The Problem with Sportswriting

August 6, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 12 10 min read

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

—    Janet Malcolm

Writers are always selling someone out.

—    Joan Didion

Don’t ever make a friend in this business, you’re only going to have to fuck somebody in the end.

—    Jim Murray

coverThe open secret about Grantland Rice, America’s ur-sportswriter and the namesake of Bill Simmons’s omnibus sports/pop culture website, is this: he wasn’t a very good writer. He wrote a lot, and so was ubiquitous. His personal record, as recorded in Frank Deford’s Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, amounted to 50,000 words over the nine days of the 1912 World Series. Rice labored, Deford tells us, under a 3,500-word daily quota over his 53-year career.

With some 17 million words to choose from, it’s not really possible to say whether the lead to his story on the 1924 Army-Notre Dame football game is the “best” thing Rice ever wrote, only that it’s the most quoted:

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.

As a young sportswriter aiming at literature, I was under the impression that Rice had a bead on the target. He was the first capital-S Sportswriter, the first commentator-as-personality. He was popular, but not because he was a good writer.  As Deford puts it in his memoir:

Perhaps the idea was to make mere games seem more important or artistic, but for whatever reason the writing grew more florid and rococo… Jonathan Yardley… wrote that old-time sportswriting was “like a bad dream by Sir Walter Scott.”

In Rice’s defense, it’s probably not possible to publish 17 million words and not engage in a certain amount of linguistic inflation. But that inflation has plagued the profession ever since, and it’s evident in each of the books considered here. In fact, I will now posit a corollary to Godwin’s Law, which holds that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Stockman’s Corollary: as a sportswriter’s career progresses, the probability that he will needlessly invoke Nazis also approaches one. The “needlessly” goes without saying, or should. But each of the three writers here — Jim Murray, the daily journalist; Frank Deford, the magazine feature writer; and John Feinstein, the bestelling author — eventually invokes some aspect of the Hitler war machine.

coverJim Murray was 4F in World War II and so spent the war scrambling up the ladder in his early newspaper gigs. As Ted Geltner assures us in Last King of the Sports Page: The Life and Career of Jim Murray — his biography of the Los Angeles Times columnist who, at the peak of his popularity, was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers — Murray tried more than once to sign up, but Uncle Sam wouldn’t let him.

In 1963, in advance of the first Sonny ListonCassius Clay fight, Murray predicted that the bout would “be the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin — 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.” OK, pretty mild and pretty funny. And, Geltner argues, a representation of the two fighters’ general unpopularity with the establishment. But, after Clay’s conversion to Islam — and name-change to Muhammad Ali, which Murray waited more than a decade to honor in print — Murray compared Ali’s Fruit of Islam bodyguards to “the Gestapo in blackface.” Which is pretty gratuitous, and not a little racist.

But let’s give Murray the old “man-of-his-time” pass — his was a jauntily jingoistic generation, one that for all its faults produced the indisputably good outcome of stopping Hitler — and move on to Frank Deford.

You may best recognize the genteel Deford as the honeyed voice behind more than 1,500 sports commentaries on NPR’s Morning Edition. Throughout Over Time, his memoir of working for Sports Illustrated and other national outlets, he manages to keep a healthy perspective. “I can’t for the life of me, for example, imagine that any run-of-the-mill young person will want to read the old stuff I’m writing about now.” This he tells us once we’re more than a third of the way through a bunch of the old stuff.

Deford, too, falls victim to Stockman’s Corollary, with a throwaway line in a paragraph about how he works best by himself: “I just can’t grasp how two people could write something well together — collaboration, they call it, which always makes me think of weasels collaborating with the Nazis. I guess you have to have the right personality to be collaborative.” That’s right, you have to be Lieber/Stoller or Marshal Petain.

But among the writers under review, John Feinstein — avatar of conventional wisdom, perpetrator of sub-competent prose — takes the cake (as he might say) for not only fulfilling the corollary, but being the biggest hypocrite.

coverEarly in One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game, the author’s bloated account of his various publishing successes, Feinstein shows himself standing up to Bobby Knight. This was during Feinstein’s reporting of his book A Season on the Brink, for which he spent the 1985-1986 season as an embedded reporter with Knight’s Indiana University men’s basketball team. That book was a wild success — and Feinstein dedicates a full 150 pages or more to its development and publication.

