All The Wrong Questions

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The game wraps up and you head to midfield, trying to condense a 60-minute game into a question that won’t embarrass you or the fortysomething high school football coach presently wrapping up the handshake line. It would be nice if his answer helps you write your game story, of course. But yeah: get in there.

Change the venue, change the sport and the dynamic is the same. Quotes from athletes and coaches are as much a part of a gamer as stats and the final score. Readers -- or, anyway, editors -- expect to hear from athletes, whether you or the athletes like it or not. The exact purpose of inserting a cliched quote into a story about a nondescript sports game is nebulous. You go and get the quotes on the off-chance that someone says something interesting, and because quote-harvesting is part of the job.

When the saying-something-interesting doesn’t happen, you will have to make do -- because that is your job, too, and also because a good writer and reporter shouldn’t need a single quote to write a game recap. They’re the icing, not the filling.

Randy Carlyle was just fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a hopeless hockey team playing in a city that feeds off despair like Superman feeds off the Sun. Phil Kessel, the Leafs best player, has now seen two coaches fired in his time in T. Dot, and was traded from the Boston Bruins with the bad-character-guy tag affixed to him by the perennially lovely Beantown media. 

So when Kessel called Dave Feschuk an idiot for being asked if he’s uncoachable, it made me wonder exactly what answer Feschuk was hoping for, and what his purpose in asking the question was. Or, maybe I didn’t wonder. Maybe I knew, and still couldn’t comprehend.

***

In journalism school, the phrase “hold people accountable” is bandied about, presumably because if you’re going to get paid like shit (and you mostly are) you may as well feel like your job is important (which it mostly is). While this phrase is primarily intended to refer to government officials, some sportswriters seem to take it upon themselves to keep the Phil Kessels of the world accountable, although to whom or for what purpose is not particularly clear.

Back to those questions. The Internet is not particularly impressed with the postgame, sideline or press conference questions posed to coaches and athlete alike, and for good reason. These are sportswriters, after all, not lawyers, and they’re working on harrowingly narrow deadlines and have thousands of things jumbling through their brain. There is also the fact of the job: they are writing something about the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent win or loss that must be filed in exactly 18 minutes, and not about the nuances of foreign policy.

These reporters, the ones asking how a big win feels or asking a coach “to talk about” a key moment, are not the real problem. Also not the real problem: those on the other side of these questions, answering these questions shirtless and exhausted and already very much over-it. These parties, both of them, are doing their jobs.

The problem is the people who are doing something else -- columnists looking for some heel heat, or reporters with some bare-ish bone to pick. There are questions worth asking, some of them harder to ask and harder to answer than others, and then there are the pseudo-hard, hold-them-accountable questions like the one Feschuk asked of Kessel, which are mostly about the performance of asking.

Whatever glib bravery adheres to these -- and there is always the chance you’ll get hit if you ask this sort of thing -- there is deeper and fundamental failure. The writers who would strive to strip athletes of their fundamental humanity and pare their access to fundamental human emotions back towards a binary are being dicks, but also they are not doing their jobs -- they are providing information only about themselves, and providing fans with nothing more than a reminder that they can’t be bothered.

Deadlines are deadlines, and there is not always time or will to do more than either the dullest and most dutiful or most readily and glibly salacious story. Sports are sports, and there is only so much to say. But context is context, too, and over the course of a season stories will emerge and develop beyond the usual frazzled talk-about-when urgency.

The gamble is that fans will care enough about these subtler things -- and trust the writer’s judgment -- enough to read all the way through. The game is to make these stories interesting. The cheap way out is what Feschuk did, which was the equivalent of poking Kessel with a pointy stick. This isn’t journalism, exactly, so much as it’s antagonizing a human being for a short-term benefit, and because you can’t come up with anything else to do. It’s not an easy job, or a good one. But it doesn’t need to be that bad.

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