Sports writing, as we have discussed in my Literary Journalism class, opened up many of the narrative avenues now utilized widely in serious "new journalism." While using the term serious to denote “important” or “relevant” journalism is an issue that deserves some unpacking in its own right, this essay will deal mainly with with how sports writing is important and relevant. I will make the argument that a discussion of sports writing is really a discussion of society itself. Sports, as with other “tune-in, tune-out” entertainment, can never fully insulate itself from social issues. In fact, modern Sports Writing has a tremendous power to sway opinion when it inserts the political into the entertainment (see BeYonce’s SuperBowl halftime performance).
Modern sport writing stands in contrast to old-school sports reportage. Old-school sports writing is the stuff of numbers and statistics, rarely advancing beyond the who-what-where-when of an individual game or play. It is the raw material of the sports media industry akin to beat reporting on city council meetings. In addition to the die-hard sports fans and commentators, these stats provide the shrewd gambler a chance to crunch the numbers and play the odds against her local bookie.
Baseball in particular amongst sports is often held up as a “thinking man’s game.” As recently as 1990 columnist George Will added to this tradition of (male-dominated) baseball philosophy, writing, "Baseball is as much a mental contest as a physical one”. New Yorker staff writer Luke Epplin notes that this idea is actually a recent one, popularized by Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson in the early 1900s. The writings of Christy Mathewson might be seen as the beginning of modern Sports Philosophy, elevating sports above other plebeian pastimes. No matter the emphasis on “Ruthian ability to overpower opponents,” Epplin writes, “Mathewson’s framing of baseball as a thinking person’s game endures."
However owners may fight to keep politics (as distinct from harmless philosophy) out of sports, they always lose. We have seen the condemnation when police unions chided LeBron James for donning a Tamir Rice shirt before a game. But one can only segregate and gender a national pastime for so long until someone comes along brave enough to voice their their right to life and entertainment on their own terms. Three years before Harry Truman’s 1948 executive degree to forcibly end segregation, Jackie Robinson signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers. 1976, Renée Richards forced the USTA & US Open tennis tournament to recognize her female identity as more than a mental disorder. Last year, the University of Missouri football team pushed the rising call for the resignation of the university’s president past a tipping point through their refusal to practice or participate in games. The more pressing the issue, the harder it is to keep it out of sports. Good modern Sports Writing realizes this and embraces the intersection of sports and life.
As I see it, there exist two main branching of sports writing, stats-heavy “non-political” old-school writing, and modern Sports Writing, which draws in social commentary to help explain aspects of the game and its reception. This latter form is particularly good at ambush, what I call “disguised social commentary.” This is what enables the conservative paper New York Post to support a(n at least relatively) liberal staff of sports writers. We seem like the generally harmless non-serious wing of the paper, and therein lies the power of sports writing.
As I see it, the classic format for sports writing is the column, the glorious 300-800 word meditation on a single news item with quick reasoned argument punctuated with a conjecture or question about the future. Of course, another newer form is the longform profile (often, a long and winding road) such as those in BAMW 2006 (see bibliography). In the context of this assignment (and associated word limit), I will attempt a sports column, focusing on a topical news item (taken from the raw material of old-school sports reporters) and how it illuminates a trend or question about the future. *end*
[n.b.While there is a wealth of foreign sports writing out there, this essay is focused primarily on American sports writing because otherwise this would be a book. Honestly, it probably could be regardless]
Conservative Newspaper sportswriting:
Baseball as Thinking Person’s game: