NO CHEERING IN THE PRESS BOX.
That command, or something similar, is posted in every ballpark, arena and stadium in North America. It’s meant to convey that an element of professional decorum is preferred in such a work setting, even in the midst of revelry in the seats.
I can agree with the spirit of that directive. It comes from a good place.
As I said, it’s a place to do work, even if this particular space comes with more wisecracks and crosstalk than most offices out in the ‘real world.’ When it comes down to it, this isn’t a place for pompoms as much as it is for pens and keyboards.
But it’s my contention that — like many customs — we as a sports media business have taken a guideline and made it a religion. We are not covering international affairs or local government, the really important stuff that keeps our democracy healthy.
No, we’re covering sport. Even if it’s a billion-dollar industry that deserves honest scrutiny, we can admit that we were fans first and we’ll probably still be fans when the job is done.
For example, in many other countries overseas, there’s plenty of cheering in the press box. Somehow, life goes on and nobody keels over from the shock.
Maybe their outward passion gives them greater motivation to do the job and do it well. Maybe they’re just drunk. Either way, I see letting one’s fan flag fly as being healthier and more honest than the alternative we espouse on this side of the pond.
I had an especially challenging time making the transition from rooting on Pittsburgh teams and players to being Johnny Stoic when I’ve had a press pass dangling from my neck. After all, I was ‘just a fan’ until I jumped into the Pittsburgh sports reporting scene.
Yeah, I wanted the black and gold to win when I’ve been on the job covering the Penguins, Pirates, Steelers and Riverhounds. No, I don’t think it negatively affected my journalism.
Previous to reporting on Pittsburgh pro sports, I’d always taken pride in being the ‘analytical, measured fan’ anyway. That’s not to say I’m a better fan than anyone else out there, but I was definitely better positioned to work objectively in sports media than most.
Not that it’s anything I can take credit for. Just a fluke of genetics and brain chemistry.
So there I sat in the various press boxes from sea to shining sea, feeling like a bit of a hypocrite for putting on a very serious journalism face. In those times, I missed the emotional release of fandom, but there’s a middle ground to be achieved without violating too many norms and adding distraction to a challenging job.
Even now, as a member of the multimedia staff for the Robert Morris University athletic department and play-by-play broadcaster for the Hounds, I draw from a fan-like passion to find the inspiration to do good work. (I even officially joined the Hounds’ Steel Army supporters group this week, as I wrote about for Pittsburgh Soccer Now.)
The line is even more blurred between fan and media when you actually work for a team, which I have for more than half my career. I’ll admit this side of things feels more natural to me, so perhaps it’s wise to hang out here the rest of the way.
Personally, it’s been satisfying to know that I’m still the same Matt Gajtka who once wore bright yellow foam moose antlers in honor of Johan Hedberg, the same guy who shed a few tears when Jerome Bettis fumbled in the 1997 AFC Championship Game, the same guy who stood and applauded in a high school sports newsroom when Russell Martin took Johnny Cueto deep.
(This is still really cool.)
Yes, I am a Pittsburgh sports fan, even if I’ve been making my living in and around the scene in recent years. I might not ever get to go back to that old, familiar place where cheering was my first instinct. It’s difficult to look at the games as pure leisure anymore, even when they are precisely that to so many.
In a way, I’ve crossed that line and there’s no turning back, but I can still rest happily in the fact that these jobs haven’t beaten the fan out of me.
I might not be literally cheering in the press box, but I’ll be damned if I’m not enjoying every good thing our Pittsburgh teams do. No rusty sign or crusty competitor is going to steal that joy.