Backstage

The view from the sports desk

Different rules and expectations apply in the news and sports departments of newspapers and broadcast outlets

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999
Backstage

The view from the sports desk

Different rules and expectations apply in the news and sports departments of newspapers and broadcast outlets

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999

The view from the sports desk

Backstage

Different rules and expectations apply in the news and sports departments of newspapers and broadcast outlets

Anthony Wilson-Smith

As attention turns to the National Hockey League playoffs, the thing to know about sports reporting is that it’s quite unlike other journalism. Consider what may be the most devastating, over-the-top aside in the history of sports commentary. On the eve of the World Cup soccer final between England and West Germany in 1966, a sportswriter for the Daily Express named Desmond Hacked: opened his story thus: “If, by some chance, Germany should defeat us tomorrow at our national game, let us take solace in the fact that twice this century, we have beaten them at theirs.” That line encompassed sport, the outcome of two wars, the hopes and fears of a nation and provided a builtin out in the event of loss. (England won 4-2.)

Aside from wartime, no section of a newspaper other than sports would use such rhetorical overkill in an article. It’s hard to find clear winners and losers, heroes and villains—except in battle or on a playing field or hockey rink. You wouldn’t call a business executive “spellbinding” or “larcenous,” as The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Blair did of Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek as his team beat the Ottawa Senators last week. Or if you did call a CEO “larcenous,” the most amused person would be his or her libel lawyer.

The dark side of sports reporting is that it’s often upbeat even when that is not justified. Increasingly, commentators and athletes work for the same owner. Sports Illustrated just paid $74 million to co-sponsor the next Olympic Games. Rupert Murdoch is building baseball coverage on his Fox sports network around his purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ted Turner owns the Atlanta Braves, whose games air on the Turner Broadcasting System network he controls. Baseball announcers for local radio and TV stations are actually hired by the team whose games they call. No wonder nuances prevail. In Canada, where CBC and CTV pour huge money into sports coverage, is it better for an announcer’s career to describe a dull game as a) “a wretched yawner” or b) “a fine example of tight-checking playoff strategy”? That’s why fans like Don Cherry, even if he’s past his peak. He, at least, calls a snore a snore.

For the most part, print reporting avoids such conflicts of interest. In writing, absolutes are encouraged, even if it means dispensing with balance. Who would want to read a story about Wayne Gretzky that described him as The (Reasonably) Great One? Similarly, it’s better to be really bad than garden-variety mediocre. Casey Stengel, when he managed the expansion 1962 New York Mets—perhaps the worst team ever—was undisturbed when others described his team in pejorative terms. At least, he said, it will be remembered—which is more than could be said of the second-worst club. Then, there are the fabled characters in sports—although the

best stories are dated. Babe Ruth, when told he made more money than the president of the United States, responded: ‘Yeah, but I had a better year.” Hack Wilson, the dissolute Chicago Cubs slugger in the first half of the century, was such an enthusiastic drinker that his manager finally tried to teach him a lesson. He filled two glasses—one with whisky, one with water—found a worm, and told Wilson to watch. He dropped the worm in water, where it sat unharmed, and then put it in the whisky glass, where it died at once. “What’s the lesson?” asked the manager. “Coach,” said a squinting, hungover Hack, “if I drink whisky, I don’t get worms.”

The best sportswriters know that what they cover is, as Gretzky has said, entertainment, not to be confused with real life. Sportswriters have long been resented by their solemn tweedy colleagues in the news section—perhaps because the former are the one subspecies who dress even more unfashionably. Or perhaps it’s because other journalists don’t understand the concept of sports, and try to explain it in the ponderous context of their own lives. Surely there’s a shelf in the Library of Hades containing the Collected Works of George Will on Baseball: it’s full of windy rhapsodizing about the “metaphysical relationship between baseball and life,” “the poetry of America’s sport,” “spring training as a time of eternal renewal,” and the uplifting, magical qualities of the odour of cut grass. Well, if smoked in copious enough amounts, perhaps that’s true.

In the right hands, a really good sports section is the reason to buy a paper (or magazine). As Maclean’s did with its Gretzky cover package last week, the National Post put out a 12page special Gretzky section. It featured lyrical pieces by three top writers—Cam Cole, Roy MacGregor and Christie Blatchford—which provided new anecdotes about a man who has spent his life in the public eye. That dealt a crushing hip check to the Globe, which responded with a tepid effort two days later.

Ronald Reagan, who made his share of B-movies, said of the directors he worked for: ‘They didn’t want it good: they wanted it Thursday.” Same here: speed is of the essence. But the Montreal Gazette’s incomparable Red Fisher has routinely delivered colourful, complete pieces on Montreal Canadiens games within 15 minutes of their completion, for 44 seasons. Those pithy, fact-filled reports by people like Blair in the Globe, Eric Duhatschek of the Calgary Herald, Al Strachan and Terry Jones in the Sun chain, Jack Todd at the Gazette, and MacGregor and Cole of the Post are produced under similar constraints. Like those they cover, the best sportswriters are talented, exciting and fast at their work. But, of course, they make a fraction of the athletes’ money. The difference is that there aren’t a whole lot of people willing to pay good money to watch a sportswriter write. Especially in a porkpie hat.