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.