Columns

The scribblers of sport

Allan Fotheringham May 21 2001
Columns

The scribblers of sport

Allan Fotheringham May 21 2001

The scribblers of sport

Columns

Allan Fotheringham

It’s a given, in the newspaper racket, that the best writing is always on the sports pages.

Here’s Red Smith, the best sportswriter who ever lived, on Bobby Thomson’s famous home run that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers and put the Noo Yawk Jants into the World Series—writing on deadline: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again....”

You don’t much get that sort of stuff from a page 1 reporter writing about Stockwell Day, or whatever.

There are two reasons why the best writing in the sheets is (was) on the sports pages. One is that sports scribblers are enthusiasts—either ex-jocks themselves or wanna-be jocks who wanted to be Mickey Mantle.

Red Smith, tiring one day of hearing how all his press-box mates could have been all-American but for an unfortunate knee injury, wrote: “I, too, could have been a great athlete. Except for the fact that I was small, weak, unco-ordinated—and a coward.” But the guys in the press box are really fascinated by what they cover. You cannot say that about someone covering a sewer bylaw or Mike Harris calling a byelection.

The second reason—the chaps in the newsroom calling the sports pages “the toy department”—is that every sportswriter is given the freedom to dazzle, the same freedom columnists have: there are no rules. Go for it. Here is Red Smith at the New York Herald Tribune, explaining the distance of 90 feet between bases, as devised in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright: “The nearest to perfection that man has yet achieved. It accurately measures the cunning, speed and finesse of the base stealer against the velocity of the thrown ball.”

The magazine Editor & Publisher, at the end of the millennium, mounted a blue-ribbon panel to choose the 25 most influential newspaper people of the 20th century. On the final list were publishers Joseph Pulitzer, Adolph Ochs of The New York Times, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post, famed writers H. L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, Ernie Pyle—the great war correspondent—and one sportswriter, Red Smith. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, by fortunate happenstance I found myself seated beside my hero at the equestrian event at the posh part of the Eastern Townships, the event

being graced with the ever-arrogant Prince Philip, as patron.

Red was then 70, and as New York Times columnist had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary—the only sweat-stained refuge from the locker room ever so rewarded. Knowing nothing of course about royalty, he pumped me for the meanings of the monarchy, why was the arrogant one here, minions bowing and scraping—all with the eagerness of a pup reporter at his first day down at the cop shop.

The point of all this—a long time coming—is while there is a terrific newspaper war going on in Toronto among four papers (only three will survive), all the stats show that overall newspaper readership in North America is going down. One of the reasons—besides of course television—is that newspapers aren’t that much fun to read anymore. And the writing—on sports pages—isn’t anymore about sports.

It’s about lawyers. Contract negotiations between millionaires. Sexual abuse. Tax savings about new stadiums. Nothing to do about athletes. Or actual descriptions of what sport is all about (Red Smith on an outfielder who leaped for a ball against the wall “and stayed aloft so long he looked like an empty uniform hanging in its locker”).

The other night, those in the scribbling racket gathered for the prestigious National Newspaper Awards. There were three nominations for sportswriter of the year. None of their submissions had anything to do with sport. The Ottawa Citizens Chris Cobb “in a series on post-concussion syndrome, provides an excellent example of how research and writing skills can combine to make a compelling argument about a subject vital to the well-being of professional and amateur athletes.”

The National Post’s Dave Feschuk “tells the touching story of tough-guy hockey player Gordie Gallant whose greatest batde came after he suffered severe burns to 80 per cent of his body while saving his girlfriend and his son from a fire in his New Brunswick home in 1998.” The winner, Gary Mason of The Vancouver Sun, “painted an evocative portrait of NBA basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s struggles with Tourette’s syndrome.”

These would make great submissions on a medical panel, or psychiatric essay. It’s why people don’t read newspapers as much as they did.