The Stories We Don’t Care About

After reading about Brian Downing and Garrison Stamp in the most recent issue of ESPN the Magazine — the Bama teabagger and his unconscious LSU victim — I must admit: I considered the article, and the two individuals, a waste of my time.

As I tweeted about it, one of my friends compared the article to the disproportionate amount of air time given to Harvey Updyke in the ESPN 30 for 30, “Roll Tide War Eagle.”  The comparison resonated with me. Who cares about this man?

Before I proceed, a few disclaimers: I am an alumnus of Auburn University, so you might dismiss my comments as Tide trash talking.  And I am a faculty member at Auburn with the scarlet letters “Ph.D.,” so you might dismiss my comments as elitist trash talking.  That is why we disclose — so that you can incorporate it into your appraisal of my thoughts.

Having admitted to both, I will make my point: While good sports journalism can bring us the compelling stories of competition and struggle, victory and defeat, neither of these stories are worth the resources of quality sports journalism.

First, the magazine article on the teabagging incident. The mundaneness of the situation is amusing. An district manager for a sporting goods store chain (it almost reads like a character written for a Lifetime movie) goes off for a football weekend with friends, gets drunk and drags his testicles across the face of a passed-out fan of the opposing team, who has been abandoned by his friends.

End of story. That’s it.

Put that alongside the stories of Michael Jordan battling the flu in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals, or a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Grand Slam final, or Eric LeGrand’s heroic efforts to overcome paralysis following his football injury?

You can’t.

Try though you might — even turn the magazine or your tablet sideways so you can read between the lines — there is nothing there.  Just a pathetic incident involving two people as forgettable as I am.

But that didn’t stop ESPN from sending Mark Winegarder to interview multiple sources, and Greg Miller to take dramatic, Annie Liebovitz-esque photos, to produce 7,000 words and poignant portraits.

If one of my journalism students expended that much effort on that topic, I would recommend time management classes.  Spend your precious hours on something worth it.  But of course, after taking the time to read it — precious minutes in my day lost — I felt the same way.

To say that Downing and Stamp represent anything worth reflecting on in sports is to say that a guy who got irate about the presidential election and threw a beer bottle at his dog is making a grand statement about democracy.

He is not, and Downing and Stamp are not. The LSU-Alabama game is relegated to a side note to dumb-ass behavior that could just as easily have taken place anywhere else, after any event, sports or not.

The existential gaze of these characters in cliche poses with 1990s music video lighting and angles might be intended to somehow expose the deep conflict of their soul. Instead, it highlights the gap between what they did and what makes a great sports story.

ESPN 30 for 30 applied the same treatment to Harvey Updyke in relating his contribution to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry.  Again, at the end of the program, we are left frustrated: Why am I forced to care about this guy? Why is ESPN wasting precious seconds of a documentary on an uninteresting individual who did something stupid?

As Updyke has become the journalistic equivalent of the “gift” that keeps on giving (his confession to an Auburn school newspaper reporter being the latest), I feel my attention being assaulted by the neverending story.

And it’s most disappointing that ESPN the Magazine would waste their time on Downing and Stamp.  For years, I have admired the long-form features presented in the magazine (much more than the shorter department-type stuff, but that’s another issue).  You put the name “Wright Thompson” in a byline, and I am there. But articles like this mock the magazine’s higher aspirations.

The best of such journalism, sports or not, is to find the true human drama behind the real moments in sports. In some cases, the greatness is defined by the individuals involved, not by the profile of the story. The Wright Thompsons and Gary Smiths (Sports Illustrated) of the world are the rising tide that lifts all boats — subject, reader and sport — to the heights of humanity.

But when you have a high-profile story where the individuals (apologies) lack greatness, where is the substance behind the style? Is this all sizzle and no steak?

For years, newspapers promoted “telephone book stories,” where you could open the white pages, put your finger on a name and find a story worth writing about for every individual.  Interesting reading in a local newspaper, definitely.

But this turns the idea on its head. It takes a regrettably ridiculous situation and tries to make it into a story worth telling and whose characters’ actions are worth exploring. It fails, but the failure is in the concept, not the execution, which is doomed by the concept.

Sometimes, when a student makes a lowbrow comment in class, I tell him or her, “You know, you don’t have to express every thought that pops into your brain.” I would offer the same advice to any sports journalist. We don’t have to cover every story that is out there, even in this content-starved Internet world.

Forget 15 minutes of fame. These stories are not worth 15 minutes of interest.

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