Archive for April, 2008

Has sports journalism really lost its game?

April 25, 2008

Sportswriting today is unimaginative, sentimental, superficial, and sensational. At least, those are some of the claims made by Utne’s Michael Rowe in “How Sportswriting Lost Its Game.”

Rowe ponders: Does sports journalism suck? Overall, he seems to believe that opinion suffocates analysis, that stats derail stories, that analysis is empty, and that profiles are vacuous. On the other hand, Rowe cites several exemplary stories as well, such as Chuck Klosterman’s piece on the Boston Celtics’ transformation — a story that is self-aware and which invokes first person, approaches that are usually eschewed in journalism classes and news rooms.

Using ‘I’ is a no-no everywhere except in the blogosphere, or so it seems. (I know, I know. You’re saying, ‘Joe, that’s an obvious statement.’ But, like other bloggers, I had to find a way to insert myself into this post.) Actually, using ‘I’ in a news story may jolt some editors, prompting them to find a ‘better way’ to tell the story in a more traditional, third-person omniscient manner. Using ‘I’ may also elicit anger (or jealousy) among print journalists who hate the self-promotional approach used by ESPN’s anchors, by sports talk radio ‘personalities,’ and even by cross-over print journalists like Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (who remain excellent sports journalists). Like with anything else, though, ‘I’ can be used both expertly by seasoned writers like Klosterman, and poorly by younger reporters who have not read much. (And reading, really, is the key to good writing. Read Gary Smith. Gay Talese. John Feinstein. Frank DeFord. Sports Illustrated. And books like Seabiscuit, Red Rose Crew and In These Girls, Hope Is A Muscle.)

Rowe also notes some other excellent examples, like one the New York Times ran on sexual harassment at Jets games and another that is really a series of dispatches on the Sonics’ pending move from Seattle. These eclectic pieces are compelling, even if they are sometimes crude, like the one where the author drops an F-bomb, a word that would be as welcome in a news room as ‘I’ or ‘layoffs.’

Whenever LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony come to town, I am happy to see local folks wearing their jerseys. I respect other people’s basketball passions, even if they are vaguely treasonous. But whenever Kobe Bryant comes to town, my stomach burns with hate. So last week when I walked into Key Arena and saw at least a thousand people wearing Kobe-fucking-Bryant jerseys, I almost vomited.

Yet, Sherman Alexie does not pivot on this single expletive; instead, he turns toward a sad, subtle point about empty moral victories. In another dispatch, Alexie connects the Sonics’ pending departure to Oklahoma to other national problems — unregulated hedge funds, socialism, and Marxism — before concluding that he would love to play hoops with Karl Marx’s ghost so they could “have a long talk about the soulless billionaires who love to reap where they’ve never sowed.” In another piece, he remarkably finds a way to blend Emily Dickinson’s poetry with hope.

Rowe, though, believes that good sports journalism is rare, calling these exemplary pieces “islands in a sea of dead, beaten horses.” Are these pieces unique? Certainly. But that’s true for anything — certain stories, art work, or buildings are better than others. As Rowe indicates, sports journalism can be overly sentimental, especially in formulaic profiles whose narrative goes from youthful struggles to current success (or vice verse). Single or double-source profiles do suck. In addition, Rowe notes that sports sections include way to many notes and briefs, that stories rarely have an overarching point, and that blogs frame news as debate, arguing points instead of digging into stories.

But Rowe is a little too harsh. Sports journalism is not as dire as Rowe and Richard Ford state. There’s a lot of good local sports journalism in community newspapers that chronicle kids playing in youth leagues, competing for their local high school, or about adults running in 10K races or shooting a 300 game in the local bowling league. Sure, some of these pieces can be reported better, but what do you tell the sports reporter who wrote eight or nine pieces that week? How is he going to find the time to hang out for several days with a player or coach? Not that this sportswriter shouldn’t push to develop a series or shouldn’t work on a large profile piece, stories that delve into a topic important to the local community. (And which will provide an impressive clip for potential future employers.) But sportswriters at weeklies and small dailies need to work these into a busy schedule filled with game stories and short profiles.

This is not to dismiss Rowe’s points. Rowe is correct to ask for more sophisticated and contemplative narrative journalism.

I want sportswriting to offer evidence of athletic struggle, not celebrity, evidence that “professional” sports tells me something about the cruelty, appeal, and exhilaration of playing. Fans and sportswriters, spectators all, may try to get inside sport, but few of us are on the sidelines and even fewer are on the field. Readers have been left to digest fantasy fluff and their own obsessions. If it has become increasingly difficult to admire athletes and appreciate sports, we ought to realize that their potential for narrative, for story, made them newsworthy in the first place.

