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NFL Sunday outtakes: Role of sports journalism in mythmaking

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo News cleared about 80 column inches for Sunday's story about Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, his legacy, two dead men and some inconvenient questions.

While that's about five times the length of an average newspaper story, it still wasn't even space for me to include all of the fascinating insight I gathered in my research about Lewis and how he should be viewed as a human being, not merely one of the NFL's greatest players.

Dr. Lawrence Wenner, a professor of communication and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, delivered some attention-grabbing thoughts about how sports journalists are complicit in the mythmaking machine.

Wenner directs the university's Forum on Media Ethics and Social Responsibility, is a former editor of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues and recently wrote the book "Fallen Sports Heroes, Media and Celebrity Culture."

With the downfalls of Joe Paterno, Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o worthy examples to learn from, Wenner's observations certainly will be discussed in the writing class I teach at Canisius College.

"Most sports coverage is about what goes right and how you get things to go right," Wenner said. "There's a very interesting dynamic in sport journalism. If you're writing about something that's very negative, why would people be interested in that in an ongoing basis?"

Negative stories such as Lewis' involvement in a double-murder case or the NFL's concussion problem, are inconvenient to mainstream sports journalism, Wenner claims, because they jeopardize a reporter's access and popularity and is bad business for networks that covet lucrative programming rights.

On an episode of "Outside the Lines" last week, ESPN addressed Lewis' involvement in the 2000 killings of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, but generally has avoided the subject.

"In a way, 'Outside the Lines' is an interesting title for a program on ESPN," Wenner said, "because it's outside of what ESPN usually does, which is be fans of sport and putting it on a pedestal and celebrating it and saying that it's important and desirable and heroic.

"For sports journalists to really dwell on the negative, the downside of the sport socialization system and the limited development of these people and the win-at-all-costs value system, it tarnishes the purity and desirability of the product.

"To do that on a regular basis risks perhaps the most important thing you have in sport journalism: getting inside dope. If you're a critic of the sports system, what happens is you're putting your access to these sports organizations at risk because they'll no longer trust you."

Given the immediacy of news on dozens of sports channels, all-sports radio and social media, game coverage doesn't drive sports journalism like it used to. What separates journalists is their access to inside information, the real currency of our profession.

"It's an interesting dynamic," Wenner said. "A lot of men in the United States open the paper and go to the sports section first. Why do they do that? They do it because the sports page doesn't tell you about, 'Oh, my God, what's going on in Syria?' Or, 'What are we doing in Afghanistan?' Or, 'What terrible things are going on with the economy?' It allows you to escape into this fantasy world, where great things happen.

"That's why we have the coverage that we do and why concussions in football are a story that gets picked up once in a while because somebody wants to be responsible. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, we're not going to get a lot of, 'Remember, these guys are getting their heads smashed in.' "

tagged

Manti Te'o | NFL Sunday Outtakes | Ray Lewis | Super Bowl XLVII
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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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