Being a sportswriter: Todd Reesing’s press conference

One of my friends learned a hard lesson about sportswriting recently. He’s a young guy, worked for the University Daily Kansan last year, when the Kansas football team went to the Insight Bowl.

After the Insight Bowl, Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing was in a terrible mood. It’s hard to say why. He played well and Kansas won the game. But on the way to the postgame press conference, he loudly wondered why he had to go talk to the media*.

*Answer: Because you’re the quarterback. If you don’t want to be a star, don’t be a quarterback.

So he comes into the press conference in a bad mood. Somebody — I don’t know who it was — asked him a question about how he completed 14 passes to Dezmon Briscoe. Now, maybe you and Todd Reesing don’t find it remarkable that one guy caught 14 passes, but I think most people do. It was an Insight Bowl record, actually, and a career-high for Briscoe.

This was the exact exchange:

Todd and Dezmon, you guys — Todd, you have obviously really zeroed in on Dezmon and Kerry today. Did you have that in mind coming in? Just talk about the way you guys were able to hook up. After the first few series, you guys really were hooking up.
TODD REESING: Here’s what happened: Is they call a play and Briscoe gets open. If I can throw it to him, then it works out. And it seemed to work out a whole lot of times. And the same thing to Kerry. So we just kept doing it you know? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Things were going pretty well and we just kept with it.

For some reason, people seem to have a hard time understanding what happened there, but Reesing was trying to belittle the guy. It was obvious to everybody in the room. There are a hundred decent ways to answer that question, one of them being to actually answer the question, “Did you have that in mind coming in?”

For example:

“Yeah, we knew they would be playing a lot of man coverage, and we feel like Dezmon is going to beat man coverage almost every time. I don’t know that we expected him to catch 14 passes. That’s a huge day, but we thought he’d be open quite a bit.”

Or

“No, we didn’t expect this. We usually like to spread the ball around a lot, but there’s no reason to do that when one guy is open all the time.”

Or

“Man, what a game by Dezmon today. He’s had some huge games this year, so I guess you can’t be totally surprised, but after the first quarter, I pretty much expected he’d be open on every play.”

Instead, he chose to take a story about a teammate’s big day and make it about him and his irritation with having to speak. Maybe the question could have been more concise, or more precise, but I’ve been doing this for eight years, now, and I’ve seen athletes who’ve been treated a lot worse by the media than Todd Reesing answer questions much worse than that one with a lot more decorum than that. You don’t have to like talking to reporters — I don’t think I would, either — but you should at least offer some level of respect for another person who’s never wronged you.

I tell you all that to tell you this: Nobody, and I mean nobody who wasn’t there, sees it that way. Coach Mark Mangino made a vague allusion to the Insight Bowl thing at a press conference recently, when without solicitation, he mentioned that Reesing isn’t a big press conference guy. Again, it was pretty clear to everybody in the room what Mangino was referring to. He realized that Reesing had been a little distasteful. So one of the beat writers did a note about this, and brought up the Insight Bowl exchange.

You can imagine what happened next. KU fans started insulting the writer, and bashing sportswriting as a profession. Virtually none of them, of course, had any problem with Reesing’s answer. They all ripped the question, and started making generalized statements about the state of American journalism, and insulting the writer some more, and defending Reesing, and insulting the writer some more.

Then my friend, in a risk, pretty much outed himself on the message board. He wrote that he was there working for the UDK, and he tried to explain why Reesing was out of line. My friend, and the media in general, got whacked pretty good.

Some highlights:

  • “Let’s cut right to the quick here people: the media are one rung below lawyers on the totem sh*t pole.”
  • “I guess that 20-23 year old kids can’t be immature anymore?”
  • “My wife’s cousin is a sports reporter and a good and decent guy, but honestly, I’ve never really read any of his work and don’t want to talk to him about it either because deep down I don’t want to lose respect for him.”

Things like this are the reason guys like Reesing sometimes act like this. They know that their legion of fans will defend anything they do. It’s religion.

The lesson my friend (hopefully) learned is that it’s pointless to try to convince a fan of anything he doesn’t want to believe, especially in matters of athlete vs. reporter. These athletes are their heroes. There are grown men who walk around wearing the jerseys of 20-year-old football players. That should be totally humiliating — a grown man whose heroes are football players? — but for some reason it isn’t. Reporters, on the other hand, aren’t even human. We’re some kind of slime that occasionally makes these heroes uncomfortable, and we all suck*.

