Sportswriters are, admittedly, not the pinnacles of journalism. We aren’t overseas covering wars, reporting on the latest medical discoveries or having our helicopter shot down by an RPG in Iraq.
Never mind that last one. But last week while watching an ESPN “30 for 30” episode on Ricky Williams, I came to the self-serving realization that sportswriters have immense power to shape the public perception of athletes.
Now this isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s something that certainly gets overlooked. Williams, a former NFL running back, was someone whose image was entirely shaped by journalists. He’s one of the most unique and multifaceted athletes of the new millennium, but we only saw one side in mainstream media.
The 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, Williams was a superstar coming out of college and the Saints famously traded a boatload of draft picks to select him in 1999. He was, by all accounts, the prototypical franchise player.
But that’s not the enduring image we have of Williams today. He’s most remembered for abruptly retiring in 2004 after repeated positive tests for marijuana, something he was routinely vilified for across major sports outlets.
Williams was labeled unprofessional and immature. Basically, his entire perception boiled down to someone who walked away from his job for selfish reasons. Miami Dolphins fans even blocked out his last name on their No. 34 jerseys to express their frustration.
Fan frustration is understandable, but sports journalists jumped all over the fiasco in a series of fiery hot takes designed to get their names out there. Williams clearly didn’t fit the ideal image of a pro athlete and he was ridiculed for it.
That’s the problem. It was the problem with how journalists covered Williams and it remains the problem with how we cover athletes today. Media coverage of a player becomes more about meeting a journalist’s personal agenda rather than actually taking the time to learn about him.
Williams had already been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression prior to this whole ordeal. How irresponsible was it to completely disregard that when talking about Williams’ sudden retirement? Obviously it was an unorthodox move, but to ignore that in exchange for writing some generic hot take was truly inexcusable.
The Williams situation draws a lot of parallels with guys like Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders, who is currently dealing with some undisclosed issues as well and will likely lose his job because of it. Some have speculated that Sanders no longer wants to play basketball or that he doesn’t care anymore after he signed a massive contract.
It’s still irresponsible to directly equate Sanders to Williams, but we clearly haven’t learned much from our past experiences handling players with potential mental issues. Rather than take the time to do some reporting, some “journalists” would prefer to rattle off their rapid reactions, which often are misinformed.
And when this happens, mainstream outlets pick up these insights, and they become part of a player’s legacy. Sure, a sportswriter may never have to deal with foreign policy or a federal budget, but we still have to get the facts straight. It’s the responsibility of the job.