Why do Rick Reilly and Michael Wilbon think Larry Fitzgerald Sr. can cover his son objectively?

The stadium scene.
Jan. 26 2009 1:17 PM

My Son Is the Greatest Football Player Ever

Sportswriter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. says he can cover his son objectively. Why does Rick Reilly believe him?

Larry Fitzgerald Jr. Click image to expand.
Larry Fitzgerald Jr.

The Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald is Jerry Rice on fast-forward, a receiver with baseball gloves for hands who outruns, outjumps, and outmuscles defenders. Not only will Fitzgerald be the best athlete on the field in Super Bowl XLIII, he also makes for the most irresistible story for idea-starved sportswriters. That's because his father, longtime Minnesota sportswriter and radio host Larry Fitzgerald Sr., will be watching the big game from the Raymond James Stadium press box. In the last two weeks, the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon, USA Today's Jarrett Bell, and ESPN's Rick Reilly, among others, have written up the Fitzgeralds, reveling in the serendipity of a sportswriter raising a world-class jock.

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Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Wilbon, Bell, and Reilly lay out much of the same material. All the stories note father and son's shared grief over the loss of Fitzgerald Jr.'s mother to cancer, as well as Fitzgerald Sr.'s belief that it's inappropriate to cheer in the press box—even for your own progeny. "You've known me long enough to know I'm not going to show up with pompoms," Fitzgerald Sr. says to Wilbon. "I understand there's no cheering. … I'm there as an objective journalist," he explains to Bell. Reilly, too, fixates on Fitzgerald Sr.'s objectivity, writing:

[I]t's going to be murder for Larry Sr. not to violate that no-cheering-in-the-press-box rule.

"I won't cheer," Fitzgerald says. "I'm going to stay objective. I've come too far to suddenly show up in the press box with pompoms. But if you could put a monitor on my insides, you'd find a whole fan club in there."

If it were my son, I'd go into the bathroom every three minutes and scream into the blow dryer, but not Fitzgerald. He's so old school he's going to be two people during the big week, parent and sportswriter, and never the twain shall meet. "I'm not crossing any lines," he says. He'll take Larry Jr. to dinner at night off the record and interview him during the days on, the first sportswriter anyone can think of to ever cover his own son in the Super Bowl. "I'll be at his interview table, trying to get my questions in, just like everybody else."

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All of these stories create an image of a sportswriter obsessed with journalistic etiquette, a reporter who pounds out scrupulously honest, evenhanded, undemonstrative copy. Once you dip into Fitzgerald Sr.'s collected works, however, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Reilly and his cohorts haven't read a word the man has ever written.

Fitzgerald Sr.'s column in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a weekly African-American newspaper, is less a work of journalism than a proud parent's scrapbook. Judging by the last two issues, the Spokesman-Recorder doesn't run straight game stories, meaning that Fitzgerald Sr.'s columns represent the bulk of the paper's writing about football. As such, the Spokesman-Recorder sports section is essentially a Larry Fitzgerald Jr. tribute page—since 2003, the elder Fitzgerald has written about his son at least 23 times.

Last week, on the occasion of the Cardinals' victory in the NFC championship game, Fitzgerald Sr. argued that no one "has played better in these playoffs than Fitzgerald. ... [He] has raised his game each and every playoff game like the great athletes he grew up watching: Michael Jordan, Kirby Puckett, Kevin Garnett, Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Cris Carter." The previous week, he wrote that the highlight of Arizona's win over Carolina was "the remarkable prime-time performance of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr." In both articles, more than half of the copy is devoted to detailing Fitzgerald Jr.'s exploits; in neither story does the author disclose that he's writing about someone who shares his DNA.

Although there are a few exceptions, the vast majority of Fitzgerald Sr.'s articles lack any kind of disclosure, instead identifying Fitzgerald Jr. as a local boy made good. Even so, I wouldn't go out of my way to criticize Fitzgerald Sr. if Bell and Reilly didn't build him up as a media ethicist fit for the chairmanship of the Poynter Institute. (Wilbon gets a pass, as his piece doesn't belabor the point.) After all, he's writing for a small paper where most of the readers are probably aware of the columnist's filial ties to the receiver. It's also hard to argue with what Fitzgerald Sr. has been saying—it's true that nobody has played better in these playoffs than his flesh and blood. It's easier to find fault with Bell and Reilly, who've concocted a fable about the impartiality of a man who basically acts as his son's PR rep. Fitzgerald Sr. might not cheer in the press box, but he fashions the written-word equivalent of minutes-long standing ovations.

Why does Reilly want us to believe that the author of 2004's "Fitzgerald shines at workout" ("The consensus is that Larry Jr. should have won the 2003 Heisman Trophy") and 2008's "Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald hits all escalators" ("He is just 24 years old, and he's already one of the best in the game today") is "going to be two people during the big week, parent and sportswriter, and never the twain shall meet"? I suspect it has something to do with that sportswriterly tendency to turn good people into faultless paragons of virtue. The point isn't that Fitzgerald Sr. is a bad guy because he failed to disclose a relationship. It's that he's always happily blurred the very line that Reilly et al. say he refuses to blur.

Thankfully, there are some sportswriters who can tell a story without feeling compelled to sanitize it. Joe Lapointe's thoughtful, well-researched piece on the Fitzgeralds in the New York Times ignores the no-cheering-in-the-press-box canard and restores a handful of other complicating details that Wilbon, Bell, and Reilly buffed out of their accounts. Lapointe explains that his mother's passing was especially hard on Fitzgerald Jr. because they were estranged at the time. He also takes note of the recent domestic violence accusation by the mother of the wide receiver's young son.

"No matter what happens on Sunday," Lapointe concludes, "Larry Sr. will evaluate his son's performance not as a journalist but as a parent." After paging through Fitzgerald Sr.'s articles, that sounds about right. Further confirmation of where the sportswriter and father's priorities lie came during last Thursday night's college basketball game between Purdue and the University of Minnesota. At the start of the second half, the ESPN cameras caught Fitzgerald Sr. studying the game from press row, a sportswriter completely in his element. He was wearing his son's Arizona Cardinals jersey.

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