Playoff excitement is pervasive in Baltimore again. The perennially powerful Ravens are in the Super Bowl tournament for a 4th straight year and there’s every reason to believe this is the year they capture the Lombardi Trophy. Winners of the AFC North division, the Ravens have earned a first-round playoff bye, so let’s take this extra week to re-set the landscape in a town gripped with purple passion. Specifically, I want to address the perceived role of the sports media and what seems to be a need to re-draw some lines.
Fans are the customers that are the economic and emotional force that moves pro sports. Without you there’s nothing. The investment of your disposable income and intense passion make sports the multi-billion dollar business that it is, and the NFL is king when it comes to pro sports. The media- broadcast, print and Internet- is a big piece of the sports business machine, as well. The broadcast networks pay out billions of dollars in rights fees to air the games, and that money is the foundation for the NFL’s riches. Aside from the rights holders, other media entities feed the voracious fan appetite with information and reporting related to the teams, players and games. That aspect of media coverage also includes analysis and opinion. What seems to get blurred- or simply misunderstood- is the demarcation between fans and media- and what the fans expect from the media.
A perfect example of that misunderstanding occurred this week when Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston published his opinion that it’s time for Ravens legends Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to step aside- or be forced aside by the coaching staff- because those players’ skills have diminished with age and injury. It’s a fair and debatable opinion, and it’s Preston’s job to express his opinion whether that opinion is widely agreed upon or not. Outrage over a columnist’s opinion is commonplace- in fact, it’s hoped for. But in this case, with the backdrop of “playoff fever,” Preston is accused by some (posting on the Internet or calling into radio shows) of somehow being subversive to the Ravens cause. I heard a radio caller ask with great anger and outrage: “When is the Baltimore Sun going to get on board? We’ve got a great thing going here. Why aren’t they (the Sun) pulling for the home team?” I was pleased to hear the radio host (Brett Hollander of WBAL) tell the caller it’s not the media’s job to “root” for the team. Thank you, Brett.
Even something as innocent (and meaningless) as media predictions draw ire. Like many analysts, I thought it was possible the Ravens could lose at Cincinnati in the regular season finale and asked to make a prediction (on WJZ-TV and in the Sun) I put forth a guess that the Ravens would lose 20-17 to the Bengals. I received angry emails and messages as if I had issued a binding prophecy of doom. Some consider a media member who picks against the home team or writes a unpopular opinion to be some sort of dissenter. Well, when you look at the world with your fan glasses on- that’s what you’re going to see. But I know Baltimore is smarter than that, smart enough to know the difference. Heck, I’ve been expressing my opinion from the beginning of the football season that I feel the Ravens are the best team in the AFC and the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Just stating my opinion, yet some have called me a “homer” for it. I must be doing something right because I’ve been labeled both a homer and hater at the same time.
Know your role. If you’re a fan, you root for your team. As a reporter, I can’t root for the Ravens. That would compromise my role as a credible reporter. I can’t root for the Orioles or the Terps either. You do that if you’re a fan- reporters don’t (or shouldn’t) do that. That being said, I’m a proud Baltimore resident and have been for 15 years. I’ve made Baltimore my home. I recognize that it’s beneficial to the city and surrounding areas that the local teams do well. It’s good for the economy and good for the general demeanor of the population. People feel good when the Ravens do well. So, I’m glad to see the results of the local teams having success- I just can’t “root” for it, not in the professional role that I have and take seriously. I have great respect for the professional dedication of people like John Harbaugh, Ray Rice, Buck Showalter, Matt Wieters and many others. It’s great to get to know them, tell their stories, witness them in competition, report and offer analysis and opinion on their work as competitors. But “cheer” for them? Again, not my role. That’s for you the fans. As broadcaster Jack Buck once punctuated a dramatic baseball moment: “Go crazy, folks. Go crazy.” But don’t go so crazy as to forget you watch the games differently than the media and you have an emotional investment in the outcome. The media? We’re just doing our job. And win or lose, it’s a job I feel very fortunate to have.
Now, let’s enjoy this playoff run. Each in our own proper way.