Does sportswriting need saving?

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In the 1920s, Grantland Rice and his peers felt compelled to create heroes out of athletes. Americans had just persevered one of the worst periods in its history. More than 300,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded in World War I, which ended in 1918. That same year, the nation was struck by the Spanish Influenza, a flu that killed more people in a single year than the four worst years of the Bubonic plague. Anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 700,000 died of the disease, roughly a quarter of the U.S.’s population. (And it’s estimated 25-100 million people died worldwide.)

The nation needed a diversion, something to take its collective mind off war and disease. Rice and his colleagues filled the need, promoting baseball, college football, boxing, tennis and golf by creating heroes out of Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, and Bobby Jones, among others. Sportswriting in the 1920s was filled with exaggerated statements for these “greatest” athletes. The adjectives and adverbs were a-flyin’. And it continued well into the ’70s and ’80s. Today, we scoff and roll our eyes at the language used by some of these sportswriters. But, sometimes, we can also be mythmakers and idol worshippers. This is one of many problems author/blogger/sportswriter Will Leitch says exist in the profession right now.

Leitch is not shy at offering suggestions in his book God Save the Fan, which is no shocker to anybody who’s read his commentary on Deadspin. He hates ESPN as much as Carl Hiaasen hates Disney (which, now, is really the same company), he believes sports journalists can be elitist, and he offers advice on ways to adapt to new media.

In the book, Leitch says the need for experts is a blight on both fandom and sports journalism. As a result, TV is now filled with experts screaming) about issues and radio waves are filled with Mad Dogs ranting and raving about players, managers and owners. (Unlike working journalists, many of these ‘experts’ do not spend time in locker rooms or at practices.) I agree with Will that covering a sport does not necessarily make one an expert; however, not spending time observing practices and talking with those connected to teams can make you much less informed.

“This is, of course, the point; it’s not particularly difficult to become an ‘expert’ anymore. It’s all for show. Hell, now that I run a sports Web site, people have come to call me an expert, and I’m damned sure that I don’t know anything. … Does the fact that I write poop jokes and puns on ‘Chien-Ming Wang’ really qualify me to answer these questions? Typically, I tell them I am just another idiot who happens to type fast, and that my opinion should not be considered even slightly more credible than that of the guy who drove your cab to the station. They laugh, and then say, ‘Yeah, so really, who do you like?’ And then there’s some sort of wacky sound effect, maybe a gong, or a dnkey braying.”

Leitch particularly dislikes when sports journalists attempt to cross over into ‘real news,’ delivering analysis on what sports mean to communities, cities, and the country. Leitch, a devout (St. Louis & Arizona) Cardinals fan, argues that sports mean less than those covering them believe.

“It’s a fundamental concept: Sports do not matter. The average fan understands this – despite pretty much every sports commercial, which portrays fans as some sort of unwieldy, testosterone-laden, beer-shotgunning mob of delinquents – and that is why we put sports in its proper place: as somethng to partake in and enjoy because we want to escape from our jobs, our bills, our responsibilities, our lives. The world is a terrifying place, with grays and complexities and confusion at every turn. Sports affords us none of this: If our team wins, we are happy; if they lose, we are sad. It doesn’t need to be more than that. That simplicity is enough. It’s plenty.”

In addition, Leitch dislikes the idea of ‘branding’ journalists, turning them into celebrities who eventually become the story. He loves fantasy leagues that reveal athletes for what they really are – robotic producers of statistics. Writes Leitch: “Fantasy sports distill the athletic process to the core and treat athletes with the reverence that they deserve – none.”

Leitch can be rough on both professional athletes and sports journalists, but he also realizes his role is as much entertainer as commentator. And he’s having some fun in this book. Sometimes, he’s right on the mark; other times, he is not (at least, in my humble opinion). This book is not a primer on sports journalism, but sportswriters can still learn a great deal by reading it.

So are we still using sports as an escape from a plunging stock market, volatile international affairs, and an eroding environment? Leitch would agree that sports journalists still spill considerable ink (terabytes?) creating heroes and myths. After all, didn’t this nation just turn its lonely eyes to a horse (Barbaro).

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