Feinstein was about three weeks into his “Bloomington sojourn” when Knight fired off a quintessentially crass crack at the reporter in front of his team: “‘You know, John,’ Knight said. ‘There are times when I’m not sure that Hitler wasn’t right about you people.’” Not funny at all, but then Knight is a dirtbag who choked his players, so this sort of crack seems entirely in character. Feinstein explains that he didn’t confront Knight in front of his team, because the coach would only have escalated things and refused to back down. So Feinstein waited until later than night:

…Knight and I were again in the car en route to a speech, and it was just the two of us.

“I gotta say something to you,” I finally said. “Because if I don’t I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

“What is it?” he asked.

“I think you know I have no problem with you making jokes about me being Jewish or liberal or whatever,” I said.

“In fact, you’re really good about it,” Knight said.

“I think so,” I went on. “But I gotta tell you, Bob. Hitler wasn’t funny. Not on any level.”

Fair enough, and true enough, and Knight backs down and comes as close as a solipsistic asshole can come to apologizing. But the reason I quote that scene at length is not to show that Feinstein was a man of principle — possibly endangering his unprecedented access to this hothead basketball coach to rebuke him for a crass remark — but to show instead that he can be breathtakingly un-self-aware, not to mention a hypocrite.

In this case, 350 pages after he’s admonished Knight, he tells us about an incident at the Los Angeles Open golf tournament in which “the people in charge of security had tried to tell Larry Dorman of the New York Times and I that we couldn’t walk inside the ropes without a camera, even though we were wearing armbands that said, ‘media—inside the ropes access.’” This was eventually sorted out, but Feinstein “ended up telling the guy in charge that he and his men were a bunch of ‘brown-shirted Gestapo stormtroopers.”

You know, to smooth things over.

In light of this newly-discovered corollary, every sportswriter would do well to read the letter Jackie Robinson sent Jim Murray. They were friends, and, despite his early animosity toward Ali, Murray had lobbied to get Satchel Paige (who spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues) into baseball’s Hall of Fame and the PGA player Charlie Sifford into the Masters golf tournament. But, when Murray invoked Robinson’s name in a column that derided the efforts of some civil rights activists to get African American Olympians to boycott the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City — and compared the boycott, in passing, to Hitler’s insults of black athletes in 1936 — Robinson wrote an eloquent rebuke, the final clause of which should be stamped on every sportswriter’s laptop: “Olympics occur periodically. Justice must be practiced every day, and none of this has the faintest relationship to Hitler.”

The most infuriating thing about Feinstein’s book, aside from its reading like a first draft (he tells us of someone’s disease that was “degenerative and kept getting worse,” or of the 1986 World Series: “People forget that the score was tied at that moment. …Buckner did not lose the World Series for the Red Sox, a fact many, many people forget.”), is his utter lack of perspective.

This is a sportswriter’s problem generally — great ones like Deford and Murray often transcend it. Feinstein almost never does. It’s not coincidental that Feinstein dropped the “brown-shirted Gestapo” line on a security guard (which is not even accurate: the Brown Shirts and the Gestapo were two different groups), he loathes security guards. There are no fewer than six instances in this book of Feinstein’s confrontation with gatekeepers at various venues.

An example, taken almost at random, emphasis mine:

I’ve had bad experiences with security guards around the world, but never more so than in Chapel Hill. Once, when I walked over before a game to say hello to Dean Smith, one of them started pushing me away until Dean saw what was going on and waved the guard off. Rather than just let me go as he had been instructed to do, the guard — who had to be a hundred — said, “You’re lucky Coach Smith was here.”

To which I replied — always calm when confronted — “You’re lucky I didn’t knock you into the fifth row.”

It’s a stunning failure of empathy. It doesn’t occur to Feinstein that this low-paid senior citizen was just doing his job — keeping people off the court. Furthermore, there’s a tincture of “don’t you know who I am?” in this reaction, and that’s what really grates.

Because, consider: what if Tiger Woods had done that? Or Kobe Bryant? Feinstein would be one of the first baying hounds on Charlie Rose to tell us that these athletes don’t know how good they’ve got it and they don’t care how many little people they step on, and that if it weren’t for the fans they’d be nobodies. Someone might remind Feinstein that if it weren’t for the security guards keeping everyone else out while he gets unrestricted access to players and coaches, he might not have a career.