We do need more intelligent storytelling and reporting. Check out Rowe’s piece for more on these points. It’s a good read.

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To error is human, to make a fielder’s choice can be divine

April 22, 2008

You’re covering a game, taking notes and faced with the following scenario: A runner is on second with no outs. The batter slaps an easy grounder to the pitcher, who, instead of firing the ball to first for the easy out, turns and starts to throw to third, where the base runner is headed. However, the third baseman does not get back to the base in time so the pitcher turns back to first. But she does not throw the ball since the hitter is only a few steps from the base. So now runners stand on first and third. How do you score this?

I faced this scenario last weekend during a girls softball game. At the time, our scorekeeper asked: “How the heck do you score that one?” He immediately received two conflicting answers. I said: “E-1,” denoting that this play should be scored an error on the pitcher. The other coach said, “Fielder’s choice. You can’t score this an error if she didn’t throw the ball.” Both of us have played and watched baseball for more than 30 years, yet we were at odds on this play. So where does one turn for answers? That’s always a challenge, especially when you are covering a game held in a small town, far from an official scorer.

I’ve carried rules books to games in the past, although not as frequently as I should have. Now, I carry the National Softball Association’s official rule book in my car, but it does not address this scoring scenario. Instead,this book focuses more on equipment, base running, and other clearly stated rules of the game. Keeping score is not a priority within this text. Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter is another excellent resource, explaining the context, lingo and strategy of baseball; however, this book does not focus on scoring plays like the one noted above.

You might want to purchase an official major league baseball or NCAA rules book. If you have access to the Internet, you can also go to sites that outline rules for major league baseball, NCAA softball, NCAA baseball, and youth softball. Some state high school associations, like Florida and Illinois, post their rules manuals online that can be downloaded, printed, and stashed in a briefcase or backpack. (The NCAA has even posted a video outlining rules changes for baseball this season.)

Still, some plays are harder to define than others. In cases like this, I usually try to delete what the play isn’t or cross-reference several resources to find an answer. For example, one online resource confirmed my call, indicating the pitcher should be assessed an error since ‘ordinary effort’ would have led to the team getting at least one out. But what is ‘ordinary effort’? Judgment plays a part in many scorekeeping calls. On this play, this player could have easily thrown out the hitter, so this definition works. Still, this website could be wrong, so I went to several others, looking for similar scenarios and additional definitions for fielder’s choice and error. The Baseball Almanac defined fielder’s choice:

FIELDER’S CHOICE is the act of a fielder who handles a fair grounder and, instead of throwing to first base to put out the batter runner, throws to another base in an attempt to put out a preceding runner. The term is also used by scorers
(a) to account for the advance of the batter runner who takes one or more extra bases when the fielder who handles his safe hit attempts to put out a preceding runner;
(b) to account for the advance of a runner (other than by stolen base or error) while a fielder is attempting to put out another runner; and
(c) to account for the advance of a runner made solely because of the defensive team’s indifference (undefended steal). That’s the same definition cited in MLB’s official rules section.

By this definition, this play could not be scored a fielder’s choice because the pitcher did not attempt to put out the lead runner. But could this play also be called ‘indifference’? Probably not, because the team did want to get at least one out. So fielder’s choice does not appear to be the correct call.

I next checked my favorite book about baseball rules, Baseball Field Guide, a book that illustrates the rules of the game like no other. The authors, Dan Formosa and Paul Hamburger, rely on illustrations and clear writing to clarify and define rules of the game, such as when a batted ball landing near home plate is fair or foul, the rules vs. the reality of where umpires will call a strike, and the 16 ways a batter is out. The 240-page book, which is about the size of a reporter’s notebook, can fit nicely into any satchel or back pocket. The book is also indexed, my favorite feature of all.

The authors define fielder’s choice as a play in which a fielder must choose between at least two runners — “putting one of them out instead of the other.” Since this pitcher did not attempt to put out a different runner, this definition appears to work. But my scenario is not clearly defined as an error in this book, either. Physical miscues, like dropped balls and errant throws, are typically judged as errors, not mental lapses.

So what is an error? According to MLB rule 10.12, an error is assessed when a fielder’s actions assist the team at bat. Errors include misplays, wild throws, and muffs. This rules does not apply to mental errors, misjudgments and bad hops: “The official scorer shall not charge an error to a fielder who incorrectly throws to the wrong base on a play.” This would probably apply to a player who intended to throw to the wrong base. Fielder’s choice? Perhaps.