*Sportswriters, local government, stop lights, the other side of the fence and the girls at your school are all things that nobody is ever satisfied with. Everybody always thinks the ones in their location are clearly worse than the ones next door.

Have you ever heard a parent of a high school kid say, “You know, I think the local paper covers our school adequately” or heard a high school kid say, “I think there are an acceptable number of hot girls at our school,” or “I think our stop lights change at the right time compared to other towns”?

Everybody thinks their sportswriters stink, and that all the other schools get so much better coverage. This will never change.

All of this is why I never wrote anything in the paper or on our Web site about Reesing’s Insight Bowl press conference. The public response was all too predictable. I knew nobody who wasn’t there would understand what had really happened, or even want to understand what had really happened.

A lot of the people who bash the sports media make good points. Most of the postgame press conferences are pretty banal. A lot of the question are the same. A lot of the responses are the same. I mean, there is nothing new under the sun, but we don’t get to write that. We have to write about relatively boring 42-21 wins in low-level bowl games. That’s (a small part of) the job. The irony is that we get the most public criticism when we do our greatest work. The real reporting that explores real issues, the stuff that afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, is the stuff that makes people the most angry.

  • Talk to everybody in Florida and find out that Frank Martin’s story isn’t as cut-and-dried as everyone wanted it to be, and people are Photoshopping your face into elephant poop (that actually happened).
  • Expose a program, like the Seattle Times did with the Washington football program, as a place where local judges are sweeping rapes under the rug, and watch the vitriol spew.
  • I’ve been called a racist, and that’s just for reporting that Brandon Rush got arrested, something I didn’t even have to work that hard to get.

Ultimately, you just have to know all this, and not care. I used to be easily irritated by reader comments and responses. I’d fire back. But then I figured out that’s like arguing with an automated recording. You’ve got to just be glad they’re reading.

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90s Week: Trucks as luxury vehicles

In the 90s, this was a family car.

In the 90s, this was a family car.

For all of history, pickup trucks were functional vehicles only. They were for farms, lumber yards and rednecks. In the 1960s, for example, it wasn’t unusual for a truck to not have:

  • Carpet
  • Seatbelts
  • Air conditioning
  • Power steering

These were unnecessary frills. First of all, the carpet was pointless because if your truck had carpet, you wouldn’t be able clean the floorboards with a garden hose, so that’s out. If you needed power steering or air conditioning, you were a pansy, so those are out. And seat belts were kind of a new idea at the time.

In the 1960s, the kind of people who were buying trucks weren’t the kind that would have worn seat belts anyway, and there’s no way they were paying extra just to have air conditioning or power steering in a vehicle they were going to be using to drag cow manure from one edge of the farm to another.

Although seat belts became standard in the mid-1960s, and power steering quickly became inexpensive and, therefore, standard, that was about all that changed in the truck world, right up until the late 1980s.

And suddenly, for difficult to ascertain reasons, it became cool to take your kids to school in a Chevy truck rather than a Chevy car.

There are some obvious conditions that had to exist for this to be possible. First, gasoline had to be inexpensive, and it was. In the late 80s all the way through the late 90s, the price of a gallon of gas hovered around the $1 mark, occasionally dipping below 90 cents. Secondly, there had to be room for these vehicles in driveways, parking lots and roads. This sounds silly, but in many places around the world, including some of its biggest, best cities,  it would be terribly impractical to own a vehicle the size of a Ford F-150, because it would hog most roadways and would be difficult to park, both at home and about town. Finally, the vehicles had to be comfortable for women, children and pansies.

This is where the auto makers had to make some changes.

Since the late 1970s, the Big Three American auto makers had been getting their butts handed to them* in the car markets by Asian companies, who made cars that were superior in every conceivable way. Naturally, the Big Three decided it was fruitless to just make better cars. Instead, operating on the “Americans will buy anything as long as its bigger than another thing” theory of economics, they just started making big cars, i.e. trucks with air conditioning, carpet and CD players.

* I know a writer who would have used “getting their tits waxed” here. Mentally insert this phrase above if it makes you happy.

It worked out great for the auto makers because all they had to do was add some bells and whistles to vehicles they were already making, which is a completely different process than coming up with entirely new vehicles to satisfy the public’s demand for wasteful driving practices*.

