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What is Real Accountability in the Big Business of Sports?

“As athletes, we should be held accountable at work.” That’s Larry Fitzgerald, star wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, writing in The Players Tribune last month.

“Accountable.” I’d been enjoying Fitzgerald’s column, a nuanced take on the modern sports media, but this word derailed me. What did he mean by that?

For most athletes, that kind of “accountability” is to fans, the sporting public. It’s about marching in front of the mikes and cameras and taking tough questions about…the usual. The game, the team, the season, the scandal du jour.

That’s commendable of him to say, I thought. It shows he’s a professional. How often do you hear someone on Wall Street, or in Washington, or on corporate jets, say that?

Then it struck me: Fitzgerald and I have completely different meanings for the word.

Larry Fitzgerald

By his definition, we already have “accountability” in sports. We demand it. Our sports media are obsessed with what players do on the field and off it. Fans can’t get enough of it. He was merely embracing that reality.

But I’m a journalist, not a wide receiver, and “accountability” means something very different in my world. It’s about those people on Wall Street, in Washington, and on corporate jets. The people who run our commerce and our politics. The people who own sports teams and leagues.

Once you think of “accountability” in this way, sports look very different. Sports is Big Business. That means power, and power is prone to abuse. The headlines confirm it.

We have accountability in sports today — in spades. And it’s directed at exactly the wrong people.

Derek-Jeter-1120x595-1050x595

None of this even crossed my mind until I started reading The Players Tribune last year. Its goal was fascinating: to give athletes total control over their stories in a way the media never would. Here’s what Derek Jeter said when he launched the site in October:

I do think fans deserve more than “no comments” or “I don’t knows.” Those simple answers have always stemmed from a genuine concern that any statement, any opinion or detail, might be distorted. I have a unique perspective. Many of you saw me after that final home game, when the enormity of the moment hit me. I’m not a robot. Neither are the other athletes who at times might seem unapproachable. We all have emotions. We just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend.

The result is, for sports fans anyway, pure catnip. The site itself is sleek and tidy, tailored for how people read today, that upstages most of its counterparts in the sports media.

Then there’s the content: really special stuff. In one pair of articles, Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick profiled the shooters he dreads the most:

In the NHL, everyone shoots the puck well. But most guys need the puck in the right spot in order to be really dangerous. The really top-tier shooters like [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry can be holding the puck five feet outside of their body, or they could have it in their feet, and yet they can still get it off with mustard. That changes the whole calculus for me as a goalie. The best shooters aren’t necessarily the hardest shooters — the best shooters are the guys who can drastically change the angles of their release.

That’s a top-five goalie in the world breaking down his craft. How else are you gonna get that?

In July, Josh Smith of the L.A. Clippers gave his account of why he chose L.A., challenging the headlines that accused him of greed. Who knows what Smith’s true intentions were? But it’s fun to read, and now people can read it and make up their own minds.

My question is this: does any of that matter?

Image: NFL: New England Patriots-Tom Brady Press Conference

Just before the NFL season began, the big story in sports was Tom Brady’s escape from Deflategate. Let’s pause to remember the stakes here: a marquee NFL player may have cheated in the Super Bowl, so the question was what should happen to him if he did.

Here are some other controversial items that happened in the sporting world recently:

  • Ray Rice’s spousal abuse may have been covered up by the NFL.
  • The NFL and NHL are being sued for concussions, raising the question of whether their businesses are systematically damaging to human beings.
  • Hope Solo played in the World Cup despite her 2014 arrest for domestic violence.
  • Jerry Sandusky built a system allowing him to molest children, and at least some of his higher-ups knew about it.
  • minimum of 1,000 workers have died building stadiums for Qatar’s World Cup.

Are these just the tip of the iceberg? Could there be much more malfeasance in sports than we know? How would we know?

Now the question of accountability gets interesting.

To my mind, players are accountable to their bosses — team owners and sponsors. If they want to answer to fans, that’s fine.

But let’s not forget that sports is still an industry, with power and influence and at least a few people willing to commit transgressions. In this respect, it’s no different than the tobacco, oil, or financial industries.

Players are accountable to whoever signs their checks. But the people who sign those checks — teams, leagues, sponsors — are accountable to the public. Us.

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And who’s looking out for us? The free press, of course! Right. The industry that’s been laying people off for 15 years and that 60 percent of Americans distrust.

To clarify, I understand, respect, and applaud the changes happening in the media today. But while they play out, I’m noticing a troubling trend: As Big Media suffers, Big Business has gained the upper hand.

Let me give you the reporter’s-eye view. Today, corporations work hard to limit, manage, or cut off journalists’ access to their people. If a reporter gets through somehow, companies want to know what you’re saying in the story, and they want a chance to change it. (Some of us refuse.) If they decide they’re not getting what they need from the media, they just hire more PR folks. After all, they can always “get their message out” on the web.

Is it happening in sports too? You bet.

In July, English soccer club Swindon Town dropped the pretense and simply cut off press access to most of its players and personnel, most of the time.

“As the owner, I didn’t think they were very supportive of the club,” its owner told The New York Times. “And I’m not here to sell newspapers; I’m here to do what I believe is best for the club.”

Swindon is a third-division team. Imagine how much more leverage the NFL has.

hitting-hard-trailer-for-will-smith-s-concussion-movie-sure-to-anger-nfl-1108674-TwoByOne

This month, it was revealed that Sony changed a movie about concussions in order to avoid enraging the NFL and its lawyers. Better safe than sorry.

Just how is this your problem? Let me put it to you this way: Would you rather

a) read headlines about appalling things that have already happened, or
b) support institutions, like journalism, that can hold Big Sports accountable and prevent these headlines?

Did you say (a)? Then go tell it to the kids that Sandusky victimized.

Did you say (b)? Congratulations, you’re not completely cynical yet about what journalism can be. You understand that powerful people fear bad press, and that this fear can act as a deterrent. The next question is, are you willing to pay anything for it? Having cops on the beat isn’t free.

For the moment, our society has settled on (a). We — fans, athletes, teams, owners, leagues — think about sports media mainly as entertainment. In this silent contract, players must be held accountable, but the business and politics behind them must be treated as mostly benign. People value investigative journalism, but it’s not clear they’re willing to pay for it.

It’s in this world that The Players Tribune emerges, as a tribune of how frail the Fourth Estate is today, as a tribune of a sports industry that is increasingly able to control its narratives without any challengers.

If you’re OK with this, you need take no action. Journalism will erode further and the sports business will enjoy even less public accountability than it does now. You’ll have all the player tweets, first-person confessionals, and streaming highlights you can handle. You’ll pale at the abuses “discovered” in the sports world only after they’ve reached some disgusting extreme.

But if you recognize sports as an industry like any other, deserving the same scrutiny as Big Tobacco, Big Prisons, Big Oil, and Big Tech, we need to talk about real accountability — and who’s going to provide it.

Cover photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.


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SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

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