So why spend so much time trying to determine a call that did not affect the winner of a game? Two reasons — one, we want to offer correct information; and, two, because researching plays like this makes us more knowledgeable about the games we cover. On deadline, we may not be able to thoroughly research plays, but we can revisit plays like this in second-day game stories, notebooks, or features. To do nothing at all is clearly an error on our part.

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Apply for this great sports scholarship

April 17, 2008

Just received the following information for an Associated Press Sports Editors scholarship. Check it out and send something in. Here’s the information from the release.

The Associated Press Sports Editors are sponsoring four $1,500 scholarship for collegiate sports journalists.

APSE, a national organization of sports editors, is awarding four scholarships to help motivate talented students to pursue a career in sports journalism. Collegiate sports journalists entering their sophomore, junior or senior years are eligible for the scholarship which will awarded based on the students’ journalistic work, their academic record, financial need, and geography. The scholarships will be awarded to students from four different regions of the United States. The winners will be chosen by the APSE scholarship committee, which is chaired by Joe Sullivan, sports editor of the Boston Globe and includes editors from all sections of the United States.

Please have them include the following information in their letter of application:

- Personal: Name, address, age, phone number.

- Academic: A copy of the student’s collegiate grades.

- Financial: A brief rundown of the student’s financial situation, with regards to how he/she plans to pay for tuition and copies of any pertinent records including the copies of the FAFSA form EFC and family’s income tax return.

- Letters of recommendation: One or more from teachers/employers.

- Five examples of sports journalism (usually stories but could also be sections the student has edited).

- Finalists may be contacted for an interview .

Mail information to:

APSE Scholarship

c/o Joe Sullivan, Sports Editor

Boston Globe

135 Morrissey Blvd.

Boston, MA 02205-2845

Deadline for applications is June 1. For more information contact Joe Sullivan at the Boston Globe 617-929-2845, jtsullivan@globe.com.

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Put together a tennis package

April 16, 2008

Several conferences will hold their tennis championships during the next few weeks. A conference championship is always big news, but, sometimes, sports like tennis get dismissed because they are not perceived as ‘major’ sports. That’s a shame. Just because 10,000 people do not pack the local courts does not mean we should dismiss this sport. We should cover tennis just like we would do basketball and football.

That means you could put together a package that includes capsules, a well-researched preview and, perhaps, a column. During the tournament, you could also write daily gamers (which can be published online during the weekend.) Next season, you might want to develop a tennis blog as well. (I’d recommend you start a blog for every sports team on your campus.)

There are many ways to cover the ACC tennis championships this weekend. First, you might want to determine match-ups. Georgia Tech, for example, plays its first match Friday when the Yellow Jackets will face either North Carolina State or Wake Forest in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s championships at Sanlando Park (a long lob from my old house in Altamonte Springs, Fla.) Who’s the better opponent for the four-time regular-season champ? Checking the stats will yield some information. You could also ask Georgia Tech’s players to assess these two opponents. Which players have played them tougher? Finally, you may want to speak with players at both N.C. State and Wake Forest, asking them how they feel about playing Georgia Tech again. Yes, making so many calls can be a challenge, but the insights offered would be impressive.

Beat coverage fosters this type of in-depth coverage. It is difficult to get so much information so quickly — especially if you rarely speak with players after matches on your courts. A tennis beat writer would not only have better perspective, but would also have contact information for opposing players and coaches. (Yet another reason to interview opposing players for game stories.) Some staffs cover tennis based upon phone calls. That is unfortunate because the best stories come from watching matches first-hand.

Even if your school has not covered as many matches as you would have liked, you can still put together a pretty good package. First, assemble capsules that can include school names, school records, coach’s names and career records, the top five singles players in order and the top two doubles teams (along with their respective records). If you want to be more ambitious, you may also want to add a question or two to the bottom of the capsules, such as “What do you need to do to win the conference tournament?” or “Who could be the surprise team of this tournament?” While making these calls, you may want to ask another question or two for a preview story. Packages like this take time and effort, but they will yield much for readers wanting to learn more about the tournament. And they serve as great clips for your portfolio as well.

