And now here’s the sports news (except for anything that would offend anybody)'

Roy MacGregor April 17 1978

And now here’s the sports news (except for anything that would offend anybody)'

Roy MacGregor April 17 1978

And now here’s the sports news (except for anything that would offend anybody)'

Roy MacGregor

When this year’s National Newspaper Awards were given out on April 8, there was one moment that should have been of particular interest to the very chummy, very tight little world of Canadian sports. Ironically, it had nothing to do with the award that went to the Montreal Gazette's Brodie Snyder and Dick Bacon for sportswriting. No sir, this moment was nothing to cheer about. It happened when The Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin received a citation for his superb investigative reporting on the RCMP; and while it’s unlikely any of the sports establishment bothered to feel sweaty around the open-neck collar, mention should be made that it is not so very long since that same long pencil of a reporter was trying to tell certain truths about sports—and receiving anything but citations in return. A Martin story that once took hockey player Dave Keon to task for being into his cups and embarrassing on an airplane got a typical sports response: a hard slap in the face.

What Lawrence Martin had done was trespass into sports’ no-comment land. While “Full Disclosure” becomes a catchword for truth in other fields, particularly post-Watergate politics, the same phrase in sports so far relates only to whether or not women reporters should have access to team dressing rooms. And while front pages fill up with Mountie horrors and cabinet indiscretions, the sports section— labeled “Toyland” by ex-sportswriter Dick Beddoes of The Globe—remains as non-toxic as is safe for children’s diets.

Here then, for the benefit of headscratching and bar-guessing, are a number of unreported “inside” stories that filtered around various Canadian press boxes over the past months: (1) An all-star hockey player undergoes shock treatment for depression; (2) A team leads a foreign-born hockey player to a psychiatrist to try to discover what's twisting around under his helmet; (3) One of hockey’s gentlest souls proves he’s no Lady Byng candidate by beating up his wife; (4) An eyebrow-raising trade is somehow connected to a player’s difficulty with drugs; (5) A player misses several games due to a cut brought about by his wife’s carelessness with a butcher knife; (6) a former NHL star lives in poverty near Detroit, his drinking money provided by a fund set up by concerned individuals and controlled by a local businessman.

It is far less important whether or not these stories are true than it is whether or not they were ever checked out. The Hear/See/Say-Nothing syndrome of too

much of sportswriting is so hidebound by its long tradition that sports—whether seen as a game or entertainment, or for what it is, business—has fallen far behind the critical and investigative work being done in other fields. The only bad news about players’ personalities usually comes fully endorsed, as in the case of the publicity over Derek Sanderson’s drinking.

The reasons for this state of affairs are many. One is simple conflict of interest. When game announcers are also on team payrolls—as is often the case with Canadian major league baseball—their objectivity (rightly or not) is instantly suspect. There are also the completely innocent “gifts”—the television sets Maple Leaf Gardens used to give out, the pocket calculators the Vancouver Canucks distributed in the press box one Christmas, the free tickets ...

We must also not forget that, in many cases, the child still has a throat-hold on the adult, and no matter how many truths certain writers come across, the athlete forever remains an unsullied ideal. Like an army of typing Walt Disneys, some writers believe it is their mandate to protect the fantasies of childhood as well as to file the scores. New York’s infamous Screw magazine once made the mistake of trying to commission a Canadian hockey writer to rank the “sticks” of professional hockey players; and though the money was good, and a list was drawn up for colleagues’ eyes only, the article never did appear. But the fact remains that many sports journalists are still in awe of their former heroes. 1 remember standing beside The Toronto Sun's Trent Frayne—a past National Newspaper Award winner and perhaps the finest example we have of sports integrity—as we listened to the introduction of Joe DiMaggio at last year’s baseball allstar game in New York. When the press conference was over more pads came out than were put away, all of them waving for DiMaggio’s autograph. It left Frayne leaning against the back wall shaking his head. “Isn’t that just about the most disgusting display you ever saw?” he said. And it was.

But by far the most important “softening” aspect is intimidation. It’s impossible not to have sympathy for the hardworking sportswriter whose “beat” is a particular team. He travels in the same planes and sleeps in the same hotels, and never has the luxury of the magazine writer who can. if necessary, never see his subject again. For there is every reason to fear repercussions similar to the slap Martin felt for the Keon story. The Globe's Scott Young was once banned from even setting foot in Maple Leaf Gardens for his criticisms of the Leafs. Don Ramsay, The Globe's excellent “hard” reporter has several times been called upon to defend his stories. Earl McRae—the best magazine sportswriter and arguably sports’ best investigative journalist—has been threatened on numerous occasions. I was standing with him during the introduction of the 1976 Canada Cup team when Bobby Hull came up, grabbed McRae by the arm and quickly whispered, “You’d better get out of here—if Phil Esposito sees you there’s no telling what he’ll do.” Yet hearing that was actually calming compared to a phone call McRae says he once received from a big-name footballer, a call that ended with these peaceful words: “You better prepare to meet your maker, son.” Athletes, it must be recognized, are not paunchy politicians with thick eyeglasses: often their sole response is violence.

But, unfortunately for those who would like one day to see sports covered with the same diligence as other affairs of the day, there are not many sportswriters with the convictions of a McRae or a Ramsay. And each time a reporter with the monstrous talent of a Lawrence Martin leaves the frustrations of sports journalism for what he invariably ends up calling “The Real World,” the sports pages are much the poorer for it. We need more of his kind.