We are nearly at the exact halfway point between the end of the 2012 baseball season and the day that pitchers report to spring training, and baseball websites and social media are packed with the latest news on trades, signings and injury updates. There is no (and likely will be no) 2012-2013 National Hockey League season, yet I get numerous e-mails, text messages and tweets every day about the latest rumor from the negotiations, how NHL players are faring in European leagues, and the lockout’s financial and strategic impact on the league. Following (let alone commenting on) European soccer is nearly a full-time job, even in the States; and the world of tennis – with its entertaining personalities and slightly dysfunctional exhibition schedule – is always entertaining, even if we are more than a month out from the Australian Open.
Against that backdrop of sports reporting, for the last 3 weeks the major track & field websites and Twitter streams have been providing us with wall-to-wall in-depth coverage of… high schoolers?
We cannot expect professional track and field athletes to be recognized and identified as professional athletes when the sport’s media covers high school events at the expense of the pro’s; and with the same level of passion and interest that other sports give their pro’s during the depths of the off-season. Like any profession, athletes are athletes year round, including during the “off-season.” Their personalities, their injuries and rehab, their training, their plans for the future, and their workouts are still compelling and newsworthy. Even the business side of sports is important to the casual fan or we would not have articles and SportsCenter segments breaking down the intricacies of a baseball or football player’s contract negotiations. Let’s face it – more baseball fans probably know who Scott Boras is than track and field fans know who Scott Bauhs is.
For a high school athlete in a mainstream sport to attract sports media attention is a prodigious feat. They truly have to be a prodigy in their sport: Lebron James, Sidney Crosby, Venus and Serena Williams – a once in a decade if not once in a generation level of talent and drive. In track and field, it is a semi-annual event for our niche media to heap a professional level of attention on a high school athlete. Meanwhile, our professional athletes receive a high school level of attention from our media, and zero attention in mainstream sports media unless their “B” sample pops positive. Equally embarrassing to the sport’s media should be its repeated failures to accurately identify those athletes that will not just survive in the sport but actually succeed in the professional ranks. (Honest admission: I openly ate my share of crow when Rupp won his silver.) Maybe the bar is just so much higher in mainstream sports, or perhaps it is easier in those sports to identify the youth athletes who will go on to greatness. Either way, it reduces the sport’s credibility and harshly deflates the fans and the athletes when a high school or collegiate success story fails to match their hype at higher stages of the sport.
Defining down the pinnacle of achievement sends the wrong message about the sport to the athletes. Not too long ago, the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony was reserved for colleges. Then caps and gowns made their way to high schools, and before long, eighth-graders were showing up to their graduation ceremonies in limousines and formal gowns. One of the dangers of this phenomenon is that the graduating students will not see the event as one small milestone on a longer journey of education, hard work and achievement, but as the culminating event in their educational experience: “Well, we’re not going to have another chance like this, so let’s celebrate that we got this done.” As then-Senator Barack Obama said in 2008: “Now hold on a second — this is just eighth grade… So, let’s not go over the top. Let’s not have a huge party. Let’s just give them a handshake.” Track & field media sends a similar message with the exaggerated coverage at the high school level: “This is it. You’re at the peak of your sport. If you weren’t, someone else would be dominating the headlines right now.”
Building a profession of athletes is one of the defining challenges facing track & field. The lack of professionalism in the sport underlies so many other issues – sponsorship logos, athlete finances, competitive opportunities and the like. The business of the sport will not and cannot improve unless the culture of the sport changes. No players’ association, race series or endorsement deal will convince fans or sponsors that track & field is a sport of professionals unless the sport’s existing community, including its media, starts acting like it. Media both reflect and guide the culture they report – what message is ours sending, and what future are they shaping?