Thursday, November 17, 2011
As a sports media columnist for The New York Post, Phil Mushnick is like the traffic cop at the corner of greed and a good-faith sell. Assigned to opine on sports and the electronic media that cover them in his Equal Time column, Mushnick surveys the relationship between the two, and laments the ongoing chain of events that have conspired to remove the “sports” from sportsmanship, and, more often than not, leave the average fan wondering who stole his wallet.
“I’m paid by the newspaper, but I write for the fan,” said Mushnick, who began working for the Post in 1973 and has authored Equal Time three times per week since 1982. Mushnick spoke as the guest of Dr. A.J. Moore’s Sports Journalism class and Prof. Tom Cosentino’s Publicity Methods class on Wednesday, November 16, in Sweigart Auditorium.
Though Mushnick was originally assigned to cover television and radio in his column, the influence of money on sports has widened his scope to expose the rampant hypocrisy of the leagues and teams associated with the networks, and its deleterious effect on fans.
He recalled an episode in the 1990s that saw NBC Sports move a 1 p.m. December game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets to 8 p.m. in order to draw a larger prime-time audience. In announcing the move, then-NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol declared that the prime-time slot was a gift to the terrific fans of Buffalo, where the game would be played.
Mushnick, easily spotting a bad-faith money grab by the league and the network, castigated Ebersol and NBC in his column for patronizing loyal fans, consigning them – and their school-aged children – to a night game in frigid weather conditions that would see them arrive home after midnight on a Sunday night, all in the name of wringing out a few more advertising dollars.
“So, (NBC Sports press official) Ed Markey called to lay me out, but I said, ‘Ed, what did I write that wasn’t true?’” recalled Mushnick, who then paused for a lesson to the publicity-methods students. “When you’re told to call a reporter or columnist, and you both know your boss is wrong, deal in good faith. Call and say, ‘OK, consider yourself ‘ripped up,’ but don’t try to make what’s wrong into something that’s right. I’ve dealt with sports marketing people, publicists and consultants all my life, and all you can do is become a victim of your own circumstance.”
Ebersol and NBC Sports had already earned Mushnick’s scorn for its coverage of the Olympics, during which the network would present previously taped events as “plausibly live,” thereby fooling viewers into thinking the results of the event could not easily be found without watching it in its entirety.
“What does ‘plausibly live’ mean? It means it’s taped!” said Mushnick, who called the tactic to fool viewers “a con, a dodge.”
By contrast, the same network can take pride in someone like Bob Costas, who, according to Mushnick, deals honestly with viewers in a way that sometimes surprises him.
“The ads might say to tune into the game at 8 p.m., but Costas will come on at 8 and tell you right away that we’re 28 minutes from the first pitch,” he explained. “There’s no deceit involved, and he’s earned your respect.”
Mushnick takes pleasure in highlighting the absurdity in the way networks cover the games they’ve paid millions of dollars to carry. He’s ridiculed the practice of highlighting an athlete’s speed by running a slow-motion replay of him in action, and of covering live game action with a screenful of insignificant graphics. He’s also critical of in-game statistics provided by broadcasters that, free of context, do little to illuminate the viewer.
“I like when they say, ‘this team is undefeated when such-and-such running back carries the ball more than 15 times per game. Well, if that’s the case, why not start every game by just handing him the ball for the first 15 plays?” he asked. “They’ll tell you that umbrellas cause rain! No! Rain causes umbrellas.”
During the course of the class, Mushnick took plenty of questions from students, including one about where he thought sports and television passed a point of no return in terms of good-faith dealing with fans.
“Moving all World Series games to prime time, with no more day games – that was the line of demarcation,” he replied, adding that in the process, Major League Baseball is cashing in today at the expense of cultivating the paying fans of tomorrow. “When I was a kid, I used to watch the entire game with my dad. Now, the kid is asleep before the game even starts.”
Such attempts to increase revenues are also behind the litany of uniform combinations worn by many professional sports teams today, seeking a merchandising bonanza, according to Mushnick.
“Each team has four uniforms, because they found out that a certain percentage of fans will buy all four,” he said.
Though his observations frequently fuel discontent among his subjects – “I turn on my laptop, and it says, “You’ve got hate mail!” he said – Mushnick acknowledges that it goes with the territory.
“I’m paid for my opinion, and I’m loosely assigned to cover TV and radio, and it all shapes my column,” he explained. “I turn on the TV, and within a few minutes, something strikes me as good or bad. There’s a connection between the two.”