No Cheering In The Press Box
There are lots of ancient sayings in journalism, and some are tougher to live by than others. But among the hardest to abide is “There’s no cheering in the press box.”
It’s tough not to become emotionally wrapped up in a game like the one Purdue lost 66-65 to Cincinnati Thursday. After all, press seating isn’t disconnected from the sea of fans cheering for one side or the other. In many cases, it’s either next to the court or high above. Think about those two options for a second.
If you’re next to the court, like this, you are immersed in the action. The bowl shape of the arena funnels all of the emotion onto you. When a coach admonishes a player during a time out, you hear every piece of foul language (and possibly remember than it’s likely hard to handle the expectations that come with big time sports if you’re a teenager).
Now think about if you’re up high. If the stadium is big enough, you can see the entire court, watch a play develop from all angles — often know what’s likely to happen even before the players do. It’s an almost omniscient position in which to be placed and it’s difficult not to adopt an “I told you so” demeanor, because you honestly feel mistakes could have been avoided and good plays were bound to happen.
“If only they’d found the open shooter,” you think (or sometimes say out loud, but only so loud that you can hear the admonition.
I’ve covered Purdue basketball all season. I was at the team’s first game in November (an 80-40 drubbing of Samford where the team showed the first signs it might not be as bad as people seemed to think) and its last in March. Through the course of a season, you come to know a team — but the journalism gods (and their earthly apparitions, the green eyeshade-wearing, cigar-chomping, hard-drinking, curse word-endorsing, grizzled editors of old) would throw another old chestnut in your way just as soon as you get comfortable: “Don’t get too close to the story,” they’d bark. “Stay impartial and objective!”
But it’s a paradox. If you’re at all human, the closer you get, the more emotional there’s a tendency to become.
But wait! There are at least two easy ways out!
Let’s face it — many beat writers are dismissed as “homers” — people so inextricably linked to the team through some sort of loyalty that they’ll believe the team can win every game, no matter how outlandish it seems.
“If the balls bounces EXACTLY the right way, we’ve got a shot,” they tell themselves (and then their public).
This is the first (and easiest) way out — and the one with which many die-hard sports fans can identify. Just BELIEVE hard enough, and that force of will can change the outcome of the most lopsided, David-versus-a-defensive-line-full-of-Goliaths matchup.
Then there’s the way I’ve probably trended, if I’m honest with myself: Be really hard on a team and force them to prove every little accomplishment isn’t a hoax. You see, I have no personal ties to Purdue. I was never a student in West Lafayette, I didn’t grow up in the area and none of my family went to the school. So I thought it important to distinguish myself from the folks who’d undoubtedly write than the football team could beat Michigan State or that the basketball team could top Wisconsin.
And when neither of those things happened, I felt better — almost vindicated.
And then when Vince Edwards and A.J. Hammons came into the press room Thursday night, their faces red from the tears that obviously came when they poured their hearts out following a tough loss to end their season, I felt like a heel.
Let’s be clear: I’m not close enough to anyone on the team to call them a friend, but I do recognize they’re human beings and they’ve just experienced loss. The natural emotion with which to respond is compassion. But then I see those editors of yore appear on my shoulder (replete with pitchfork and forked tail this time).
“Don’t you even think about it,” they snarl.
In the end, a game story is like any other in composition and creation: stick to the facts and you’ll be fine. But journalism has, for years, adopted an ethic that, while it makes the utmost sense for doing the job, attempts to deny human nature. When the team you cover loses its last game of the year, the basic equation is this: neither kick a person when they’re down, nor offer a helping hand to pick them up.
And then you remember all those hours sitting an watching the games (to say nothing of all the time afterward in press conferences and writing game recaps) and you think about all the hours you personally have devoted to this team (it pales in comparison, by the way, to the hours the players have invested). And the thought creeps into your head:
Don’t I deserve a more satisfying end than this? Don’t my readers?
But there’s no cheering in the press box, or in the interview room, or in the thousand-word piece the day after the game. It’s unquestionably the right rule to have, even if it denies a few basic truths about humanity. But you come to realize it’s like so much of journalism’s code: adopted not because it was the way we wanted it, but in place because it needs to be. Otherwise, who knows what types of emotion would seep into writing. And what a shame that would be.