"I think you are completely full of shit." This was Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Buzz Bissinger's best stab at civil discourse when he went head -to-head with Deadspin.com blogger Will Leitch on Bob Costas's HBO show Costas Now. Leitch is the founder of Deadspin, the outlaw sports site that claims to deliver "sports news without access, favor, or discretion." It's ragged, often juvenile, sometimes brilliant. It's Bob Lipsyte crossed with Johnny Knoxville, pierced tongue planted firmly in cheek. Leitch oversees a team of bloggers whose religion is irreverence and who draw an average of 6-8 million visitors per month.
When Bissinger shredded Leitch on HBO, he was really insulting the whole sports blogosphere and anyone else who would dare to comment on sports without some sort of journalistic pedigree.
"I knew the minute the 'full of shit' line came out that this is going to be all over YouTube the next day," Leitch told me. "It became pretty clear early on that this was not going to be an exchange of ideas. He was itching for a fight."
Costas's show, airing throughout May, aims to examine a host of dynamics in sports media: radio, race, television and the Internet. The dialogue with old-school Bissinger, web-savvy Leitch and Cleveland Browns All-Pro Braylon Edwards had great potential. But Bissinger, brandishing "evidence" in a manila folder like Dick Nixon confronting Alger Hiss, submarined the segment. He put his ignorance of new media on display, confusing the "comments" section of one blog with its author and referring to online columnist Big Daddy Drew as Big Daddy Balls.
As Edwards sat largely silent, looking like he was ready to fire his agent, Leitch endured a wave of abuse. "I want to make it clear. I am a big Buzz Bissinger fan," he told me. "In the same way that you find out that sometimes an athlete may be a jerk, but if he plays for your team, you still cheer for him. I like Bissinger's work and I still do. [But] I find it difficult to believe at this time that people still can't tell the difference between a blog and a comment."
Bissinger's beef appears to be less with Leitch than with the changing media landscape. Sports blogs have brought younger, more diverse and more creative voices into the discussion of sports. While much mainstream sportswriting obsesses about personalities, scandal and statistics, the blogosphere offers other options. Pining for the past makes Bissinger sound like some 1950s preacher railing against rock 'n' roll. In some ways, Internet sports coverage is like rock--there's bad and there's good--but overall, it has expanded the confines of the form and content of sports journalism.
Costas fueled the controversy, likening blog commentary to what "a cabdriver" thinks about sports. In the past, he has called bloggers "pathetic, get-a-life losers." It's an attitude that's shared by many A-list columnists and sports personalities, some of whom seethe over the fact that "some guy in his basement" gets to have equal voice--or, in Leitch's case, even exceed the popularity of those whose once dominated the coverage.
There are sports blogs in every style, for every team, and they have entirely changed the game. Of course, some are repellent, but to swear off all blogs would be like refusing to read the New York Times because you don't like the National Enquirer.
"It's funny because the world of politics is looking at this conversation and are being like... man, is sports really that far behind?" Leitch said. "[Before blogs,] when you didn't like your local sports columnist, that was your only choice. Now there are new voices and new options. And some of it is good and some of it is bad, but one of the great things about it, it is very much a meritocracy: if you are not good at what you do, you don't have a voice or have something to contribute to the conversation, people won't come to your site. [Traditional media must] recognize that they can't just keep doing the things that they did and try something a little new, that's kind of what people want."
If anything, legacy sportswriters deserve far more scrutiny than the upstarts on the web. Washington Post and ESPNscribe Tony Kornheiser has said that this not a golden age of sportswriting, but it is a golden age for sportswriters. There is more money and fame for those willing to "play ball."
Consider what Big Daddy Drew wrote on Deadspin about ESPN's Rick Reilly. "Reilly is what I like to call a privileged sportswriter. I'm not saying he's rich, or snooty, or anything like that. What I mean is that, in his position, Reilly has access to privileges that you or I, as normal sports fans, don't have. He gets to go to the Masters, VIP-style. He gets to go golfing with Bill Clinton. He gets to ride in an Indy 500 race car. He gets to walk up to Sammy Sosa's locker and dare him to pee in a cup for him. He gets to do all that. And that's why he sucks.... If you're a privileged sportswriter, you're experiencing sports in a completely different way from normal, everyday fans. It's no coincidence the bulk of ESPN's programming now involves sportswriters talking to one another. They're the only people they can identify with. You certainly aren't part of the conversation."
What infuriates old-school sportswriters is that people on the web are calling them on their privilege, isolation and celebrity. In sharp contrast, bloggers, with their messy passion and sharp interaction with readers, sometimes sound far more authentic.
Truth is, the future of sportswriting won't be defined by bloggers but by all writers who care for the craft, whether they write in the newsroom or the basement. It's a bold new world, and traditional sportswriters, with all their puffery and pretension, should step back from the team-sponsored buffet and open bar and get their hands dirty in the virtual sporting scrum taking place online. They may just find they like it.