Thursday, February 10, 2011

Litmus Test

Here is how you know if you are an unmitigated “homer”. Has your favorite team ever been over-seeded in the NCAA tournament? Have you ever looked at the bracket and seen a 4 seed next to your team and thought “that seems a little generous.” If that answer is no, you probably see your team through rose-colored glasses.

Note: This litmus test does not work if you are a Northwestern fan.

What is the line between fan and analyst?

One of the things that constantly baffles me is the little games people play about admitting their affiliations. Jay Bilas and Kirk Herbstreit are two of the most knowledgeable, articulate, and effective commentators in the business. But if one of their colleagues asks them if they might be exerting a little “Duke” or “Ohio St.” love, you can practically feel the fingernails scratching on the chalkboard. I much prefer Clark Kellogg’s style. If someone mentions that Ohio St. is his alma mater, he says he is happy to see the Buckeyes do well. And then he moves on. There is nothing wrong with being human. The may be “no cheering in the press box”, but being an alum does not prevent someone from being a successful analyst.

In 2011, the myth has long been debunked that someone cannot provide passion and insight at the same time. Bill Simmons is the most famous “fan” commentator of all time, and he is also one of the most insightful NBA writers on the planet. Lou Holtz may be the target of constant ribbing on the College Football post game show because of his Notre Dame ties, but he still knows a thing or two about football. Doug Gottlieb may have once played for Oklahoma St., but that does not prevent him from stating the biting truth.

And truthfully, Joe Posnanski might be the best at the business at using his past affiliations appropriately. He includes details from his personal past in stories without making it seem disruptive. When Posnanski wrote about the Cavs recent losing streak, he so subtly mentioned the terrible Cavs teams of his youth that you forget he might still care for the team.*

No, the worry about analysts should not be whether or not they are alumni or fans. The worry should be whether their opinions are well-founded. Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune is a long-time newspaper reporter. He has covered Twin Cities sports teams for over 50 years and a statue of him was even built in front of the Target Center. No one questions his success. But many people question his unrelenting praise. No matter what happens at a Minnesota sporting event, the players never did wrong. The loss can always be blamed on an injury or bad luck. And no Gopher or Viking coach has ever been fired for cause. Many believe that Hartman praises individual targets to retain access. Whether this is true or not, trading access for one-sided commentary does no one justice.

But caring about a team, or articulating the passion of the game is not a crime. From the joy of a fanbase when Baylor beat Oklahoma for the first time in 30 games last January, or the resigned disgust as Clemson lost for the 54th time at Chapel Hill, passion is a large part of the equation. As we enter the pulse-pounding portion of the season, the games mean something to everyone. To the elite teams, the goal is to get a high seed to reward a season of hard work. For the bubble teams, the goal is one more quality win to impress the selection committee. And for the bad teams, the goal is to win one more time for the seniors. In college basketball every game counts, and communicating that truth should never get lost.

So certainly I condemn the inappropriate praise and unsubstantiated propaganda. But if the insights are real, and the content is true, I don’t care if the analyst is a fan or not.

*An honorary Posnanski star note. Have you seen his SI photo that appears in the magazine - the man with the cowboy hat and hand extended? That is one amusing photo.