On journalism and IAOFM

With Lindsay Jones having left the Denver Post, I’ve enjoyed Benjamin Hochman's work on the Broncos. He also writes on basketball, for those who partake.

His story on one of his mentors carries some strong concepts on modern sports journalism. Some teachers seem to stay with us. Here’s what Hochman had to say with one of his better articles:

But I do remember Fred Vultee. He taught copy editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and to this day I recall his lesson about cautiously quoting athletes about issues out of their realm. "Our job is to ask - how do they know what they know," he'd say.

We're failing you, Fred! In a soundbite-driven, 140-character world, suddenly if any athlete says anything about anything, it's a thing, it's a tweet, it's a headline, it's suddenly part of the daily discourse...

...Sure, yeah, you can argue - hey Hoch, at least he knows the quarterback position. But where's the context of his opinion?

So I called up Fred. He's now an associate professor at Wayne State University, and his Twitter biography says, "Former copy editor, now teaching, studying and complaining about the craft of journalism. Mostly harmless."

Like the old days in class, he reminded me of accountability.

"Journalist first, and then the public after that, are kind of failing to ask - how do you know what you know?" he said. "It's kind of a bad habit we've developed in the American press - opinions are important just because important people have them. ... People are entitled to their opinions, and the first amendment is all about that, but people don't always stop and think - why should I listen to this person? Is it because I've seen them before? Or because it's going to help me make a good democratic decision."

I keep finding good things in Ben's writing. I’ve had four mentors in this life, and each has given me gifts that I can’t even explain. I’m grateful for each of them.  

Humans have a tendency to often contrast their views with whoever has a different perspective. Many folks try to hold others to a vague standard of critical analysis that they themselves can’t delineate or achieve. Remembering the basics of journalism that Vultee gifted to Hochman included comprehending those standards. That's one of Hochman's strengths. It’s part of why I enjoy reading him.

On topic, I often hear people base their opinions on "I've watched football for X years, and I say..."

OK. You've watched 1-3 games a week on what used to be TV. What did you study about the game, and whom did you learn it from? What textbooks are you using? Why? Talk to me about that and we’ll both learn more.

In other words, how DO you know what you claim to know? How do you perceive what others are thinking or open yourself to other perspectives?

It's a reality that humans tend to take a simplistic approach to complex problems.

A complex issue could be, "Why you would and wouldn't run a Wide 9 defense."

It might be, "How should we approach the disaster that's our healthcare system?"

When you consider a complex area, where do you get the 'facts' that you're basing your opinions on? Most people just list one or a few things that happened to someone they know or knew. That's a superficial way to even think about a topic, much less to claim to know anything about it. This reality stops few people from taking the approach, though.

A fact is not a theory, based on a minute sample nor a personal opinion. You might disagree with a source that forms the basis of another person's viewpoint. But to debate it, you should at least learn what it is before trying to counter it. It doesn't hurt to examine your own premises just as rigorously as you will others.

With some outliers, professional ballplayers are like the majority of people. They have lots of opinions, both rational and bizarre. Most of the players are also quite young, so their real-world experience level isn’t always high. Some have a life-basis in solid research or extensive life experience. Sometimes, their theories have done well against real-world outcomes. Other times, not so much.

I'm not suggesting that personal opinions can't be valid, and I'm not claiming that there is only one 'right' way to see anything. But a Lard from last week gave us a nice look at how Hochman's point can show up in a comment thread.

One of our readers was complaining about ‘liberal agendas’ and ‘non-football’ topics. And, s/he was was off-course by investing in that argument.

There is an insistence within most people on categories. People are far more complex than the labels of liberal, conservative, socialist, commie, pinko, or pagan. I don’t know many people with ‘agendas’ who spend hours writing about football. When people need to minimize the perspectives of others, it says far more about them than the folks who hold other views.

Some would have you accept that no one has beliefs unless it’s theirs. They’ll often tell you that everyone else has an agenda.

If you consider decrying bigotry an agenda, then I have one.

Otherwise, it’s an ad hominem attack (If your argument is weak, you attack the other party for their ‘agenda’). I have an agenda on education, too - I’m in favor of it. I tend to spend time with people who are well educated (not always through our schools) and open to the exchange of perspectives.

We've had readers complain that some of the topics IAOFM addresses aren't within the realm of football. I consider that statement ill thought out for three reasons. The first carries three sub-categories that produce the most bickering. They have been:

  1. The reality that homosexuality exists
  2. That it has throughout history
  3. That it isn't the business of anyone but consenting adults who prefer that form of lovemaking. Talking about it, though, has brought it from the shadows into the light of day.

It’s one area of bigotry that many in our culture either fight against or fight to defend. It raises great ire in the comments.

But then Michael Sam's situation, among others, became national news. Was Doug "trying to shove his liberal agenda down everyone's throat," as some have claimed? Or was he ahead of the curve on a topic that is now linked to football in both the college and professional ranks?

Second, I should take some responsibility.

I've been writing on the dangers of brain trauma for much longer than it's been in the news.

A lot of people disagree with me.

Some football fans say it’s the players' fault for not knowing the information the league denied them. I happen to have some credentials in this area. Healthcare and brain traumas in particular are now seen as overlapping the game of football.

Only four years ago, the NFL denied any connection between the two. Was I a bit ahead of the curve, or trying to force my anti-business, commie pinko theories down other people's throats?

As far as I'm concerned, it's the former as well as the latter. Football is a part of society, and many of the problems it has are reflections of societal disagreements. Bigotry and the harsher realities of our healthcare system are two of them. I will argue for the right of anyone to perform their job in as safe an environment as we can make it. If you won’t, you’ve never had to feed a family despite a disability. Judgment’s easy, if you lack compassion.

Bigotry that goes beyond the question of sexual preference has also been a common topic around here. Anyone who doesn't think that racial bigotry still exists in pro football has been hiding in a bomb shelter for the last 100 years or so. My evidence? I won't bore you with too much, but here are two examples.

First, list the franchise owners who are minorities. Didn't take long, did it?

Second, remember what Tex Schramm told Gene Upshaw? Tex apparently claimed:

Players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers, and the owners can always get more cattle.

That moment was a burnished example of the degree and source of bigotry and injustice in pro sports. The examples are legion, if someone cares enough to check them all. Michael MacCambridge's encyclopedic work America's Game is rife with documented and footnoted examples. I found that one on page 384.

So, is this article about football? It's about sports journalism, including football. It's about how we think, how we glean from life, and express our opinions about what we expect or believe in. I find that process overlaps the game of football. You might, and you might not. Either way, your answer should reflect a source (or more than one) and a basis for what you're talking about. It should go beyond, "Well, my great aunt Edna had this experience."

Life's complicated, grand, messy, convoluted, and ecstatic. No offense to Aunt Edna, but citing a single instance of anything, accurate in that case or not, proves nothing. The topics are far too broad to oversimplify into, “I know someone who struggled in one area, so the whole topic is stupid.”

To have an open mind is far more useful than to have an open mouth. It's still better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and prove it.  

But that's just my opinion.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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