Is Sports Writing a Fun Job?
The Beat Writer
I get a lot of good reader ideas from the Weekend Discussion threads. There was one, written in by Matt Hill, that I initially dismissed as a writing topic but kept coming back to. Or maybe it kept coming back to me, like an apparition I couldn’t shake loose. It wasn’t the scariest or saddest comment, and yet it haunted me. Here it is:
Is it fun to be a sports writer anymore? I've heard from a few friends that given the current climate it's not really that fun to be a TV writer anymore. How has being a sportswriter changed? I know you covered this a bit in the first post, but would still be interested to read.
There’s a lot that’s surprised me since I made the leap from The Athletic to Substack roughly three weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind, with more components to the journey than I could have imagined. But if I had to note the absolute most striking aspect of the feedback I’ve gotten, it’s this: The outpouring from NBA media people who have reached out to me about how miserable they are. Since I noted my own burnout, they have relayed theirs. And the confessions hurt to absorb, more than perhaps makes sense. Here’s a typical example:
Just read your piece on your new endeavor. Congrats and best of luck. It's really, really crazy the timing of me reading it. Just last night while I was laying in my bed with my girl, I was telling her "this game is rigged" referring to what reporting has become. Working sources for months on end, doing honest, diligent reporting work during the process — only to see folks get handed layups and praised for it. I started trying to figure out HOW and then started noticing who is repped by who and connecting all the dots. Wild world out here lol. But hey it is what it is, that's life.
While I grasped many of the reasons for why my peers felt this way, and obviously felt them myself on a certain level, I still found myself jarred by the responses. There’s just always a shock brought by learning that others are not as happy as they seem. It opens up that horrific stoner’s insight about the scale of invisible misery in the world. There’s a reason why Henry David Thoreau’s estimation that, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” sticks in your head and never leaves.
So wait. Before I continue. Why should you, the reader, care? Some people with perfectly useless jobs in the grand scheme feel burnt out? Whether you’re an NBA fan or a reader who joined up because I podded with Freddie DeBoer, it’s long odds that you’re breaking out the violin for the feelings of sports bluechecks.
I get it. And obviously we’re not talking about gothic tragedy here. These people are well fed, living like kings by the standards of some centuries, doing jobs their friends are jealous of. There’s no great, sudden loss to speak of. It’s mostly a loss of time, a cumulative seep as the reaper creeps closer.
It’s not a unique problem in our modern Zoomified landscape. I just know this space fairly well and I suspect that its immiseration doesn’t exist on an island. If we look closely, we can see aspects of what’s happened elsewhere. Paradoxically, the more specific the reference, the easier it can be to see its universality. In getting there, I’ll tell you all a little bit about my own journey, and how it informs a view of the present. So here we go.
Sometimes people ask me how I got involved in the NBA world, because I don’t necessarily fit it, I guess. (First year covering the league, I once asked former Warriors coach Keith Smart what his “predilection” was and got deservedly laughed out of the room.)
It started back in 2008, when I made that clichéd post-college sojourn out to New York, with my best buddy Matt. Before I ventured out, a friend of a friend told me of a possible job opening. It was in the NBA, which seemed like an exciting prospect for a college graduate hiding out from the law school option. The NBA job was in a mysterious department called “Media Monitoring,” which sounded simultaneously Orwellian and cool. I applied right away and felt lucky to win the position, even if it paid only 17 grand a year after taxes. That was just enough for space in a rundown Brooklyn apartment, I reasoned, knowing nothing about what things actually cost.
The reality of Media Monitoring was not so cool. Every day, seven days a week, I’d wake up at 3:30 AM to beat the news cycle. Still in bed, I’d read literally everything written about the NBA in every major outlet. From there, I would send a summarizing memo to commissioner David Stern and others. You know, just notes on who to kill, who to shake from a balcony, etc. Simple stuff.
This was a miserable gig, and its seven-day requirement was perhaps legal only for the following technical reason: Back then, it was actually possible to read everything written about the NBA in a span that qualified as “part-time.” I’m still not sure why they gave no days off, but the short answer is probably just because the NBA could. If I didn’t want my job, some other early 20s kid would pop up and take it, if only to be associated with big-time sports. That was especially true after the 2008 financial crash bludgeoned New York City, something that happened concurrent with my arrival. Roughly a month after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the NBA would lay off nine percent of its workforce. I survived, however. I was too little to fail.
