A different kind of sports writer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Jan 4 14:34:00 MST 2001


Village Voice, January 3 - 9, 2001

Moments of Glory
Mike Freeman, The New York Times
Sports Journalist of the Year

Mike Freeman isn't the most popular guy in the press box. And he's
perfectly happy about it. Over the last eight years, the New York Times
football writer has amassed an impressive body of work, combining
perceptive, enterprising beat-style coverage with real
Woodward-and-Bernstein stuff. (His 1999 investigation into an NFL
drug-test-suppression-for-collective-bargaining-concessions deal began with
an anonymous phone call and ended with five months of research.) But the
thing that's attracted the most attention over the last 12 months, and made
him the Village Voice's Sports Journalist of the Year, was his
whistle-blowing about conditions within the world of sports journalism.

Freeman's year of writing dangerously began with ESPN: The Uncensored
History, published this spring by Taylor. The book chronicled the network's
rise as a cultural and journalistic force, but also explored a disturbing
pattern of sexual harassment, subtle racism, and overarching corporate
arrogance. More than five years in the making, it was hardly a story that
laid itself bare, with sources naturally reluctant to be named for fear of
reprisal. And after reading about how female producers had to trade sexual
favors for time in the editing room, it's hard to watch SportsCenter the
same way again.

Needless to say, the powers that be in Bristol were none too happy when
Freeman's exposé hit the shelves. They mounted what Freeman describes as a
smear campaign, with ESPN flacks calling critics and trashing both him and
the book. "Some of the stuff they said was just untrue," he recalls. "They
sent an e-mail that said that I wanted to see personnel records, things
like that, to make me look like this wild, irresponsible, crazy reporter. I
expect IBM to do that, I expect the CIA to do that. I don't expect a
network that prides itself on being journalistically sound to do that." But
not all the reaction was negative—ESPN's offices and studios are now
reportedly wallpapered with notices about sexual harassment.

Freeman's next volley came on the Web. In November, on www.sportspages.com,
he posted an open letter that revealed the dark side of life in the press
box. Naming names, he chronicled the backstabbing, sexism, and racism
that's as much a part of sports journalism as wrinkled Dockers and cold hot
dogs. "The one thing that led me to do what I did is that sports journalism
is the least policed arm of our business," he explains. "When sportswriters
watch pornography in the press box and a woman reporter complains, and then
they curse out the woman reporter, there's no forum for them to be held
accountable for their actions." Indeed when an athlete is caught behaving
like this—as in the Lisa Olson story that Freeman broke while at The Boston
Globe (in which several pro football players were found to be sexually
harassing the then-Herald reporter)—it's front-page news.

In his Sportspages salvo, Freeman also described how some of his fellow
football beat writers would rather trash a reporter who scooped them than
work harder the next time. The case he related was his own, where a band of
Jets writers set out to get head coach Al Groh to deny a juicy quote that
Freeman was alone in reporting. Freeman's broader contention is that this
kind of defensive journalism, combined with the inappropriate coziness
between some reporters and their sources, often puts personal agendas ahead
of unbiased reporting. And it wasn't the first time it happened to him.
"When I was on the Giants beat," he laughs, "there was a writer who, if I
wrote that the sky is blue, he would write, 'Contrary to published reports,
the sky is green.' "

In the claustrophobic world of sports journalism, his allegations have
provoked more of a buzz than the six-packs Freeman has seen writers sneak
into the press box. "Strangers will come up to me and say, 'I'm glad you
did what you did,' " he says. "And I'll go to another press box and someone
will say, 'Why did you do that? Was it necessary to air our dirty laundry?'
" Perhaps the most positive outcome of Freeman's going public has been a
serious initiative to create a black sports-journalists organization, which
would battle the double standards on the beat.

Ironically, life on that beat has been pretty much business as usual for
Freeman. "Since I've written that thing, not one of the people I've written
about has said a word to my face," Freeman reports. "People have asked me
'How are you holding up?' I'm not holding up from anything. I was never
friends with any of those guys. I didn't speak to them anyway, except for
'hi-bye.' Now there's just no 'hi-bye.' " And that's quite all right with
the year's most controversial journalist.

—Allen St. John

Louis Proyect
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