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Detail of an illustration by Mike Ellis for the print version of this story (Mike Ellis)
Detail of an illustration by Mike Ellis for the print version of this story (Mike Ellis)

Essay

The thumbing down of sportswriting Add to ...

It is the classic skit of sports: Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First?

Today, however, sports is almost entirely about “Who’s first?” and while being first with information obviously matters in the business of sports journalism, the obsession with being first to shout out even the most arcane and meaningless “news” has so ballooned beyond reason that … well, it isn’t funny at all.

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Sports journalism – the well from which all great sports books have been drawn – has taken its eye off the ball.

The pendulum that swings between breaking news on minutiae – length of suspensions, minor trades, contract breakdowns, retirement of marginal players – and “storytelling” on the far side has been stuck for some time now on the picayune.

Please understand, both sides are important to good sports coverage. Both sides feed off each other and complement each other, one doing the telling, the other the expanding and explaining, one the announcing, the other the introducing. In today’s sports journalism, however, the announcing has become so paramount that readers and viewers rarely get anything more of players they increasingly know less and less of.

This is not the raging of a Luddite contrarian. In 1983, I was The Toronto Star’s guinea pig for the Tandy TRS-80 (“Trash 80”) computer that transformed sports filing and had no small part to do in killing off afternoon newspapers. I love what the Internet makes possible, admire those who use social media effectively and even appreciate the power of Twitter.

What this is, hopefully, is a cautionary flag being raised by someone who sees the sports world marching into a journalism trap where Gay Talese’s monumental study of Joe DiMaggio, the Esquire magazine feature The Silent Season of a Hero, would have to be delivered in 140 characters or less. What it means for the future of sports books – think of Roger Kahn, George Plimpton, Ken Dryden, Roger Angell, Earl McRae, A.J. Liebling et al. – is even more disturbing.

It is called, derogatorily, “BlackBerry Journalism.” Television, ironically, is the worst offender, with the most visual of tools reducing so much of sports journalism to talking heads reading off rumours or various crumbs of minutiae handed off to them by those in a position to control such information. Having a number of excellent “hockey insiders” is critical to good hockey reporting in this country – think of TSN’s Bob McKenzie and a small handful of others – but when every new hire is presented as a “hockey insider,” you dangerously approach a situation where when the sports establishment – in this case, the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association – controls the information, they also control the message.

What the national game needs is more “hockey outsiders” not beholden to the minutiae dispensers. And what all sports needs is more old-fashioned storytelling.

Tell us about the players, please. Tell us how the game is being played. We actually don’t care all that much about minor trades or whether the suspension is four games or six, or how the contract has an average cap hit of $X-million a year. A couple of good insiders can handle that role; it doesn’t take an entire network to chase.

Today’s sports reporters are not to blame. The various “platforms” they work for treat them like hamsters stuck in an endless wheel, spinning nowhere. They must set up games, tweet from morning skates, transcribe tape, blog from the rink, upload video that no one watches, and file, file, file …

The obsession with “content” has meant next to no time for substance. In far too many cases, tweeting and blogging have become a form of public masturbation, where size matters – as in number of hits or followers one can attract. Hits, newspapers will one day realize, are not circulation.

In sports, however, storytelling has always mattered, greatly. It is not dead, just rather unwell these days. We still have excellent books appearing this fall by fine story-weavers (Gare Joyce, Al Strachan and Steve Simmons to mention three); we have a new publication, Sportsnet Magazine, that holds promise; and there are, importantly, a handful of television essayists who do much-appreciated work. Unfortunately, storytelling costs a lot more money than yet another panel discussion.

I have spent the past few weeks rereading old sports classics such as Paul Gallico’s Farewell to Sport and Leonard Koppett’s The Rise and Fall of the Press Box. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if Canadian sports editors and TV producers had a look back themselves.

Koppett, the brilliant New York Times and Oakland Tribune sportswriter who died shortly after his book appeared in 2003, was particularly prescient, seeing that the overload of media in dressing rooms was killing thoughtful exchange. He also believed that “excessive use of statistics, if not checked, may turn out to be a fatal malady.” It’s certainly getting close.

But Koppett also wrote, “The secret of good reporting is simply being around.”

Hanging out, he said, is “how a writer learns to know what he needs, what and how to write about it, to evaluate relevance and fairness, and how to distinguish the important from the trivial.”

It’s a fine sentiment, sir, and we’d certainly be happy to try it if we didn’t have to tweet, blog, upload video, edit audio and continually check our BlackBerrys.

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