DOYLE: Let’s get away from the sensationalism

Beer and chicken. Marriage troubles. Pain medication abuse. Scandalous golf outings.

Sounds like the plot to a crappy daytime soap opera, doesn’t it?

Nope. These are the headlines that define the Boston Red Sox season in 2012. Headlines about pitching ERA’s, batting averages, and lineups were conspicuously secondary.

While eight elite teams battle in the MLB playoffs this month, the Red Sox will be sitting at home watching from the couch.

I mention the Red Sox not to lament in the demise of my favorite team, but to highlight an increasingly troubling trend in professional sports media in which sensationalism and artificial controversy have become the norm.

We’ve all seen it. We’ve seen ESPN hype up each Monday Night Football matchup — which they own rights to air live — as the must-see game of the week, regardless of the opponents involved. We’ve seen analysis of LeBron James’s confidence after each quarter of the NBA finals. We’ve read the names and personal history of each replacement NFL referee who botched a call. We’ve seen Eli Manning be touted as an elite quarterback after a big win, and then squashed a week later when he throws two interceptions in a loss.

For sports fans, this deluge of media coverage seems heaven-sent. But sometimes — as in the case of the 2012 Red Sox — it can be dangerous. After a historic collapse last season, in which the Sox blew a nine-game playoff lead in September, fans needed something — anything — to blame. And, unfortunately, the local media was all to eager to provide it.

Following the 2011 season, the Boston Herald came out with reports that Red Sox pitchers drank beers and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse while games were going on during the September collapse. The Boston Globe then “cited sources” saying that the Sox much-loved manager, Terry Francona, could not control the situation because he had marriage troubles and took too much pain medication. And finally, after a disappointing start to the 2012 campaign, The Sports Hub, a Boston sports radio station, chastised ace Josh Beckett after he went golfing on his off-days despite missing a start for injury.

The sensationalism in Boston sports media, in fact, has reached an almost comical point. After the Sox fired their 2012 manager, Bobby Valentine, due to their poor performance this year, Boston-born sports columnist Bill Simmons geared up for the media’s reaction. “Sunday’s Boston Globe is going to feature one of those ‘According to sources’ stories that says Bobby lost the clubhouse in spring training, sold crystal meth out of a trailer and made a snuff film in Fenway’s bullpen car,” he wrote in his column last week. “They should turn this into NESN’s next terrible reality series.”

Whether true or not — and some of these reports have been outright denied by players and managers alike — there is no underestimating the detrimental affect that the negative media attention had on the Sox this season. Amid intense scrutiny in a town where the happenings of Fenway Park matter more to locals than the decisions on Beacon Hill, the Sox had their worst season since 1965.

While a host of factors lead to the Sox demise this season, the negative media attention was near the top of the list.

“Those are critics who refer to what you do on the field — why you’re not hustling, why you’re not performing, why your velocity’s down, why your bat speed is not there — those types of things I agree [with],” Red Sox slugger David Oritz told reporters after a game back in August regarding the media attention in Boston.

“But when I see a person criticizing players for having a couple of beers, I mean, that’s just trying to create controversy not related to what we’re supposed to be doing here, so that I don’t agree with.”

And it’s not just a problem in Boston. This type of sports coverage is becoming common place in a digital age in which local newspapers, official team blogs and ESPN’s ever-increasing number of channels have us covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With so much sports information, media outlets push beyond the field to get entertaining stories, regardless of how speculative or weak in evidence they might be.

From a fan’s perspective, the unfortunate aspect of this trend in sports media is not that the line between on-field performance and off-field personal issues has been blurred. Rather, exaggerated stories and smear campaigns have permeated onto the field and affected the performance of team and athletes themselves. The 2012 Boston Red Sox offer such a cautionary tale, in which the clout of overwhelming, sensationalized sports coverage helped ruin a team that we loved to watch.

I get it. Drama sells. For fans, every “anonymous team source,” every suspicion, every scandal stirred up by local sports media whets our appetite. But it’s time for professional sports media to get away from the beer and chicken, from the marriage troubles and medication abuse accusations, and instead shift our focus back to the field.

The athletes and games we love to watch will be better because of it.

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