A Nation of Spin Doctors Should not Hold Us Back
Trains of Thought
"Well, I'm just happy to be here. I'm going to take it one game at a time, and the good Lord willing things will work out. You know, a friend of mine once said that this is a simple game: you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains. Think about that." Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh
When it comes to dealing with the media, we are a nation of spin doctors. Afraid that our words will be twisted beyond repair, we never say what we mean. So we say as little as possible and adhere to a common code: Never admit anything. Always keep 'em guessing. Shun the exposure.
After all, the media is searching for controversy, right? It will take anything it can get. Stretching the facts isn't out of the question--sensationalism sells papers and gets people talking. Isn't that what newspapers want to do?
Hell, if The Crimson ever called me up, I'd be wary, and I'm supposed to know what's going on down here.
As a reporter--and particularly a sports reporter--I run into this situation nearly every day. Harvard Athletics employs only three slick-talking professional spin doctors, and uses them to shield only the senior athletic department officials, so all the coaches and athletes are on their own.
How do they manage in the face of our constant harassment? By saying as little as possible. Don't exult too much after a win. Don't admit to despondence after a loss. Don't be too colorful. Don't give them the satisfaction.
Which is why this weekend was a little surprising.
New Haven has always been a target of derision, but Saturday night it became a source of comedy after the Harvard men's hockey team demolished Yale, 12-1, in one of the more notable shellackings of the modern era.
After that game, the Crimson locker room churned out some of the best quotes of the season. Our intrepid columnist, Darren Kilfara, reported some of the highlights in yesterday's paper:
"They parted like the Red Sea!"--Junior Cory Gustafson, on how the Yale defense helped him to the first of his two goals.
"I guess nobody wants to talk to me about my game-winning assist...same old, same old...Alright!"--sophomore Peter McLaughlin, playfully looking for a little media coverage and then getting some.
"Waaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!"--Junior Steve Martins, Metallica T-shirt on, obviously enjoying himself.
"I've gotta score before Christmas."--Junior Perry (two-assists-tonight-but-I-still-haven't-scored-th is-year) Cohagan, greedy to get some action for himself.
"Are you still worried about our five-on-five play? Huh? I want to know!"--Coach Ronn Tomassoni, as happy as the coach ever allows himself to be.
Full of emotion, humor, zest, truth...quotable beauties like these do not cross our path very often. If you, the reader, are tired of hearing how "this loss is really a positive for us," then believe me when I tell you that we at The Crimson drown in it.
Case in point: quotes from the women's basketball team after its 77-57 loss to Rhode Island, published in the same issue of The Crimson. "I love the way the team played," said Coach Kathy Delaney Smith. "This is the best game we've had working as a team," said junior forward Tammy Butler. These banalities moved Mayer Bick to exclaim--in print--"What was the score again?"
This lack of color is somewhat the fault of our reporters, whose job it is to prod people into exciting and colorful expositions. Too often, athletes face lame reporters; after his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, the first question Don Larsen faced was, "Is this the best game you've ever pitched?"
But reporters can't make athletes say anything they don't want to, and very good writers continually come up stymied.
Rare is the player like former Houston Astros pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton, who once said that "I've been tempted to say into a microphone that I fell I won tonight because I don't believe in God."
And you NEVER hear anyone speak like former Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics slugger David Henderson. "I don't see any Stanford guys running around here," he once said of his teammates on the A's. "Look at [catcher] Terry Steinbach. He thinks hockey is a sport."
See? Good, clean fun. But at Harvard? Can you imagine Tomassoni saying "I went through New Haven once and it was closed?" With apologies to Jay Johnstone (who said that about Cleveland)--no.
Take former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel's famous testimony before a Senate subcommittee:
Senator: "I was asking you, sir, why it is that baseball wants this bill passed."
Stengel: "I would say I wouldn't know but I would say the reason why they'd want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest baseball sport that has gone into baseball and from the baseball angle--I'm not going to speak of any other sport. I'm not in here to argue about other sports; I'm in the baseball business. It's been run cleaner than any baseball business that was ever put out in the 100 years at the present time."
Senator: "Well, Mr. Mantle, do you, uh, have any observations with reference to, uh, the applicability of the anti-trust laws to baseball?"
Mickey Mantle: "Uh, well, my views are just about the same as Casey's."
Then? One of the most popular figures in sports. Today? Stengel would just be classified as stupid.
The trend in sports these days is toward the colorless. The National Football League has spent the last three years cracking down on touchdown and sack dances. National Basketball Association players brought new meaning to the term "free expression" for a long time, but the league's new trash-talking rules seem designed to send America's most entertaining sport into the doldrums as well. And in the meantime, the Freshman Dean's Office cancels a harmless game of "Assassin" because it's not in keeping with "Harvard's image."
Brought up in the post-Watergate world of hard-hitting but shoddy investigative journalism, the youth of America are conditioned to say as little as possible to the media. If they do say anything, the media often twists it anyway. A cat that sits on a hot stove will never do so again, but it won't sit on a cold one either.
Vicki Goetze, a 20-year-old phenom on the LPGA tour, is being touted as the next great star. But you know what? She'll never make it. Oh, she can play, but an LPGA golfer needs exposure to become famous, and Goetze is a fountain of cliches so mundane people throw up their hands in disgust. Someday, Goetze will figure it out. She'll start showing some emotion and humor, and one year after that she'll be a household name. Writers are always happy to interview an interesting person.
Sportswriters these days are conditioned to deal with the insipid. We can fashion a story from the most routine "just happy to be here" lines. But to hear an athlete like Harvard football's Monte Giese '93 step up and say, "I hate Yale. I hate that team and I hate their fans"? What passion! Drama! Excitement! Clarkson University once printed up dinner napkins calling the Harvard men's hockey team "dumb, incestuous masturbators." But would anyone here ever call them a bunch of perverted finks? (Which, with all due respect, they are?)
It's left to the writers to create the color, and we try hard. Sometimes too hard, which is why many athletes will probably sympathize with this definition of the word "quote": That which a player says immediately after the game but is sure he didn't say when it appears in print the next day.
The surest way to get those quotes right? Say what you mean--in your own words, not the words of the millions who have gone before you. We'll remember that.
Because the dirtiest little secret of sportswriting is this: say interesting things, and you will get in the paper. Correctly. Guaranteed.
What's more, you'll make friends for life down here.
John B. Trainer is a Crimson staff writer. He takes it one column at a time.