Pennington needs a chat with R. Lewis

December 24, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

CHAD PENNINGTON was raked over the coals this week by the New York media. It started when Pennington declined to answer questions after the Jets' victory Sunday.

It was an understandable instinct, considering the rabid maw of the Big Apple swarm. Pennington should have predicted what he'd be reading Monday on the back pages of the tabloids:

Just Whine, Baby.

Ah, the indiscretions of youth.

On the radio this week, former Giants quarterback Phil Simms said Pennington, a journalism major, should know you can't win a war of words with people who own the ink.

It is a wicked game that athletes and the media must play, but it is not fixed in stone. The relationship can be tweaked, influenced, altered, improved - especially when the dialogue continues in spite of the mistrust, anger, frustration, cynicism.

Pennington clearly did not take notes on Dec. 8 when Ray Lewis ripped the Baltimore media.

Actually, Lewis didn't rip into the media. The Ravens linebacker attempted to alter the perception of the Ravens by explaining the team's collective mind-set.

"When things don't go right, it's not our obligation to always explain it to you guys fully. It's not relevant to where we're trying to go. ... Where you guys want to take us back to is frustrations that we have to deal with as a team. If you bring these frustrations into Wednesday, you've already lost. ... If you bring in the frustration from what we did two weeks ago ... you've already lost the rest of the season."

While Lewis was visibly angry, he still adroitly managed to instruct the media on the finer points of a team's mentality. This newspaper writer appreciated the emotion and the effort by Lewis. It was as insightful a lesson as anything I've heard this sporting season.

Sometimes, you've got to look at yourself in the mirror. That includes the sporting media.

A reality check is a vital thing, particularly when the relationship between athletes, journalists and fans is so complex and so influential. No one should get a free pass from scrutiny and self-reflection. That includes reporters and news outlets, just as it does athletes and fans.

We're all in this together. Or at least we're supposed to be, when the need for ratings, rankings, publicity, drama, sales and photo opportunities abound, at warp speed, with so much at stake:

Wins, losses, money, reputations, perceptions.

This week, the Associated Press said it is getting out of the business of determining which college football team gets to play for the national championship.

The venerable news wire service, through sports editor Terry Taylor, told the Bowl Championship Series that its flawed system for determining national title contenders was endangering AP's credibility and reputation.

Next year, the BCS must come up with a formula that doesn't include the AP poll, which ranks teams weekly throughout the college football season.

This is a wise move, and not only because it has become an entertaining cottage industry on the part of fans, coaches and the press to bash the BCS for a college football system that was inane and suspect long before the BCS existed.

It's wise because too many times, in too many different sports, the media unduly influences and inserts itself into a situation, thus becoming the news.

Alex Rodriguez will never forget the time the Seattle writers cost him the 1996 American League MVP award. The writers later said they voted for Ken Griffey ahead of A-Rod on their ballots, despite A-Rod's sensational season (.358, 36 homers, 215 hits and 54 doubles), arguing that Griffey (.303, 49 homers) was the MVP of the Mariners, so how could A-Rod be the MVP of the league ahead of Griffey?

This kind of situation has prompted many news organizations, including the Tribune Company and The New York Times, to tell its baseball writers not to submit ballots for Hall of Fame voting and other awards.

These are big-ticket issues when it comes to the relationship between media and sports. It's a necessary tango. It's the nature of the job. It's also sometimes a wicked game because there are consequences with how and what is reported.

In 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were hammering away at the single-season home run record, the issue of steroid use was raised. Associated Press writer Steve Wilstein broke a story that McGwire was using a supplement containing androstendione, an anabolic steroid precurser. He had seen the supplement in McGwire's open locker.

The story became as much about Wilstein naming the supplement as it was about steroid abuse in baseball.

Also, Sports Illustrated senior writer Rick Reilly walked up to Sammy Sosa in the locker room one day that season. After professing that he would take a test to prove he was clean, Sosa was asked by Reilly if the Cubs' slugger would submit to a drug test right then and there.

In both cases, the issue of steroid use was clouded by the perception that the writers were trying to become the story - a subterfuge theory advanced by players who didn't want to face the serious issue.

Messengers in the sporting media are sometimes disparaged as much as the players for indiscretions. Rightfully so. Undue negativity is an offense just as odious as throwing three interceptions.

We may have the ink and the cyberspace, but the players and the games are the stories. Ultimately, journalists who are professional not only understand this reality, they welcome it.

And if you disagree with that statement, we'll rip ya.

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