Sports columnists should force readers to think, act

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A good sports columnist should offer meaningful insights, cover sports ignored by others, offer cultural criticism, and analyze games in considerably more depth than the average fan. A sports columnist should, at different times, afflict and comfort us. A sports columnist needs to write with style and grace, should have strong opinions (but be willing to sharpen them with facts), and should offer fresh perspectives. Most of all, a good sports columnist needs to be an excellent reporter.

As the great Red Smith once wrote: “The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. I’d like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate.”

That’s a tough job description to fill. But many student journalists are cutting their columnist teeth on campuses across the country. And many are doing a pretty decent job. A review of more than 50 online newspapers across the country yielded several strong sports columns, some of which I list below. College newspapers are the place where young sports journalists can learn to mix reporting and opinion writing – and where they, subsequently, can enjoy the wrath of readers, coaches and athletes (and that’s after writing a good column).

The learning curve for young sports columnists can be difficult, something I noticed this past week. More than a few young columnists offered considerable opinion but very little reporting. Other columnists focused more on national sporting events, forsaking campus sports for the alluring lights of the NBA, NFL and MLB. As a result, these columns typically yielded stale second- and third-hand perspectives.

There’s no need to write a column on the top baseball transactions during the past off-season or to cite the reasons the Bears or Colts should win the Super Bowl. Unless you regularly cover these beats, you really have nothing new to say. These columns might be fine if you go to football camps, interview baseball experts, and regularly speak with these athletes; however, that is not frequently the case. Write local. That’s what your readers expect and that’s what will impress potential employers. Prove that you can cover your local beats first.

(One piece of advice to online editors: label your sports columns to distinguish them from your regular sports news. Online readers do not get to see the column sigs and the page design. Clearly denote your opinion pieces for your online readers.)

There were several excellent columns during the past week, but none better than one written by Ethan Conley of Michigan State’s The State News. Conley has always enjoyed watching movies. But recently he noticed that some of his favorite flicks have been sterilized by the PC police. Conley has also noticed college sports are also getting sanitized to the point where students can no longer rush a basketball court when their team wins.

Here’s the lead:

“One of my first childhood memories is of watching “E.T.” with my parents when we bought our first VCR. I have no idea why this sticks with me. There’s something about that wide-eyed alien who says “Ouuuuch” that resonates in my brain.

So you can imagine my excitement when the film was re-released in 2002. I couldn’t wait to see it on the big screen for the first time. Much to my dismay, it ended up being terribly disappointing — the FBI agents who line the street as Elliot rides past on his bike are now holding walkie-talkies instead of guns, Elliot’s mom no longer tells Michael he looks like a “terrorist” on Halloween and Elliot’s ‘penis breath’ insult is conspicuously absent. Apparently, that kind of language could slip by in 1982, but it’s too profane for the 21st century.”

Conley’s column rises well above most of those I’ve read over the past week, mostly because the writer has looked beyond the surface of sports. Too often, columnists address the obvious or the superficial. In this case, the sports columnist, like a poet, made a connection between two disparate things – movies and college sports. It’s an excellent read. Check it out, along with the other columnists listed down the right side of this blog.

Several other columnists also did a fine job this week.

I’m always a sucker for good baseball column. Matt Watson of the Arkansas Traveler starts out with a pastoral column on baseball, but he then brings everything back to his college team’s chances this season. College columnists need to remember to keep their focus on local sports, as Matt did.

“As temperatures rise, which the weatherman says isn’t going to last much longer, the dead of winter slowly fades away and the sweet smell of spring gets closer and closer. This can mean only one thing:

Baseball.

Beautiful, American baseball.

You won’t hear a “crack of the bat” officially until April 1, in a National League Championship rematch between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals that kicks off both the major league season and the Cards’ World Series title defense.

But the “pings” are in full swing in Fayetteville.”

Here’s a few other good columns:

Shawn Garrison, of Missouri’s Maneater, reveals how his grandmother taught him some of life’s best sports lessons.

