Confessions of a Sports Fan: The Media vs. Professional Athletes

James Nosek | Press Box Perspectives Editor/Columnist

The relationship between the media and professional athletes has been the same way since the day the first athlete was paid to put on their Nikes and compete against another team. It’s been a great and disappointing relationship, no doubt about it. It’s not a perfect “black and white” contrast though; the relationship has its gray spots. But recently it is becoming more and more publicized, in a negative way. Well, it’s probably been going way before I was born, but in my generation, it is the worst I’ve ever seen it.

Back in early April, Kevin Durant, a superstar NBA player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, called out ESPN analyst Skip Bayless for knowing nothing about basketball. It was in response to some points Bayless was making about Durant, and they weren’t positive to say the least. Those two went back and forth. Durant said that Bayless has never laced up his sneakers and hit the basketball court in a real game, so how could he talk about the sport like he’s played it before. Bayless came back simply saying that his job is to study and talk about sports and that Durant is out of line for saying he knows “nothing.” Then, even as a little joke, Bayless brought up his high school basketball career. He added that he played point guard in high school, as he tweeted online, and he knows more than Durant thinks he does. But of course, that was all in good humor—sort of.

During an ESPN First Take episode, about a month or so ago, Jalen Rose, an ESPN analyst and former NBA player, called out Bayless with some trash from the past (as I call it). The Rose-Bayless back and forth agreement was over the Durant-Bayless battle that started this heated, nationally televised debate. But that wasn’t what really mattered. Rose was calling out one of the greatest sports writers of the past 20 years and one of the most well known media figures on TV (loud mouth or not). It was kind of out of line, but the basis was about how Bayless wasn’t really good back in high school, so it doesn’t live up to the level of an NBA player—to go back to Durant’s point. (plus he said that Bayless lied on his Twitter posts, but that’s beside the point). Here’s how it went…

“Did you average 1.4 points as a senior in high school,” Rose belted to Bayless.

“Yes, I did, a huh,” Bayless replied.

Rose came back again, this time attacking Bayless: “oh, so all that Pistol Pete stuff huh?”

“Water Pistol Pete junior,” was what he called Bayless.

“Oh, we’ll address that later if you want,” Bayless said back. (Obviously, sort of offended by the nick name).

“Don’t ignore that—did you play JV as a junior,” Rose, playing it smooth, said back to Bayless.

“Yes,” was all he could say back to Rose’s comment. At that point, he was a little put off, but nothing too extraordinary.

Then to make matters worse, about three weeks ago Bayless battled another athlete, this time Marcellus Wiley, and it was over the use of nicknames for these said athletes. It was great television—mostly due to the loud mouth persona Bayless shows off every episode of First Take—but it was also one of the best debates they have had. Is the media’s form of “name calling” in-bounds or out-of-bounds?

Although Marcellus was sometimes outnumbered—as Rob Parker and Israel Gutierrez, and even Jay Crawford (the show’s host) are all part of the media—he still put up a good fight, better than I imagined. Of course Wiley, who played 10 years in the NFL, referred to the media’s use of nicknames to be out-of-bounds. Bayless, always playing the bad guy—which he doesn’t deserve all the time—was actually playing this out pretty cool. Naturally, he was on the side of the press—and the fact that he has given some great nicknames in the past, such as “Prince James” and “Tony Romeo,” helped as well.

The debate would go back and forth for about 10 more minutes, and then at the end, it got interesting.

Wiley used the points that Rose brought up to Bayless a few weeks before to his advantage. Wiley was directing the name calling to Bayless. He asked Bayless how he felt about the nickname Rose gave to him a few weeks before. Bayless was a little flustered but overall he didn’t care.

“I have really thick skin,” is what he said in response.

Bayless used the defense that he is bashed everyday on First Take and that he has pretty much been bashed his whole career as a sports writer (and a loud one at that). It was a little offending at first, but it was just a little slap on the hand for him.

He realizes his position and his reputation. So many athletes can’t stand Bayless because he calls them out—usually pretty badly—on live TV. But sorry to break the news, he’s usually pretty correct in his debates. As a journalist he has to, and I feel he does. When reading that, don’t think I’m saying he’s always right—because he is not—but I am saying he always has a good point. Either if you agree or disagree, both claims have back up from the Bayless mind and research.

