The Sports Blogger’s Dilemma, And The Introduction Of The Label 'Fan Advocate'

While recapping the Nuggets loss to the Suns last week – a game I attended in person – I watched several injured Nuggets duke it out against the Suns while Nuggets superstar small forward Carmelo Anthony sat out his sixth consecutive game as the result of an ankle sprain, even though both he and his head coach had indicated that Melo would likely play before tipoff.  In fact, the Suns game was the third game in a row before which Melo and his coach indicated he would probably play, but didn’t.

During and after that game a number of fans, me included, were grumbling about Melo’s absence.  I mean, he said he would probably play.  His coach said he would probably play.  And here the team’s other and much older superstar, Chauncey Billups, was playing on a bad ankle himself.  And thus, we started discussing Melo’s absence altogether with questions like: "Is he not playing because he’s only 80% and doesn’t want his scoring average going down?"  "Does he think by playing it will hurt his MVP chances?"  "Is he just saving himself for the marquee games coming up, including the All-Star Game?"  In sum, we were questioning Melo’s toughness.  That’s what fans do.

In my recap of that game, I attempted to capture the tone among the fans from the game and openly questioned Melo’s toughness, complete with a clearly written caveat that I’m not in the Nuggets locker room, don’t talk to the training staff and it’s not my body being questioned.  

In response, a number of my most loyal readers all but revolted against me.  In the comments, one reader said I was "speculating, not reporting."  Another said "this is irresponsible journalism."  And another called my questioning of Melo’s toughness "an unsupported, frivolous claim."  

And you know what?  They were all 100% correct.  

The only catch is, I’m not journalist, don’t pretend to be and don’t really want to be.  And this brings me to what I refer to as the "Blogger’s Dilemma."

With more and more sports bloggers – or fans-as-columnists, if you will – being granted access to their favorite teams in the form of one-time press passes, season-long credentials and exclusive interviews (like the one I conducted with Nuggets head coach George Karl), the lines are blurring between what it means to be a blogger versus what it means to be a journalist.  And I’m concerned that our attempt to become journalists compromises our ability to be good bloggers.  That’s the Blogger’s Dilemma, and I suspect every writer and editor at SB Nation is wrestling with this right now as I am.

As a fan, I can question Carmelo Anthony’s toughness if I feel the signs add up saying so.  As a journalist, I can only question Melo’s toughness if I know for a fact that he’s able to play, but is electing not to by confirming the story with multiple sources close to the team or in that locker room.

The catch with access, of course, is that you have to be fair and balanced (and not the Fox News version of "fair and balanced") at all times, which often comes across as being soft and lacking a firm point of view.  And it’s that perceived softness – fair or not – from many of our nation’s sports journalists is what turned fans in droves towards sports blogs in the first place.  What makes sites like Denver Stiffs immensely popular is that we have no filter, no reservations and can make bold proclamations from our cheap seats view (actually, if you knew how much I pay for Nuggets season tickets, they’re anything but cheap).  In the very recent past, our success or failure didn’t depend on our access, but rather our point of view and ability to articulate that point of view in a refreshing, entertaining and, perhaps most importantly, relatable fashion.  After all, when was the last time your local tenured sports journalist purchased a game ticket?

Well aware of this Blogger’s Dilemma, in November of last year SB Nation founder and editor-in-chief Tyler Bleszinski sent around a group email to all the SB Nation community editors with the subject line stating: "What would you like me to call you?"  The gist of Tyler’s email was that we should no longer label ourselves as "bloggers," as that moniker has a negative connotation with regards to getting press credentials from teams and leagues, but instead we should label ourselves as "editors" or "writers."  From a strategic standpoint, I’m in agreement with Tyler here, although I’m not convinced that being labeled a blogger, again really a fan-as-columnist, is such a bad thing.  And thus it was at that point I decided not to call myself "writer" nor "editor" nor "blogger," but instead have opted for "fan advocate".  Because at the end of the day, that’s what many of us are.  We advocate on behalf of the average sports fan whose hard-earned money should be returned with an earnest effort on the hardwood, field, diamond, rink, inside the locker room and coaches’ quarters and all the way up to the owner’s office.  Lest we forget that without our dollars and support, there are no multimillion dollar sports franchises.  

(On a side note, when Denver Stiffs recently got some ink in the Denver Post and I was referred to – as always – as a "blogger", I wrote the columnist requesting I be labeled as a "fan advocate" in the future.  He emailed me back with a tongue-in-cheek response: "You can be a ‘fan advocate’ if I can be a ‘truth seeker’".  Touché, I suppose.)  

In hindsight, the way I went about questioning Melo’s injury in my game recap last week was inarticulate at best (borrowing a page from President Obama’s "cover your ass" playbook) and somewhat irresponsible at worst.  With a sensitive topic like a player’s health being involved, I shouldn’t have posed an argument but rather a question that left the issue of Melo’s toughness open for the readers to debate, just as the fans at Pepsi Center were debating it.  But even if I really believed that Melo was sitting out games to keep his scoring title in-tact, shouldn’t I have been able to say so?  Or have we at SB Nation and elsewhere in the sports blogosphere crossed the line into real journalism so much that questioning a player’s toughness is no longer on the table unless we have hard facts to back it up?  

I’ve always looked at writing Denver Stiffs and engaging with our amazingly passionate community like a conversation/debate you have at a sports bar with your friends and fellow fans.  I’ve never pretended to be a deliverer of facts or breaking news.  

The problem, however (and it’s a good problem to have, frankly), is that like many of my colleagues at SB Nation I’m looked upon by my community to deliver information in addition to opining on it.  In other words, I’m hardly a normal fan.  A normal fan doesn’t get asked his opinion on local sports talk radio with regularity.  A normal fan doesn’t get to have an exclusive interview with the head coach he once wanted fired.  A normal fan doesn’t get to schmooze with team executives and the mainstream media guys who cover the team after games.  You know, like actual journalists do.  Heck, most normal fans aren’t even season ticket holders (unfortunately due to professional teams pricing true fans out of their arenas), which grants you an additional morsel of respect with the organization because you can always say to a player, coach or team executive: "Hey, give me five minutes…I pay your salary."  (And make no mistake about it, I’ve said that many times and it never gets old!)  

The Blogger’s Dilemma has been on my mind all season as I’ve been trying to get Denver Stiffs credentialed since training camp.  You’d think that a site representing over a full Pepsi Center’s worth of Nuggets fans that gets an uncountable number of page views a month would get a seat at the press table for one of the more under-covered teams in the NBA.  You’d think.  But the Nuggets have been stingy about handing them over and perhaps with some justification given that I still brand players, coaches and executives as "Stiffs" when they don’t do their jobs.  Jobs my readers and I help pay for.  

Which begs the question: are credentials even worth it if sports bloggers have to soften our stances in order to procure them? I for one certainly won’t sellout my site’s principles just to get a press badge and be another mouthpiece for my favorite team.

After all, I’m not a journalist.  I’m a fan advocate.

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