Fans boo critics of home team

September 26, 2004|By Paul Moore

THE SUCCESS or failure of professional sports teams directly affects the perception of the cities they represent and the self-esteem of fans that support them. It is about pride, image and bragging rights.

In the first two weeks of the NFL season, Baltimore Ravens' fans have experienced an emotional roller coaster ride. The despair of the ugly, opening-game loss to the Cleveland Browns was replaced by the optimism produced by a solid victory in the second game over the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers. With expectations for the Ravens running high, The Sun's sports columnists, who provide the analyses and commentary on the Ravens, are more than ever in the line of fire from readers.

To be effective and to sustain readership, sports columnists such as Laura Vecsey, John Eisenberg, Mike Preston and David Steele must express a unique viewpoint with style and passion. Criticism from readers is expected and considered part of the job. Recent e-mails, however, show that some readers believe The Sun and its columnists should be less critical and more supportive of local teams, especially the Ravens.

"You never have anything positive to say even after a great win - all you can do is focus on the negative," said Joe Hauer. "If you are supposed to be writing for the home team, you do it horrendously." From Greg Youmans: "Why does The Baltimore Sun insist on having Mike Preston and Laura Vecsey continually depress loyal Baltimore fans with their negative columns?" From Tina Hauer: "Laura Vecsey is one the reasons that I don't have a subscription to The Sun. The Washington Post and The New York Times are kinder and more gentle to the Ravens then she or Mike Preston."

Other e-mail responses have been angry, with a few readers saying they planned to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper. After a particularly intense sports talk-radio session that bashed The Sun's columnists, e-mails arrived in bunches with almost the identical nasty tone. In a world where sports success seems essential to one's well-being, criticism can be considered a form of treason.

Randy Harvey, assistant managing editor for sports, offered this perspective: "If the Ravens, Orioles or the Terps are playing well, the columns should reflect that. If they are playing poorly, the columns should reflect that. We can't do it otherwise and maintain our credibility."

At the same time, The Sun wants the Ravens and other teams to win just as much as the fans do. The Sun sells at least 5,000 additional newspapers after the Ravens win, according to Single Copy Sales Manager John Mercer.

Of all readers, serious sports fans are the most knowledgeable, demanding and opinionated. But being charitable to columnists is not part of the equation. One reader believes the loud and often strident nature of TV sports shows can have an unintended effect of making some columnists try too hard. "It's as if they have to be controversial to get noticed," he said. That can turn some readers off.

There also is a fine line between embracing a team that is winning and becoming a cheerleader that loses perspective amid the hoopla. That's where the basics of journalism come in.

"The sports sections are no more supposed to be a booster of the local teams that the news sections are supposed to be supporters of City Hall," Mr. Harvey said.

The Ravens play in Cincinnati today, and win or lose, passions will be running high. Bars and restaurants will be jammed with purple-clad fans. TV ratings for the game will be huge. This passion represents the beauty of sports and, occasionally, the curse.

But sometimes the response from readers is simple and to the point. As Mary Lou Reiter recently wrote to Ms. Vecsey, "I really enjoy your work, Laura."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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