But the reporters sent to cover the event knew little of the discipline and its major figures.
The name, U.S. Nationals Championship, was a deliberate choice for clear identification of the event.
Though disturbing at first, upon reflection I realized that a phone call recently from a world-class professional juggler indicated the growing strength of the IJA. The long-time pro, who will remain anonymous, was angered by a Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper article. The story in question reported Anthony Gatto's victory in the U.S. Nationals Championship and proclaimed him in bold headlines on the front page of a Sunday edition as "the world's greatest juggler."
The pro had a point. He asked, "Who said Anthony was the greatest?" The article only referred to "experts" as the source of the claim.
I assured the pro that no IJA official would ever make such a statement, because we are well enough acquainted with the field to know better. In fact, the story didn't implicate the IJA. It began with the experts claim that Anthony was the best in the world and cited that as the natural reason that he therefore won the IJA U.S. Nationals title. Reporters should know better than to cite anonymous experts in an article that makes a claim like that.
Upon request, I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper putting Anthony's victory in its proper IJA perspective. The fact that he won our championship meant that, according to a panel of knowledgeable judges, he juggled better in this event than the other nine entrants. However, because the field included only some of those jugglers generally acknowledged as the most prominent worldwide, the IJA would not declare its winner as "the world's best juggler." I added, however, that all competition aside Anthony definitely ranks in the top echelon of jugglers worldwide.
The immediate controversy passed, I wondered what it meant. Would a reporter infer than an Olympic gymnastic winner is the world's best at that discipline? That might be true simply because the event itself attracts all the best in the field.
We in the IJA sponsor the world's only juggling championship, but, unlike the Olympics, it does not now attract all the top players in the field. What it does attract, though, is tremendous media attention. This year's event received coverage on all three national networks, CNN, PBS, the Associated Press, countless Bay Area media outlets and Sports Illustrated magazine. But the reporters sent to cover the event knew little of the discipline and its major figures. A few who didn't dig deeply enough may have looked for easy "hooks" to make their stories more meaningful and sensational. The result in the Review-Journal case was an overstatement that offended at least one world-class juggler.
To get a better understanding of events, I called the Review-Journal reporter in question, Sergio Lalli. Yes, he said, his editors had heard from the pro. "He's got a point," Lalli admitted. "I didn't poll every expert. It would've been best to say Anthony was one of the best in the world."
Lalli said he decided to pursue the story after reading an Associated Press wire story on the convention that mentioned Anthony was from Las Vegas. "I don't cover juggling," Lalli said. "All I knew was the kid kept these rings up in air longer than anyone else and won this competition. I figured it was like a race where the fastest guy wins. I don't know too much about competition, but since you've been doing it for 40 years I would assume it attracted the best in the field."
Lalli, who got much of his information from Gatto's agent, Dick Lane, seemed genuinely apologetic for his "unfortunate phrasing," but felt most readers would understand the label as a "loose reference." He said, "I just didn't realize phrasing it that way would affect someone in the business. Anyone who read it should know I'm not writing a professional juggling story, it was a story about a young boy. If the point of article was to write about who best juggler in world was I would've gone into more research, but that wasn't point of it."
Lalli is not alone in his sin. An article in a Chicago paper last year reporting native son Andrew Head's 1985 win printed the statement, "He won the I.J.A. championships, making him the world's greatest juggler." I cringed when I read it then, as I did this time around. But because it was a small article in Chicago rather than a large headline in Las Vegas, those who would be offended never saw it.
Reporters should be more careful. But IJA officials are careful not to mislead anyone about the scope of our championships. Because we realize that most reporters of IJA events don't know the field, we are explicit about its limited significance. The name "U.S. Nationals Championship" was a deliberate choice for clear identification of the event.
I suspect the pro was miffed that Anthony got tremendous coverage for one event, while the pro juggled brilliantly in relative obscurity in the world's top clubs. The gathering together of jugglers and staging of a formal, well-run competitive event will always get more attention than an individual doing his job night after night.
Such is the growing power of the IJA and its annual convention. We must use it carefully.
As juggling becomes more popular, members of the press seek out the organization that represents the field. And when that organization stages a championships event, the press pays attention. The IJA has worked diligently for many years to increase the prestige of its championships, and the press coverage of this year's convention represents rich fruits of that labor.
We can be proud of how far the championships program has come under the leadership of directors Roger Dollarhide, Garbo, Greg Moss and Holly Greeley. Those people, their assistants and the support of IJA members created a professionally-run, entertaining and exciting event that now attracts attention beyond our immediate circle of friends.
We have also been careful not to sacrifice other worthwhile convention activities on the altar of competition.
For that reason I make no apologies to those who feel left out of the headlines, nor do I accept responsibility for careless reporting. The championship is open to all IJA members, and membership is open to all. Pros who want some attention would be well advised to make sure they are a part of that event, rather than reading bitterly about it from the sidelines after it's over.
As Lalli told me in conclusion, "It's like if have heavyweight fight and someone in Siberia comes up later and says, `Hey, I'm the best.' Well, how do we know, you weren't there?"