Cheering in the press box: All jock journos do it, but most keep it on the down low

Until Tuesday morning, I couldn’t have picked out Mike Chambers in a police lineup.

Today I can.

Chambers is the guy wearing wrinkled, brown trousers and a white, beer-stained shirt that battles mightily to conceal an ample belly; he’s also sucking on a celebratory stogie and holding the Stanley Cup aloft, a ritual normally reserved for those who’ve actually accomplished something more than tapping out 1,000-word essays for the Denver Post.

That’s right, Chambers is a jock journo whose task it has been to chronicle Colorado’s blood-sweat-tears-bruises-and-broken bones run to the National Hockey League championship, a mission accomplished on their foe’s freeze Sunday night when the Avalanche laid waste to the title-holding Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1.

As far as it can be determined, Chambers’ contribution to the Avs’ success was nil. He didn’t score a goal, he didn’t help Nathan MacKinnon get on the scoresheet, and I doubt he had a hand in cooking Cale Makar’s pre-game meals. In reality, he did nothing other than make his editors less grumpy by meeting deadline, something that doesn’t qualify him to a) have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup or b) hoist hockey’s holy grail in the manner of a champion.

So one wonders what Chambers was thinking when he posted a couple of pics of himself and Stanley on his Twitter feed. Well, clearly he wasn’t thinking straight, and the half dozen empty beer bottles behind him would be the first clue to support that notion.

He describes it as “probably the most memorable experience” of his career, which began full time at the Post in 2000, but he doesn’t make it clear if he’s referring to the plum assignment of tracking a Stanley Cup champion hither and yon or lifting the battered mug.

The thing is, the boys and girls on the beat (any beat) are there to talk and write about the athletes/teams they follow, not wave pom-poms. It’s that old ‘No Cheering In the Press Box’ thing.

My question is this: Does anybody really give a damn?

Well, certainly Chambers’ misstep is a dent to his credibility, and hard-core adherents to jock journo’s golden rule have hastened to deliver a stern tsk-tsking from their seats on the press row. Meantime, observers on social media have given a hasty thumbs down, while others haven’t been so quick to coat him with tar and a layer of feathers. They note that he had been caught up in the moment and saw it as a harmless bit of carry-on. Besides, they point out, the pics were posted on Twitter, not on the sports pages of the Post.

Except a news snoop need not be sitting on a perch in the press box to be cheering in the press box. Chambers was cheering in the press box, even if on the cesspool of nasty natter that is Twitter. He has made it an extension of his job. Most jock journos do.

Most, however, also keep their cheering interests on the down low.

Trust me when I tell you that the boys and girls on the beat are telling a big, fat fib when they say they don’t cheer for the athletes and/or teams they cover, even if you don’t see their noses growing or their pants on fire. Sports scribes/broadcasters are human (okay, there’s some question about Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless), so they have their favorites.

An example would be Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press. On Feb. 18 this year, he wrote this: “If I’m to be taken seriously as a journalist, I can’t be out here waving pom-poms for the home team.” Fine. Except less than a month later, here’s what he scribbled: “The 2022 MLB season is especially exciting for those of us who root, root root for the home team — as in the Toronto Blue Jays.” In his newsletter to readers, he mentioned his “beloved Toronto Blue Jays.”

His boss, sports editor Jason Bell, admits to cheering “unabashedly for the Toronto Blue Jays.”

So what happens if the Blue Jays advance to the World Series? Does the Blue Jays fan/editor dispatch the Blue Jays fan/scribe to the Republic of Tranna to deliver dispatches from the event? How credible can the reporting be when both parties are waving pom-poms?

Former Chicago columnist Jerome Holtzman wrote the book (literally) on cheering in the press box, and this is what he had to say: “I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?’ I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.”

So, sure, the cheering can be a subconscious thing, but that’s one of the reasons newspapers have sports editors. To keep writers on-point and credible.

I recall my time covering the Winnipeg Jets for the Winnipeg Tribune. The team was in disarray, on and off the ice, and I received a phone call from the office while hunkered down in a Marriott Hotel in Cincinnati.

“We don’t think you can see the forest for the trees,” I was informed. “We think maybe you’re missing the problem…the coach. But if you don’t think he’s the problem, don’t write it.”

Larry Hillman, a very nice man, was bench puppeteer of that Jets outfit, and I was quite fond of him. He was sincere, soft-spoken and always obliging of his thoughts and time. Cutting him a new one wasn’t something I had considered. Still, I’d been given pause for ponder, and concluded that better coaching was the very thing the Jets required. I wrote the column. Shortly thereafter, Hillman was dismissed and I felt like throwing up.

So, sure, there were people and teams I rooted for during my 30 years in jock journalism, and I don’t apologize for it. I believe, as a human, it comes with the territory. You just have to keep it out of your copy and/or commentary, and you certainly don’t post it on social media.

Whenever the topic is cheering in the press box, I leave the final word to my first sports editor, Jack Matheson, once accused of being too buddy-buddy with Ray Jauch, coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“All right,” he informed his Tribune readers one day, “I’ll come clean, Ray Jauch is a friend of mine, but I didn’t know they had enacted some sort of legislation making it a crime for sports writers to have friends. I don’t see anything wrong with being friendly with a man you work with every day of the week. Where does it say a football writer and a football coach have to have an adversary relationship? Yes, we’re friends. I don’t know about ‘good’ friends, but that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, either, because we have something in common. We’re thrown together into the football jungle, and Ray Jauch wants to win because it’s his job and I want to win because I live here and I like to be proud of the athletes who represent us.”

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