In sports journalism, the only thing you’re taught to root for is good stories. You want to witness special moments worth writing, talking, or broadcasting about. Chronicling historic events provides a rush that reminds you about why you got into this business in the first place.
You never want to be the story or have others question your motives or integrity. Nothing will undercut your credibility faster.
This all brings us to Stephen A. Smith and Jon Heyman. Last week, both were cheerleaders aiming to steer two of the biggest stars in their respective sports to New York City.
In the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo told The New York Times that he doesn’t plan on signing a contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks until he’s convinced that the organization is committed to winning another NBA title. Smith, once a newspaperman, said on First Take “He already delivered a championship for Milwaukee. He doesn’t owe them anything. It’s a great sports town, but damnit, I’m starving for New York to get him. So, that’s where my mind is at. When he said what he said, all I thought about was the Knicks got a chance.”
In MLB, Shohei Ohtani is slated to become a free agent after this season. Even with his arm injury, he will be one of the most coveted players to hit the market because of his rare skills. Heyman, a current newspaperman for The New York Post and also an insider for the MLB Network, penned an open letter to Ohtani imploring him to consider the Yankees or Mets. He wrote: “I hope you’ll take the time to read this letter written urging you to consider New York as you ready yourself to become the most-followed free agent ever.”
Many people will react to Smith and Heyman’s comments with a collective yawn of indifference. What’s the big deal? Fair enough. We live in a new media world where the old journalism rules are viewed as musty and outdated as a physical newspaper.
But there is a cost to their credibility when they blatantly advocate for athletes to join their favorite sports teams. Are Smith and Heyman giving opinions based on facts, or are they pushing agendas that benefit New York City franchises?
Smith is the less egregious offender here. He can argue that he’s no longer a journalist. He’s an entertainer. However, occasionally, Smith puts on his old reporter’s hat, such as when he claimed his sources told him that Stefon Diggs wanted out of Buffalo. (Diggs denied this.).
Smith exists in a universe where he is rarely held accountable and can spew his versions of the truth. That’s not going to change any time soon. However, his insistence on persuading Antetokounmpo to join the Knicks feels unseemly at best.
Heyman should be held to a higher standard. He’s paid to report and analyze news. Columnists give opinions but they are usually bound by journalistic standards.
Heyman didn’t violate any codes of conduct, but his open letter reeks of homerism. He wrote: “Please consider the Mets and/or Yankees. There’s nothing better than being a baseball star in New York, I’m told. You will be honored and revered like nowhere else, I hear.”
New York City is a great baseball town. So are Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, etc. Plus, NYC isn’t for everyone. That’s totally fine. Heyman’s insistence on persuading Ohtani to join the Mets/Yankees feels unseemly at best.
Being a fan of a sport that you cover can be tricky. Most people get into sports journalism because of their passion. But to do the job free from bias (real or perceived) you should always be self-aware enough to not root for or attempt to influence where a player chooses to work.
Cheerleading doesn’t serve Smith, Heyman, or the viewers and readers who follow them.