And so I kept going, despite the lack of sleep and other problems. The issue wasn’t any one morning, but the cumulative effect of never getting a day off and never visiting an office. I was a zombie, ambling outside life’s rhythms as I watched my good buddy Matt live out a fuller existence, with his girlfriend and his hobbies. In contrast, I’d take a late afternoon nap and then just walk the streets of New York alone. In the winter I’d trudge through the living history shtetl of Hasidic Borough Park, wafting through the snow like an aimless dybbuk, disconnected from all around me.
Every now and again, I’d attempt to steal joy out from under the schedule. I’d try to push it, try to go out, try to drink. My body would rebel every time. I have memories of waking up in a blizzard at the Coney Island station because I’d passed out on the N train. I vaguely recall vomiting on a brick wall, in the dark, about 30 minutes before I had to punch in for more Media Monitoring.
Obviously, this was not a happy time. When I finally put in my two weeks’ notice at the NBA, I committed to never having a job so miserable again. Every day vigilance, mediated through technology, was a hell to be avoided. Many years later, the late former NBA commissioner David Stern would chide me over my softness in this respect, scolding me in phone conversations with, “That’s why we fired you.” Though technically I quit, this was a distinction without a difference to David. Either way I couldn’t cut it. The job had chewed me up.
It hadn’t just done that, though. It had given me something to dream on. Since I was forced to read literally every NBA reporter’s work, I gained an understanding of what they did and how they moved about the nation as they did it, just following games. From the perspective of my drab existence, it seemed like a fantasy life, full of excitement. Every morning, before the sun rose, my eyes were pressed up against the window of their world. What city were Brian Windhorst and his oversized mic going to next? It’s how I learned that there’s a job where they not only pay you to watch basketball, but they pay for your travel all around the country. I wanted that job. I wanted out of that apartment. I wanted to become a beat writer.
What I didn’t know back in 2008, and what nobody knew, was that the job of beat writer was about to get worse going forward. Through the Media Monitoring window, I was looking at halcyon days. When we talk about the modern history of media, we tend to fixate on the “Before” of newspapers and the “After” of social media reaching critical mass. There was this whole epoch in between, though, of just pure Internet. At that point, the Internet was giving it pretty good to newspapers economically, but the job itself was mostly compartmentalized from the soul-sucking depravities of technology.
Older beat writers describe the pure Internet era rather wistfully. You’re in Chicago for a road game the next day. Maybe you spend the afternoon bullshitting on the phone with team executives. Maybe one of them tells you a relevant bit of breaking news about a trade. You’ll get to publishing it in a couple hours, perhaps. Breaking news was a thing back then, and a website operated out of Spain called HoopsHype chronicled who broke it, but the time pressure wasn’t overbearing and up-to-the-second constant. Twitter wasn’t a thing, at least like it is now.
The next day, you’ll prep your Notes column on team news to run before the game, and later, your “gamer” on the game itself. Beyond the modest output asked of you, you’re exploring cities and enjoying basketball — often from courtside seats. And hey, it wasn’t completely idyllic. Sometimes there was one cable to send out a story before deadline and writers literally had to be physically separated as they fought over it. Maybe this old model served the fans poorly and indulged writer inefficiency. All I know is that it’s missed. I never got that era, though. I was to get a whole other kind of experience, and not just because the times had changed.
I moved to Oakland in 2009 and blogged prolifically enough about the local team to where it caught ESPN’s attention. Ascending in NBA media felt a bit like trying to scale a ladder as it falls through a manhole, but I kept writing, just in case it could lead to something. When I was 28, ESPN reached out because they needed a Golden State Warriors beat writer. They’d never bothered with a Bay beat before, but the team was winning and drawing more eyeballs. I was already freelancing stories for them, doing the “80 percent of life is showing up” thing. It was easier to pay me modestly than to move a prominent writer to Oakland. And so with a freshly inked deal in spring of 2014, I’d finally realized the idle beat writer dream of my Media Monitoring days.
