Peyton Manning has done an altogether decent thing and even though I am naturally biased when it comes to this particular issue, I think I have a perspective that can hopefully be illuminating.
Here’s what I’m talking about: Manning called a beat writer at the Indianapolis Star to say thanks and goodbye. I just now read that story, and as I type these words, I am still in a state of shock recovery. Not because it was Manning; he has always seemed like a decent guy. And not because the athlete felt he had a relationship with a reporter; that’s common, too.
But it’s because either I’ve never covered someone who liked me enough to do something like that, or because Peyton Manning is one of the nicest guys to become an athlete in the modern age.
I can’t say with certainty such an act is unheard of, but I’ve never heard of it happening. This is mostly because of the complicated nature of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. We are taught not to trust them, and they are taught not to trust us, and there are good reasons for both.
There is a common tension between athletes and sportswriters that goes something like this:
Athlete: “Why do you guys have to be so negative all the time?”
Reporter: “Athlete, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 90 percent of what I write is overwhelmingly positive.”
Both of them are usually right.
Let’s say a reporter is talking to a veteran point guard about his team’s season. The team is winning, although it is winning in part because this veteran point guard has accepted a reduced role while a younger star has taken control of the team.
The reporter’s budget line looks something like this: Joe Dingleberry, once the Toledo Sphincters’ great hope, is finally on the precipice of an elusive championship. It just took a reduced role to get there.
Now, this certainly will be a story that makes some perhaps uncomfortable implicit observations — Dingleberry could not get it done. — but the eventual takeaway will be that Dingleberry is a good guy who made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team.
Yet in order to report that story, the reporter is going to have to ask Dingleberry some pointed questions about his role, how he felt about conceding it to a younger star, if he has any regrets about the years before, and so on. That’s the conflict that makes the story interesting.
But to Dingleberry, there is a decent chance he is going to feel like the reporter is merely trying to bait him into saying something inflammatory. He also might feel insulted by some of the questions and begin feeling defensive. This depends on myriad factors, including everything from the physical setting of the interview to the tone of the reporter’s voice to whatever pre-existing relationship the two of them have.
But, generally speaking, it is in the reporter’s interest to get the player to speak humanly and interestingly, and it is in the player’s interest to do the opposite of that.
So in the end, the reporter writes the story and can honestly say it painted the athlete in a positive light, and the athlete can honestly say, “Yeah, but you were poking me the whole time.”
So it’s complicated. We aren’t adversaries, but we aren’t on the same team, either. There is a good bit of confusion about that among the general public. People often assume sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. And I suppose, in most cases, we are more happy to cover a winning team than a losing one. But when it comes right down to it, our identity is not attached to the team the way it is for a fan. To us, this isn’t recreation or entertainment (even though it is often entertaining); it’s work. My former boss Kurt had the best way of putting it.
“I root for me,” he said.
And yet Peyton Manning called a Colts beat writer to say thanks. For what, it’s not entirely clear. It sounded general, like, Thanks for all the work over the years. It was recognition that those two men had gone to work (sort of) with each other every day for many years and that Manning respected Phillip Wilson’s work and their relationship.
That doesn’t mean much on a practical level. Manning can’t give Phillip Wilson a raise. And a journalist is always going to be a little bashful about receiving praise from one of his subjects, because he wouldn’t want it to indicate his coverage hadn’t been objective.
But it sure was nice of him.