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S.I. offers great lessons for writers

April 15, 2008

You learn how to write by reading. How else can you learn to craft a great lead, to develop a compelling anecdote, and to write fluidly and precisely? Read, take notes, analyze, repeat the process endlessly. All writers need to keep a journal. In mine, I take notes from books and articles, citing phrases and words that I try to infuse into my own writing. I learned that areas can be scalloped with natural harbors, that a light fog can make people appear wraithlike, and that an insecure man may offer a maladroit joke. Without such diligence, your own writing may also become clumsy. Always push your writing to the next level. That means reading good writers. There are few better than those writing for Sports Illustrated, still the premiere sports magazine anywhere in the world. S.I. offers some requisite smaller features like news to note, Q&A and a Who’s Hot list, but these are really filler for the main course — in-depth, compelling features that offer insights into athletes, society, and sports themselves. Stories that are told by talented writers, whose finely polished, precise language reads more like a short story than a clumsy news dispatch.

L. Jon Wertheim supplies this week’s gem in the April 14 edition in “Breaking the Bank,” a story that recalls a bank heist by a former Ultimate Fighting Championship brawler. This story also has an important lesson for sports editors and page designers — sell your stories. Here’s the headline and the preamble:

Breaking the Bank
Four years ago, ‘Lightening’ Lee Murray made his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in Las Vegas. Today he sits in a prison cell in Morocco, the alleged mastermind in the largest cash heist in history. So tell us: Is that something you might find interesting?”

Wertheim, who has written several books on sports, breaks this story into four parts. He leads with a compelling scene, one that includes a kidnap, a robbery, an inside man, and high-powered weapons. He goes into the minds of both the man kidnapped, the bank’s manager, and the mastermind, the former UFC fighter. Wertheim shows how the manager was blindfolded and told his family, also nabbed, would die if he did not comply. Right away, Wertheim has established story, character and plot. After doing this, Wertheim breaks into a second section where he profiles the mastermind, former UFC fighter Lee Murray. Too many writers reverse this structure, offering background on someone first before telling the main story. Keep background information in the background — and do not cite such details as if it were a chore. Don’t cite facts about a person’s life. Instead, learn stories and details that help define a person’s life. Speak to as many people as possible and read as much as you can in order to better understand this person’s life. That’s what Wertheim does in this second section. Lee Murray was not born in 1977. Instead, Wertheim writes: “Lee Murray came into the world in 1977 with his fists balled, and he never quite seemed to unclench them.”

In the next section, Wertheim returns to the aftermath of the heist, showing how the robbers got caught. Then, he shows how the gang was rounded up in the final section. Notice how well Wertheim understands the situation in the passage below (and consider the research needed to gain such an authoritative voice):

The suspects, though, also did plenty to hasten their demise. Mirroring Murray’s fighting career — disciplined and methodical in MMA; arrogant and unthinking in street brawls — the same thieves who had been smooth and poised in actual pilferage could scarcely have been sloppier in the aftermath. Some gang members boasted to friends about the heist. One of the vehicles used in the crime was set afire in the middle of a field, attracting attention. The money was poorly hidden. Oceans 11 quickly devolved into a comedy of errors that recalled the Al Pacino classic Dog Day Afternoon.

Wertheim relies on interviews, documents and testimony for much of his information. At times, he writes “It was revealed” or “He would later testify.” There is nothing wrong with stepping aside for a moment to clarify a point to the reader. That happens in all kinds of storytelling.

There are many lessons to be learned from reading pieces like this. Take note of several things when you read others. Language is the first to jump out. List and define words in a notebook. Make sure you also take note of other elements in stories — how a writer learned key details, how a story is structured, and how frequently quotes are used. Wertheim’s story reads more like a narrative that included few quotes. Too many writers rely on quotes to tell the story, instead of working to understand the story themselves. Try applying some of these lessons during your next assignment. That’s how you become a better writer.

Happy readings.

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Sports Institute seeks applicants

April 6, 2008

The Sports Institute is again seeking applicants for its terrific summer sports program held in Boston from June 2-27. Sports reporters from the Boston Herald, Boston Globe and the Providence Journal will offer seminars on a wide variety of topics. Here is the information from the institute’s web site. You may want to check it out.

Participants in the program will take four courses over the period of study, meeting a minimum of four hours a week per course. The intensive area of study will be open to current Boston University students as well as students from other colleges and universities. College students must have at least junior or above status. Graduate students are welcome as well. Professionals seeking career advancement are encouraged to enroll.

Tuition for the four week program is $4,000. Living expenses are not included in this fee. Contact Prof. Shorr via email with further questions:fshorr@bu.edu. The Sports Institute at Boston University is affiliated with sportsmediaguide.com.

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