Many of you reading this know what a beat writer is, but I found that it’s a less-than-intuitive gig to explain to strangers at parties. Here’s the job: You follow one team to every practice and game, and produce a steady stream of updates for your readers. This is usually when the stranger at the party asks whether you write “for the team,” or if you fly on the team plane. The answer to both is “no,” and I can understand the confusion it inspires. Wait, so the job is to follow the team around on drab Southwest flights out of mid-market airports, like a shitty private eye, and produce content the team might even dislike? Well yes, yes indeed.
These days the job feels like an anachronism that’s a better fit for the days of three martini lunches and yes indeed it’s slipping away. Every year, there are fewer beat writers. Some major newspapers have dropped the job altogether. I’m just glad I got the experience when I did, even if, in my specific case, due to pressures particular to the moment, its extension would have killed me.
My specific beat experience was following the Golden State Warriors from spring of 2014 to spring of 2017, a moment when Twitter reached critical mass. It was also a period in which the Warriors went from fringe product to international brand, from also-ran to running the league. I was around when spindly Steph Curry became a superstar phenomenon that transcended sports for a while, a fame level that his security detail leader Ralph Walker called “1985 Michael Jackson.” On the road, walking in the procession behind Steph, you’d see people jump out of bushes, lean over railings, just do anything to get closer. For a time, it looked like a mass mania, a religious experience where people threw their bodies towards whatever light Steph represented to them.
It was all so surreal. The road felt like something between Almost Famous and Primary Colors, but with acid-trip nightmarish qualities thrown in. Every day was an assault on the senses, a real-life walk through animalistic screaming hordes, followed by an evening of editors’ ravenous demands for more more more Warriors stories. Anything would do. What, Klay said he liked Harry Potter? Write it up goddammit how could you miss that?! And then the ESPN news editor would be on my ass.
I’ve mentioned how nonfiction god Michael Lewis once showed up to a Warriors practice and told me that I had “the best job in the world,” and in some ways it was. The job yielded incredible highs. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I’m right back courtside in Oklahoma City, hearing sneakers squeak under the rumble of over 18,000 terrified people, as Steph Curry pulls up to decide their fate. You can’t replicate the adrenalized splendor of these moments. The playoff games, and the hyped-up locker room scenes that follow, stay with you forever, vivid scenes from a movie that feels too big to be from your little life. Am I fortunate to have been there for all this? Yes, the luckiest. Could I have done it forever?
What Michael Lewis didn’t know was that the two original newspaper beat writers of the Warriors dynasty era had burned out within two seasons — one had collapsed due to health issues stoked by the job, and another had simply quit. I myself was fired in 2017, a surprising result that left me feeling perversely ecstatic. The three of us and all the others couldn’t feed the gaping maw. The team was too hot and the content needs were too constant. Editors craved news stories, articles, tweets, video, whatever. While other beat writers struggled to cover ignored teams and envied our plight, we were dying from demand. We were not enough people.
Looking back on my beat-writing days, I can see that I was around two people who helped usher in modern impossibilities. One is my friend and total pro Anthony Slater, the current Warriors beat writer at The Athletic. The other is Diamond Leung, deputy sports editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who is more of an acquaintance but was always nice to me, for whatever it’s worth. Slater’s method endeared him to players and coaches. Leung’s method engendered their hatred. Both men’s methods presaged an era from which there would be no escape.
Leung was a Warriors beat writer for the Bay Area News Group, between 2014 and 2016, that period of meteoric rise. Somewhere early in that span, it became obvious that the public had an unquenchable appetite for all things Warriors. Looking outside the box for content opportunities, Leung would transcribe players' radio interviews and put the more eye-catching snippets into stories. Players had not yet internalized that these interviews could be aggregated in this way, so they resented the new sense of being watched that begets having to watch oneself.
While the players and coaches of that era were livid at Leung, they’d hardly notice the tactics today. It’s now assumed that aggregators are watching and waiting for any tidbit of salacious extemporaneous thought. The players work within a panopticon and that’s just how it is now. Diamond was ahead of his time.
