughts and takeaways from Secaucus

Transition Points:

  • Yes, this was me thinking aloud about how we're going to do things at Swish Appeal this season. Your patience is appreciated and your feedback welcome. ;)
  • Another issue to account for is that of homophobia in women's sports. Both WSTR and Anna Clark have addressed the issue. From Clark:

    Lesbian athletes just can't win - Broadsheet - Salon.com
    People like Coach Sherri Murrell who come out in an arena rife with homophobia are profoundly influential in changing the game. But the need for collective action remains. Homophobia is so endemic to women's sports that it calls for nothing less than endemic action, pulling together fans, boosters, coaches, owners, athletes, funders, trainers, athletic directors, sportswriters, administrators, parents, elementary school gym teachers and small-town softball coaches --everyone. In the vacuum left by It Takes a Team! and GLAAD, these voices resonate. These voices, after all, helped build this crippling homophobic culture in the first place.

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