In his way, Feinstein is a sort of modern Grantland Rice. He’s prolific (Deford calls him “‘the Woody Allen of sportswriting,’ because, just as Allen annually produces a new movie, so too does John somehow manage to write a major book almost every year,” which is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one). He’s also a hypocrite. Rice admitted that he wanted to build his subjects into heroes (see, for instance, the aforementioned “four horsemen” of Notre Dame’s backfield). And yet Rice also decried the perverting influence of money on athletics — money which had entered the game thanks in no small part to his mythmaking.

coverLate in this book — perhaps he figures no one will read this far; I didn’t want to — Feinstein admits to outright hypocrisy: “Since eleven years have passed, I can now reveal that for all the complaining I’ve done… about game times being changed for TV, I was responsible for a game time being changed…” Feinstein was researching his book The Last Amateurs, on The Patriot League, a scholarship-free, NCAA Division I athletic conference. Basically, he wanted to attend two games on a certain Saturday, one was at noon, one was at two p.m., and the venues were two-and-a-half hours apart. So, he asked the Holy Cross athletic director to change the time of its game with Lehigh. And, because Feinstein was by this time a perennial bestselling author whose book was sure to give the Patriot League and its schools unpurchasable publicity, the two teams acquiesced, and Feinstein — the reporter who was observing a typical season in the Patriot League — got his way. “You should be ashamed of what you did,” an assistant women’s basketball coach tells him. “I wasn’t ashamed and it was well worth the effort.”

Worth it for whom? I wonder. This is the heart of Feinstein’s hypocrisy. On one hand, he tells us that a young Andre Agassi reminded him of a “young Tiger Woods… everything he did was with one thing in mind: how will this affect my ability to make money.” On the other hand, the use of his heavyweight reputation to push around a couple of small-conference athletics programs leaves his conscience undisturbed. I wonder if that schedule change affected his ability to make money?

Deford, who left Sports Illustrated in the early ‘90s to head up the all-sports newspaper The National (an oral history of which can be found at Grantland), made Feinstein his first hire in that ill-fated endeavor. And yet, he has a refreshing candor about certain aspects of his profession: “Besides, everybody genially accepts that a considerable portion of popular American sports — college football and men’s basketball — is an outright fraud…” It’s unfortunate that this passes for a bracing assertion in sportswriting, but it does. Deford qualifies this by referring to himself in another context as “the piano player in the whorehouse.”

In this he’s more in line with Jim Murray — who, Geltner claims, was Deford’s first target hire for The National; Murray turned him down. Murray admitted near the end of his career: “I covered the circus. I felt privileged to have done so. …Sure, I helped keep the hype going, the calliope playing. I can live with that. It’s what I am.”

Both Deford and Geltner tell of that calliope player at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when Magic Johnson interrupted a brusque official to say “The great Jim Murray is here, and he didn’t get to ask a question.”

John Feinstein would kill for that kind of recognition. Literally, I mean. He would kill seven security guards. But no, Murray and Deford possess a self-awareness about their professions that Feinstein does not. That is, that the most interesting stuff in the sports world has to do with its stories, not its scores.

I would like to say that all sports fans know that, but we do not. For evidence, I turn to the letters page of the July 30 Sports Illustrated. One C. Fred Bergsten from Annandale, Va. has written in to respond to a book excerpt the magazine ran on that 1992 Dream Team. Here’s the letter:

With all the hype of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team… most fans are forgetting that there were two squads, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that could have given the Dream Team a run for its money had their countries not dissolved just before the Barcelona Games. The Soviets were the defending gold medalist from the 1988 Games, and Yugoslavia was the ’90 FIBA world champion. It is a tragedy that colossal matchups among the three basketball superpowers never occurred in ’92.

Yes, the tragedy of the Yugoslavian civil war was not Srebrenica, it was that the reigning FIBA champs didn’t get a shot at the Dream Team.

Let’s close with a proper world-historical perspective. As Danny Boyle’s History of Britain tableau unfolded at the Opening Ceremonies of our present Olympics, as the workers of the Industrial Revolution literally rolled up the sod of pastoral England, I was put in mind of lines the truly great columnist Red Smith wrote the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 — and in the aftermath of, y’know, actual Nazis.

But, writing of those Opening Ceremonies 64 years ago, Red Smith both described them and put them in perspective:

The torchbearer dashed up into the stands, brandished his torch on high and dropped it into a tall concrete bird bath…

The crowd made with the tonsils. It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonus Link: The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons)

, a former sportswriter, teaches in the First Year Writing Program at Emerson College, in Boston. He's written for The Kansas City Star, The Rumpus, Library Journal, and other outlets. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife and daughter. Follow him on twitter @substockman.