I have a confession to make. It's a somewhat dirty, shameful confession, one that I'd bet more than a few New England sports fans are hiding from the public. But for years now, probably since I was in college, I've carried this secret, and now I feel it's time to let it out.
I'm a fan of Michael Felger.
It's out there, I said it, and I stand by it. Felger has played the role of outrageous instigator for years in the Boston Sports Journalism world, but his role is more nuanced than that. He plays the bridge between the "good ol' boys" of the Boston media - the colossi who once roamed the nationally-acclaimed sports pages of the Globe, or fought the Globe's hegemony over at the Herald - and the newer generation of Boston media types, who view sports media through the lens of a world that has come of age with blogs, Deadspin, and an increasingly-overblown big-media industry that continues to drift further and further from the pure business of covering sports.
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Felger somehow antagonizes all of them. He's not stuffy enough to be a member of the "Boston Sports Media Lodge," characterized by heavy-set old men who have become too concerned with making themselves the story to really write anything of substance. Then again, he's not young and hip enough to really be one of the new ones, perhaps tainted by time spent with the old guys, or just a little too jaded by experience to embrace the open-minded, genre-bending manner in which new-age media engages with its audience.
There's a certain grace to his instigation, though. He navigates this minefield without any regard for how his colleagues perceive him, but at the same time, when interacting with them on-air, he tends to manipulate them so deftly, they often can't even see how much of a caricature he has painted them to be. It's a sort of sports journalism/punditry poetry, and he's probably the best in the region, if not in the business.
So it was today when, in a recorded segment on Comcast Sports Net New England, Felger demonstrated all of his broad powers of manipulation and instigation, while connecting with the older media that shared his stage, and yet showing his loyalty and commonality with the younger audience that grows disillusioned with those same personalities.
In short, Felger took two notorious soccer-haters in Michael Holley and Dan Shaughnessy and had a productive conversation about the Revs.
It was productive in different ways. Holley is a guy whom I have long heard to be totally dismissive of the Revolution and MLS in general. Every four years he talks World Cup, but people have told me repeatedly that it has been difficult to get him to cover the Revs even upon direct request. Shaughnessy is an avowed soccer-hater (I refuse to link anything he has written here, but FYI, he's written the exact same soccer-bashing mantra every four years since the 1990 World Cup. Did it this year, too.) who somehow thinks the New England market cares that he doesn't like soccer and thinks no one else does, either.
Felger manages to twist both men in different directions. Holley, fortunately, appears to be coming around on the Revs. He doesn't seem eager to welcome them into the Boston sports pantheon, but he wore the scarf and clearly recognizes that they are registering on the scene these days and MLS is on the rise. He still obsesses over MLS not being a top league, but we've all heard that before. Felger put Holley in a situation where he could either look like a dinosaur or show progression, and to his credit, he progressed.
Which makes all the more striking the utter refusal to adapt from Shaughnessy. The author and columnist tossed his Revolution scarf to the floor, made the necessary excuses about the World Cup, and continued to talk about how adults will never be into American soccer.
And then Felger just sliced him up. Shaughnessy tried to make a dismissive point by saying he'd forgotten the USA goalkeeper's name from the World Cup (yeah, Tim Howard). Felger snapped right back, answered him, and confirmed that everyone else in the room remembered the name. Shaughnessy tried to shake it off, but instead made it look as though he believes he himself counts as "everybody else," which is indicative of his blowhard ego and delusions of grandeur.
The best was this, though:
Felger: I feel bad for you, Dan, because in -
Shaughnessy: You're delusional!
Felger: No, no, I think you're delusional. I think that 8 years, 10 years, you're still gonna be sitting there, going to Fenway Park, WISHING for people to bitch about the Red Sox like you all used to do as dinosaurs, and in 10 years, people are going to be going to a soccer-only stadium in downtown Boston, and they're going to be banging it out at 20,000 people a night, and MLS is going to start to challenge baseball, maybe hockey, it's going to challenge one of these sports, and you're still going to be going down to Fenway Park, writing about the bullpen, and finding people don't care.
Holley then talked about how he doesn't think MLS is going to break that barrier, but higher-level soccer will, but the damage was done. Shaughnessy went on later to scoff at the possibility of the Revs ever being located in downtown Boston, a position he's made clear before, and it only further entrenched him as an outdated, out-of-touch windbag. As Felger put it in the open: a "notable old curmudgeon, soccer-hater, lover of the past, denier of the future."
In this, somewhat ironically, Felger shows himself to be infinitely more professional than Shaughnessy. To me, unless you're a beat writer, a sports journalist has an almost-sacred duty to put in his best work regardless of the sport. If it is a sport in your market, it must be covered. If you are given that assignment, or if some subset of your readers hunger for that coverage, it's your job to deliver the highest-quality product you can create.
It's almost ironic that Felger is more professional in that because his job these days is mostly to be loud and controversial. He's been typecast into the sort of arrogant contrarian role that has been inexplicably popularized by high-paid trolls like Skip Bayless, creating disagreement in order to attract eyeballs and advertising dollars. Here, though, Felger demonstrates precisely the skill that every good sports journalist should have: he saw interest, he saw an audience hungry for coverage, and rather than meet that hunger with disdain and pomposity, he gave them the time and effort they deserved. That, folks, is professional.
We can debate to the ends of the Earth whether or not CSN New England, the Revs' flagship network, made an error by even bringing Shaughnessy on for that discussion - everyone knows what he's going to say about it - but by having Felger there to shred him for his pigheaded intolerance, it became as pro-Revolution a segment as we were probably going to get with that trio.
One final note, and it's one that's very important: Shaughnessy is 61. His views are representative of his generation, but his generation is in twilight. They aren't even the magical target group of males 18-49 that every entertainment medium on Earth seems to covet. This sort of archaic discussion is a dying breed, and like Felger says, in 8-10 years, it's a conversation we probably won't have anymore.
But at least we'll still be able to check in with Shaughnessy on the Sox bullpen struggles.