LAST WEEK, the fledgling sister paper of New York Press, New York Sports Express, was abruptly shut down by our company's owners, Avalon Equity Partners. By industry standards it was a pretty typical domestic homicide. There was a struggle, and in the end someone in the accounting department reached for a knife.
The editor, Spike Vrusho, was in the middle of putting out what would have been the last issue when he got the news. "Damn, that's terrible," he said, and went back to workdeadline was just hours away.
"Um, no, you don't understand," they said. "We mean even this issue is canceled. Sorry."
And that was it. I wasn't there, so I don't know whether Spike had to actually freeze his hand in the middle of a keystroke. But it was that much of a surprise.
It is customary for the staff of a recently terminated publication to make a lot of noise in public about the great injustice that has just been done to them by the owners. Writers, when they get laid off, have a way of making themselves sound like child millworkers in 1890s Fall River who have just been denied a weekly 10 cent raise. The owners are always made out to be niggardly bastards whose secret reason for shutting the paper down was that the writing was too damn good. If you've ever sat next to a former George staffer on a commuter train (this actually happened to me once), you know what I'm talking about.
I'm not going to make that mistake here. In the general scheme of things, the passing of a tabloid sports newspaper rates, in terms of importance, somewhere just below the premature death of a decorative rhododendron in a dentist's office (but significantly above the failure of any amount of Jennifer Lopez marriages). It would be madness to get self-righteous about the kind of stinging bureaucratic bummer that every person reading this newspaper has probably had to deal with a dozen times over and then some in his or her own life.
So I'm not going to complain about the closing of NYSX. I would, however, like to make a few remarks on the occasion of its passing.
The situation of most sports journalism today is one of the weirder paradoxes of American society. We live in a country that easily shrugs off such minor problems as the commander-in-chief not being able to read, but which goes into full freakout mode when Tiger Woods misses the green a few times, or when Barry Bonds hits two homers but is emotionally unavailable to reporters after the game.
The sporting press in America is a reverse mirror image of its "serious" news counterpart: It is unbelievably vicious and demanding in its interviews; it doesn't take no for an answer from anybody; it is utterly relentless in its quest to find out What Is Wrong With Our Team (even if the team is doing not so badly); and, most pointedly, it has absolutely no respect for coaches, owners and other authority figures.
If George Bush had to go through what Theo Epstein in Boston or Mitch Kupchak in Los Angeles goes through on a daily basis, he would resign within 20 minutes. Can you imagine the dreaded Red Sox beat writersDan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Jeff Horrigan and the rest of those snarling monstersunleashed on, say, Bush's education policy? Shit, they would have had Rod Paige traded to Myanmar for prospects two years ago.
As it is, Paige can admit to having falsified test scores during his time as Houston's Superintendent of Schools, and no one in the "serious" press even bats an eye. But if an athlete or a coach makes one bad decision that costs the Home Team a few games, he can go from celebrity to terminal exile literally overnight. Just ask Scott Norwood, or Grady Little. In sports, unlike life, the press is watching your every move.
That's not to say that the media isn't carefully watching such things as the private lives of politicians, or what kinds of ties they wear, or whether or not they happen to accidentally say, while standing at a urinal, anything untoward about the flag or Jesus Christ. They just aren't particularly interested in how well these politicians do their actual jobs.
This is not the case in sports. Sportswriters care deeply, to the point of monomaniacal humorlessness, about the professional performance and behavior of athletes and owners and coaches. Part of the reason for this is rooted in audience demand. The public, it is true, cares a lot about the Jets' problems with third-down efficiency, while it does not care a lot about nuclear power plants in their neighborhoods that are about to explode.
But the bigger reason is that most sportswriters take themselves too seriously. They attack things like the beer-drinking habits of David Wells as though they were writing position papers for the Pope. To steal a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut, getting genuinely upset about anything in sports is like dressing up in a suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae.
The original idea of NYSX was to counter this approach. It was designed to be a funny paper that would never take its subject matter too seriously. You were an NYSX reader if you understood, as Spike did, that Karim Garcia, while not a very good baseball player, was a comic gold mine and needed to be in print as much as possible. Or if, like Robert Ecksel, you were clinically insane and would be unable to distinguish Stillman's Gym from the Taj Mahal in a police lineup. Or if you knew what the fuck Dave Hollander was talking about when he wasted three minutes talking to John Wooden about somebody named Ralph Drollinger.
It was supposed to be a different kind of sports publication. It had problems, but it was funny, and I think it was getting there. Unfortunately, "getting there" doesn't mean much to the people who actually own publications.
For reasons that I think should be obviousI still work for this companyI can't get into too much detail about what went wrong with NYSX (except to mention one thing: Its original editor, me, bailed after two months to pursue other things). But I will say that the problems that NYSX had had very little to do with the staff, which some people may be tempted to blame for failing to more or less instantly turn a profit without... Well, now I'm getting back into the area of stuff I can't talk about.
Suffice it to say that I still think NYSX was a good idea and that I sincerely hope that someone in a more advantageous position tries to do something like it again. If and when that happens, I hope those people will keep the likes of Spike, Dave Hollander, Steve Ovadia, Chris the Impaler and Adam Sivits in mind, because they're all good sportswriters who additionally haveunlike people like Mike Lupica and Pete Vesceysenses of humor about themselves and about sports in general. The business could use more of that.
As for me, I'm deeply saddened that NYSX is gone, because I no longer get to write about sports crime once a week. For a year now, that was my first order of business every Monday morning: the Lex-Nex search of the terms "Florida State" and "arrest." That's something that I probably would have done for free. (Actually, I think I was doing it for free.) But unless someone like Katrina Vanden Heuvel at the Nation wants to pick up that columnnot fucking likelythat's over as well.
It's a goddamn shame. Thanks for the memories, NYSX. o