*Probably one of the most hypocritical things I’ve ever written. Until lameness forced me into a Toyota Corolla, I had spent my life among the most wasteful drivers you’ve ever known. I had owned five cars before the Corolla. Three had V8s, two had V6s, one was an SUV.

Whats so creepy about El Caminos? I dont get it.

What's so creepy about El Caminos? I don't get it.

And I did not drive any of these lightly.

I nearly got a detention in high school for doing burnouts in the school parking lot after football practice. In college, I once did donuts in the parking lot, in the middle of the day. I used to drag race one of my cars on a flat stretch of road out by the jail in Hutchinson. I drove one of my cars 134 miles per hour, which helped turn a 16-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson into an 11-minute trip from Burrton to Hutchinson. In my SUV, I drove out to Clinton Lake near Lawrence and rather abruptly went off-roading.

I am not the king of conservation.

Thus, at about the same time Americans were Super Sizing everything and walking around with 44-ounce foutain drinks for no discernable reason, they gobbled up these high cars with big tires like handfuls of french fries.

SUVs were already popular in the 1990s, too, but it wasn’t until late in the decade that Americans finally got honest with themselves and said, “You know what? This business about needing the bed to haul things is pretty much bunk. What I really need is more seats to haul the kids I don’t have.”

Which is why today we celebrate the mid-1990s phenomenon of trucks as luxury vehicles.

90s Week: Surge

SURGE!!!!1111!!!!1!!

SURGE!!!!1111!!!!1!!

As readers of this blog — thanks to all six of you, by the way — you know that I usually try to find some meaning in the seemingly meaningless stuff I write about.

Well, it doesn’t get much more meaningless than “Surge: Fully loaded citrus drink,” except that Surge was a triumph of viral marketing, before viral marketing even really existed, and proved that humans are total suckers.

As you’ll see in this ad, Surge is the only soft drink ever created and specifically marketed to one person, that person being Merritt Schenk. If you don’t know Merritt Schenk, don’t worry about it. You know someone exactly like him, who most likely has had a run-in or two with the police and loves Pabst Blue Ribbon.

As all failures do, Surge (made by the Coca-Cola company) originated in Norway, where it was called “Urge,” giving it a vaguely sexual connotation that Norwegians loved. Surge enjoyed a nice run from 1996-2001, when Coca-Cola stopped its production in every country that matters (the U.S., Denmark and Sweden).

Norwegians love sexual connotations in their soft drinks.

Norwegians love sexual connotations in their soft drinks.

Now, believe it or not, one can of Surge is worth at least $27.

So that’s all well and good, proving that nostalgia, no matter how meaningless, has real value to people.*

*I have to wonder, though, does the person who wins that auction plan on drinking the can of Surge, or do they actually view this an some kind of an investment? Is the value of an unopened can of Surge from 1998 expected to rise?

But I think the most significant thing about Surge is the way it was marketed. The commercials made it seem like drinking Surge would turn you into some kind of urban warrior. It specifically targeted pre-teen and teenage boys,* on the assumption that they daydream about tearing the crap out of things for no real reason, which is exactly right.

*Although the ads depict teenagers, everybody who’s ever sold anything knows that you sell things to pre-teens by using teens, and you sell things to teens by using adults. The magazine, “17,” for example, is really for 13-year-old girls. No 17 year olds read 17. They read “21,” which is actually called, “Cosmopolitan.”

The genius of it was that, especially when you’re dealing with adolescents, the product doesn’t have to actually do what it suggests it will do. It can thrive on urban legend alone, because teenage boys want the ads to be true, they will set about proving them to be true. Scientists have studied this same effect by watching the behavior of two groups of young adults, one given actual alcohol, and one given what they only think is alcohol. Even the ones drinking the bad-tasting water will exhibit drunken behavior almost immediately, not because they’re getting drunk, but because they want to believe they are.

So it was with Surge, which wouldn’t do anything that a cappuccino wouldn’t do, of course.  But that didn’t stop 14-year-old boys from downing a six pack of it and crashing shopping carts into the light poles at Wal-Mart.

Nobody wanted to hear this at the time, but Surge actually contained less caffeine than Mountain Dew. That nobody ever realized this, despite the information being available on the back of the cans themselves is one of the great triumphs in marketing history, and also completely terrifying. If the power of suggestion is that strong, and humans are that capable of being that disinterested in the truth, then there would seem to be no limits on what we could be easily duped into believing.

As it turns out, it wasn’t the Surge that was dangerous, it was the people drinking it.