So, with that being said, Bayless has the best mentality about sports. It is a competitive “dog eat dog” world. When you don’t perform at your highest level, you will be either called out positively or negatively. That’s the same thing for a good performance as well. That’s how this sports world works. Media and the pro athletes have to mingle professionally.

For the most part they do, but why can’t modern professional athletes have the thick skin, like we saw with Bayless? Why can’t athletes realize that their performance is pretty important but even more important is their attitude and well being as a professional? Sure, not every athlete is going to have the greatest stats in the world, but if that is true and they become little 12 year olds about the situation, then there is a problem.

These professional athletes don’t realize how blessed they are. They get paid a ridiculous amount of money to simply play a game. I would dream to have that job; seriously that’s why so many people strive to be one. But with that, comes great responsibility (sorry for the Spider Man quote there).

If the media gives LeBron James a bunch of clever nicknames—which can be very much negative—then he should take a step back and think of why he is earning that nickname. “LeBrick” is another famous Bayless nickname for James and really if you get why he calls him that, then it wouldn’t be so crazy. James jumped straight from high school to the NBA and that wasn’t the only baggage that followed. The fact that people and the media were comparing James as the “next Michael Jordan” was the real problem. That’s been Bayless’ agreement for years and overall, he’s right about it.

James has lost in the finals twice—getting swept by the Spurs when he played for the Cav’s and last year when his Heat lost to the Mav’s. He has had countless opportunities to be a clutch performer and hasn’t answered the call (his game winner a few years ago against the Magic was one instance that doesn’t really matter because the Cav’s ended up losing the series). Maybe that’s why Bayless has dubbed him “Prince James,” because he isn’t a king, like his nickname insists.

Also, if James wouldn’t be so bitter about the nicknames and the negative attention around himself then there would be no need to call him “the bad guy of the NBA.” The way he left Cleveland, went on ESPN for his “Decision,” and joined a team that was already built with NBA stardom, were all factors that the media eats up. So, why so surprised LeBron? You’re doing all that to yourself.

On the same episode of First Take with Wiley, Bayless and Parker, the second segment included the writer, Israel Gutierrez. And there was still the same debate: is the media crossing the line with nicknames? One of Gutierrez’s main points was ironically about Michael Jordan. To make his point he asked Bayless a few questions—because remember Bayless used to be a columnist with the Chicago Tribune while the Chicago “Jordan years” were in full swing.

Gutierrez asked Bayless what Michael Jordan would have done if there was something negatively written about him in one of his columns. Skip answered back: “Nothing.” And as the conversation continued Bayless said that Jordan would have kept his mouth shut, went out the next game and returned the favor, by scoring 40, 50 or even 60 points. Bayless said that was Jordan’s attitude about sports and that is absolutely true.

These athletes, and not just LeBron, need to realize that they are paid a ridiculous amount of money to go out and perform, that’s their job. A journalist’s job is to go out there and inform the public, with integrity, through news and opinion. Journalistic integrity is a totally different discussion—and especially with the changing media platforms in the past few years—but every paid writer or reporter has the freedom to print or broadcast their story, with strong ethics of course. But that’s not even the point I’m trying to make, it’s the fact professional athletes complain about a nickname or a column that has pretty much bashed them to pieces, but their only excuse is, “oh you guys (journalists) never played a day in your life. You don’t know what it’s like.”

If they have a bad performance, these athletes will make up any excuse in the book to try and defend themselves. And when the local columnist rips them to shreds, they feel uncomfortable and offended. I’m not saying every journalist is correct with what they write, but remember it is always backed by facts and research. It’s not like they are pulling their information off the nearest tree and randomly regurgitating it on paper. If that’s the case then they should be fired and they’re not representing journalism with the integrity it should glow.

Michael Jordan—and so many more athletes before and after him—didn’t throw a hissy fit when they heard their name bashed against the wall in print. In response I say: either play better or have some thicker skin. The people writing about them are most of the times going to have a valid point or opinion because of all the journalistic work that goes behind their story. That doesn’t mean they’re always right, but they will at least tell you why they wrote something. I can’t stand turning on the TV and hearing a star athlete acting like a little girl because they’ve been nicknamed something, or written about in a bad way. If they want to look up to an idol, or a person they should act like, then observe Jordan’s and other athlete’s attitude towards the media, because that’s the way it should be. Shut the writers up, not by going on national TV and saying they don’t know what they’re talking about, but by going out the next day and saying “here ya go,” with their performance. It’s only fair, right?

Here’s some more food for thought