“When I was a kid, I bought baseball cards by the boxful. I still have hundreds of thousands of them lying around my closet and room. One time, my grandma alphabetized my entire collection for me. Every single card was sorted according to sport, team and player name. Of course, it took me about three days to have them strung back out all over the place, but maybe someday I’ll get those reorganized.”

Ban Barkawi of Cal-State Chico’s Orion, offers a unique perspective on American sports, one that was cultivated in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he was raised.

“When someone asks where I’m from, it takes me a good 10 seconds before I can explain it in the most convenient way. I’m Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, but I lived in Saudi Arabia until I somehow ended up in Chico.”

■ Brady Henderson of Western Washington uses his column to profile a walk-on football player. Some good reporting is included in this piece.

“Western senior outside linebacker Taylor Wade didn’t take the conventional route to becoming a college football player.

Despite a stellar career at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., Wade garnered no attention from college scouts and doubted his ability to play at the next level.”

Matt Daniels, of Eastern Illinois, does a fine job analyzing the reason the men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. He offers specific examples to prove his point. He starts by citing a few of the plays that helped ended the team’s season prematurely.

“A missed wide-open layup at the buzzer at Eastern Kentucky.

A questionable charge call with the game tied in regulation against Austin Peay.

A missed 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game against Tennessee State.

All three of these endings happened in the month of January for Eastern men’s basketball.

And when one looks back at the Panthers’ 2006-07 season, this month stood out the most – for all the wrong reasons.”

You, too, can focus on specific games and plays but you need to have an over-riding theme. Here, Daniels revealed the problems the team faced through several key plays during a tough final month.

Writing a column is not easy, as anyone who has written one can attest. You can’t claim anonymity or objectivity. The words are your thoughts and beliefs. The words are you. So, before you head out to write your next column, consider some of the points addressed at the start of this piece. But also know: To find great columns, you’ll need to put in some time – on a beat, at practices, and at games. Coaches and athletes will then see that you are as dedicated as they are, not some reporter stopping in for a quick peek. You’ll get much better insider information this way. Watch intently. Speak (and listen) to not only the athletes, but to the trainers, groundskeepers and trainers hanging around the fields. And make sure you do the research.

Writing a sports column can be challenging and time-consuming. But your efforts can make a difference in the lives of your readers. That’s what drove many of today’s top sports columnists (like the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke) to start writing.

“Like most of us, I became a journalist because I wanted to touch people,” writes Plaschke. “I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to make them cry. I wanted to leave them angry. I wanted to make them think.

“In some professions, one might not elicit that range of human emotions from a customer in 20 years. In column writing, it can all happen in the same 20 inches. Such is the beauty of our craft. One can not just examine and report on a landscape but, however slightly, change it. One can not just touch readers, but embrace them and shake them.”

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6 Responses to “Sports columnists should force readers to think, act”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    You can submit comments by clicking on “anonymous” or “other” and typing in your name. If you are a Google user, feel free to use your gmail account or your blogger profile.

    Joe

  2. Zuri Says:

    Actually, Ban’s last name is spelled Barkawi. Good post.

  3. Joe Gisondi Says:

    Thanks. I just corrected his name.

  4. Nate Bloomquist Says:

    Good post.
    I agree. But while a column shouldn’t be all about him or herself. It should be all about that columnist’s opinion. I cringe every time I read a column that has “I think this….” or “I did this….” That’s lazy writing, and a column never should be written lazily!

  5. Eric Cravey Says:

    Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that book in your hand? Great job!

    Good luck with this book! Thanks for all the support you have given me since Louisville. See you in May.

    Take care,
    Eric

    PS to All.
    Buy the man’s book!

  6. Jo Brown Zillmann Says:

    Hi I am a vocational teacher in DesPlaines Illinois, and I was wondering if my student who is interested in covering high school sports for a career, can shadow a columnist for a day?

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