Slater would replace Leung on the beat, and he would bring a new way to feed the insatiable need for Warriors content. In scrum interview settings (when there’s a crowd of reporters), Anthony would simply take his phone out, and film. It seems so obvious in retrospect, as though everyone knew to do this. Using the phone to film interview content had, of course, been happening for years in various other settings. But the NBA media scene has its own formalities, traditions and assumptions regarding content collection. Slater confidently broke the seal, often booming out the first interview questions in a session. Soon enough, nearly every media person had a phone out during the scrum.
One main difference between Slater’s method and Leung’s method is that the players seemed to enjoy the former. When Anthony started with the phone, I could sometimes see loquacious power forward Draymond Green’s smile slowly crease as he zeroed in on the camera. Slater was giving the players a stage in an otherwise mundane setting. They appeared to enjoy the direct approach to Leung’s, which they deemed sneaky.
While some players derived enjoyment from performing, most media people simply felt watched in a way they hadn’t been prior. Before Slaterization, unless there was a TV crew present, you weren’t under the impression that the audiovisual scene was going out to the world. This gave writers occasions when they could ask questions without feeling like they themselves were on a stage with a permanent record. Thanks to Slaterization, the media member was being watched, all the time, in nearly real time.
I don’t blame Slater at all for ushering in this job change. Indeed, it’s a compliment to him to say he astutely pioneered what had to happen. It’s just that it was one more technological encroachment among so many, leading to novel responsibilities. It’s an improvement that writers weren’t punching each other over a lone phone line like back in the early 2000s, but new efficiencies tended to create more work faster than they relieved you of stressors.
In the end, it’s the accumulation that kills. You go from simply having to file a Notes Column and a Game Column to whatever the hell Twitter is. Fast forward. Now you’re constantly watching the players and being watched yourself. You’d better keep checking your emails and your Slack channels; you’re expected to monitor both. Oh, and now welcome to the Zoom era, and all the digital meetings it can spawn. It’s a wonder your laptop doesn’t simply explode.
Whether you’re a beat writer, national media, or a team blogger, you’re constantly looking into your phone and over your shoulder. There’s a paranoid sense of responsibility, a duty to get stories or to comment on whatever story just happened. And then there’s another aspect of the ennui, what my well wisher referred to when lamenting, “Working sources for months on end, doing honest, diligent reporting work during the process — only to see folks get handed layups and praised for it.”
In this era, many media members are highly incentivized to keep pace with Twitter’s demand for “breaking news,” but the game is rigged in a manner nobody can admit publicly. Certain big-time newsbreakers are represented by the same agencies as the players and GMs, so there’s a self-dealing aspect to how information gets out. Not that those premier newsbreakers are living the easy life, either. The ones at the top are often fighting one another, viciously, in a grand game of power and influence. The Athletic’s newsbreaker Shams Charania gave up pickup basketball, lest he miss a phone call. Marc Stein once mentioned to me that he hadn’t watched a movie in over a decade. I hope he’s found more balance since starting this Substack. When we were both at ESPN I knew the mandate was to live a life free of pauses. It’s probably only gotten worse for those who remain.
I’m sure a few media members are enjoying themselves, but the average one probably isn’t, certainly not in the pandemic times. Most people are like Media Monitoring Me in 2008 now, with about as many trips to the office. Seven days a week, no real break save for that little September space that coincides with this essay. The NBA is indicating that this season begins without locker room access. Quietly, they’re assuring writers that the access will eventually return, but nobody really knows what the future holds. There’s a sense that this pandemic is the NBA’s mini-“Shock Doctrine,” a pretext for physically separating from the media in the manner they always preferred. Many players want it, as they’ve understandably soured on the whole media experience.
I just watch from the sidelines, thankful that I have this Substack to work on. I’m in the digital space, that world of abstraction, but at least I sense life here, especially in the comment section. I don’t know what I’m going to write in a given week, any more than you do, which means we’ve broken some tired loop.
Is it fun to be a sports writer anymore? I’m not sure that should matter to the fans. They’ve got their own problems, of course. I do think, however, that fun’s absence is illustrative of an onslaught felt more broadly. More technology, more vigilance, more demands, less privacy. It happened in my workplace and there’s a good chance it happened in yours as well. As a young man, my eyes were pressed up against the window, watching a world I wanted to join. Years into joining, I began to sense hardly anything other than eyes on me.