This book should ‘flash’ before every sportswriter’s eyes

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Here’s the second of a series of reviews on sports books that focus on issues related to the craft of sports reporting and writing. This review is of Dick Schaap’s FLASHING BEFORE MY EYES.

Students today don’t need to write well, especially if they are going to be hosting SportsCenter or anchoring sports on a local TV affiliate.

And students don’t need to keep up with news events so long as they know sports.

Or so we’re told.

So goes the fantasy of many students who are pursuing a career in sports journalism, a field too often filled with judgmental, superficial and, ostensibly, witty commentary.

A field, sadly, that no longer has Dick Schaap, who died in December at age 68 from complications related to hip surgery.

Schaap, who left a legacy that included 33 books, six Emmys and countless articles for magazines and newspapers, reveals how sports reporting ought to be done. He covered the tough issues without being in the center of them and he befriended athletes without losing his ethics or professionalism.

Schaap also leaves behind lessons for future sports reporters in his 297-page autobiographical Flashing Before My Eyes that includes engaging stories about people as diverse as Robert F. Kennedy, Malcom X, Lenny Bruce and Muhammad Ali. In between these poignant, funny and compelling stories, Schaap tosses in advice and insights about the realities of reporting sports.

His advice, like his career, reaches beyond sports.

Get off the phone and cover events in person. “The journalistic principles are the same for covering a pennant race or a race riot,” Schaap writes. “You use your eyes, your ears and, as Jimmy Breslin has always preached, your legs. You go to the scene. You talk to the people involved. You ask questions. You look for the smaller details that illuminate the larger story and reinforce credibility, and then, using those details, using quotes, using the richness of the English language, you tell the story as vividly, as honestly, as compellingly as you can.”

On interviewing. “I try to allow people to be themselves, to reveal themselves.” He adds later that interviewing should be “a conversation, not a duel, not an interrogation.”

TV vs. print journalism. “A warning: Working on TV is hazardous to a journalist’s professional health – to his writing style and his interviewing techniques. You get lazy [on television]. You don’t have to write descriptively because you’re backed up by pictures, and you don’t have to compose complex questions because you can’t use complex answers.”

Journalism requires passion and diligence.
“I still love my work – love burrowing into archives and dictionaries, searching for a telling fact, a precise word, digging for stories, conjuring up unusual approaches and intriguing twists, free-tuning the rhythm of a phrase or a sentence. I still love affecting a reader or a viewer, making him or her laugh or cry, cheer or hoot.”

Tell a complete story. “Your story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and each leads seamlessly to the next,” Schaap writes. “But the beginning, the lead, and the ending, denouement, must be especially strong.”

Sports reporting can make a difference. “One of the advantages to covering sports, in print and, especially on television, is that you can get away with political and sociological judgments that would not be tolerated in covering ‘news.’”

Be diverse. Schaap, who covered the Watts Riots as easily as he did a story on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax a few days later, obliterates the notion that sports reporters need only to know sports. In fact, he was the only person who voted for both the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s top player, and the Tony Awards, awarded to the best in theatre.

Read everything. “For a journalist, there is no such thing as useless knowledge,” Schaap writes. “Every fact from every discipline has the potential to brighten style or strengthen substance. Journalism is a profession whose practitioners should know everything and pretend to know nothing. Too many in the profession know nothing and pretend to know everything.”

Media synergy. Schaap hosted both a TV and radio show for ESPN, wrote a chapter for a compendium book and contributed to the network’s magazine. ESPN and its parent company, ABC, Schaap writes, “believe fervently in synergy, which, in essence, means using every area of the company to promote and endorse every other area. We used to call it incest.”

Covering people, not events. Schaap, who said his own favorite sport was collecting people, would often eschew the main event, such as the Olympics, and, instead, talk with the featured athletes in a more relaxed setting. “SportsCenter highlights an athlete’s talents; I try to highlight his nature.”

Hard work pays off. “Sometimes I searched for columns; sometimes I stumbled on them.”

Flashing Before My Eyes should be required reading in all sports reporting courses, although that would be unfair to non-sports buffs. And that would also be unfair to Schaap, a master storyteller whose knowledge and accomplishments broke barriers and transcended sports.

Click here to read an internet interview with Dick Schaap.

This post originally appeared in the College Media Review. You can check out the College Media Advisers website at http://www.collegemedia.org.

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