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Death Throws

GRANTLAND RICE’S famed paragraph is still cited as a model of the sportswriter’s art:

Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.

That heroic prose bears little relation to today’s product—clipped, commercialized, forgettable.

Faded are the days when the four horsemen of sports journalism—Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Rice himself—rode triumphant through a more colorful (and profitable) era. A recent article in the New York Observer noted, with regard to New York Times columnist Harvey Araton moving from the sports desk he’d manned for decades to feature writing: “[T]wo years ago, The Times had five sports columnists. With Mr. Araton gone, there are two. And there will be no replacements.”

Instead, the Times will require more analysis from its beat writers, who will use fly-by-night Twitter to provide what little insight the form allows. No room for extended metaphors there. In the age of 140-character limits, that bit about “famine, pestilence, destruction and death” seems superfluous and writerly.

As the Times comes to terms with the reality that serious sportswriting is little more than a loss leader to the parent corporation, the situation is even more dire in small markets, where local papers stagger toward insolvency, their business models as outmoded as maps of the Soviet Union. In Jacksonville, where I have a weekly sports column, the situation is grim—and all too typical.

Two decades ago, the city boasted two dailies: the morning Florida Times- Union and the afternoon Jacksonville Journal. The latter was bought by the Times-Union in the late 1980s, and the decline in quality has been a constant for two decades. Their coverage of Jacksonville’s one major sports team—the NFL Jaguars—is so uncritical it might as well bear the team’s logo.

Back in the day, if something caught in Jimmy Cannon’s craw, it would be printed in the next edition. Now that’s not possible. The sports world has turned exquisitely corporate, with all sorts of rules—written and unwritten—governing what journalists may not say. Go too far, and lose your press credentials.

To a certain extent, local sports reporting has been replaced by national media. Thirty years ago, around the time of Carter’s malaise speech, another malady settled upon sports-loving Americans in the form of ESPN. Its unparalleled newsgathering operation and seemingly limitless programming options at a time when its primary competition was ABC’s “Wide World Of Sports” made it a national fixture.

To be fair, ESPN was not solely a negative development: it showcased underappreciated niche sports and, compared to the fluffy five-minute sports segments on local newscasts, “Sportscenter” seemed like a smorgasbord of quality. But from Keith Olbermann’s vamping to the superannuated street slang of Stuart Scott, ESPN’s flagship program has lowered its standards every year. Its greatest compromise: ignoring the darkest scandal in modern sports, Major League Baseball’s use of roided-out sluggers while MLB was pressuring municipalities across the country to build new stadiums. ESPN sold these boondoggles as revenueenhancement schemes. That worked well enough—until the credit bubble popped.

The new stadiums were erected to counteract lackluster attendance, a persistent plague of the game. Red Smith detailed the problem in a 1956 article in Baseball Digest:

Since the beginning of memory, deep thinkers have sought explanations for the decline in baseball’s popularity. First it was the mass production of automobiles, then radio … then the movement of urban populations into suburbia and exurbia; then decrepit parks and lack of parking space; then television; and of course, there’s always been weather.

One key difference between the golden age and the current one: back then, the journalist functioned as a critical observer of the process, not some cheerleader repeating schlocky phrases like “chicks dig the long ball” as ESPNites did during the New Economy-driven boom.

In better times, the journalist was not simply a cog in the marketing machine; he functioned as an interpreter of the poetry of the game. As Smith wrote so evocatively in his 1951 piece about the Giants winning the pennant:

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering. Pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again, the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coat tails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now. And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. … The tale of their barreling
run through August and September
and into October. … On the final day
of the season when they won the
championship and started home
with it from Boston, to hear on the
train how the dead, defeated
Dodgers had risen from the ashes in
the Philadelphia twilight. … Oh, why
bother?

Smith would have grimaced at how it all turned out. Go to a game in Pittsburgh on any given night and see 40,000 empty seats. But who cares now? The stadiums have been built and the guys lauded at the height of the roidball era have been divested of the heroism ascribed to them when they were needed to fuel MLB’s last great infrastructure project. Naturally, ESPN said nothing. They are disinclined to vivisect the golden goose.

To be sure, there are hotly debated issues on the network, most notably, on “Pardon the Interruption,” where two old men shout at each other “Hardball”-style for half an hour everyday. They make burlesque the ersatz debates while avoiding discussion of thorny issues that might impact the network’s bottom line. Today’s journalists seem all too suited to PTI’s fake-outrage format, better shouters than scribes. Only on the “Outside The Lines” series, a rare bastion of civilized discussion, do we see a deviation.

The phony dust-ups do have certain utility, such as discouraging people from questioning the mechanics of the games they watch. For all the money bet on pro games, and all the shouting matches on the network, there is virtually no discussion of pointspreads. So when a suspicious play affects the spread or the over/under line, no mention is made of the unhappy “accident” that just happens to affect millions of dollars of wagers.

ESPN avoids those issues. What it does feature is a cloying brand of personal narrative, epitomized by the work of Rick Reilly, the former Sports Illustrated golden boy. Reilly was recently criticized for plagiarizing a memorably mediocre column by his ESPN colleague Bill Simmons on when it is acceptable for fans to abandon their teams. Regrettably, Simmons is one of those sportswriters never seen in the press box, opting instead to write about television sports and ’80s teen movies. Ironic that one of these guys would be busted for copycatting, given that their camp self-regard would make any of the old greats reach for the well-worn flask in his jacket pocket.

Some exemplars of the old craft still exist. Until recently, Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated was a great example. His stock in trade was nuts and bolts analysis of football, with a focus on minutiae like offensive line play. Dr. Z was also known for writing a yearly round-up of NFL teams that would obliterate the showier guys while celebrating some of the lesser-known talents. About a year ago, he suffered a stroke that effectively ended his writing career. But even before that there were rumors that SI wanted to put the old warhorse out to pasture. The sense was that his material was too esoteric for today’s sports fan, who would rather yell about the game than understand it.

A career like Dr. Z’s—decades long at the same magazine—is less possible now. Part of it is that journalists aren’t just journalists anymore. To maintain viability, they have to diversify. Podcasts, television appearances, radio slots, while enticing, serve as distractions from the crafting of language previous generations of sports journalists took as a given. Once upon a time, the bylined article was the journalist’s sole connection to the world. Now even those who are unceremoniously dismissed, like Chicago controversialist Jay Mariotti, manage to maintain their television sinecures even while they lack print-press credentials.

Newspapers simply aren’t going to invest resources into developing young columnists who will just leave for greener pastures. Yes, there are beat writers, but they don’t write in color or even report non-official fact. An NFL beat guy I know routinely talks about things he hears from assistant coaches, but the most interesting stuff can’t be put into print without compromising relationships. It comes out on the slant, if at all.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that sports journalism would do anything but devolve, given the deterioration of the larger culture—a consistent embrace of luridity over substance. The new stadiums built in the last 15 years, recall, were intended as entertainment palaces, places where the game on the field would be incidental to the many familyfun activities. Mass-media sports journalism, in large part, has just mirrored and catered to that changed aesthetic.
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A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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