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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What sportswriters do

Many of you follow sports. But if you don't, perhaps the next blog I write will be of interest to you.

These are things you should know about sportswriters, based on my personal experiences at Georgia Tech where I was sports editor of the campus newspaper, an occasional radio commentator, a liaison for radio and TV broadcasters of visiting teams, and a statistician for football and basketball. I also wrote the Yellow Jacket Confidential (a weekly, paid-subscription newsletter during football season) and was occasionally hired by newspapers in Georgia as a stringer. When I received my undergrad degree in electrical engineering in 1976, I briefly considered working for the Atlanta Constitution or Atlanta Journal but made a sane decision not to.

  • 80% of sportswriters don't care who wins. This is not merely an attitude; it's fundamental to the profession. 15% care but keep it to themselves and don't let it affect their writing. 5% are unprofessional and will be treated harshly by peers or weeded out by editors.
  • What sportswriters really want is a good story. They dream at night about getting an exclusive on a good story, and they don't care what kind of story it is: winning streak, losing streak, hired coach, fired coach, player who triumphs over personal difficulty, player who goes to jail, etc. Just give me a story to tell. The longer the story lasts and the more depth it develops, the better.
  • The worst game from the perspective of a sportswriter is when a heavily-favored team wins by exactly the spread, with no unpredictability, no controversy, no injury, no spectacular play, no human interest such as a sub finally getting a chance to play, etc. You pray that you don't have to write up a game like that.
  • Sportswriters know much, much more about the teams and athletes they cover than you do.
  • Most sportswriters don't care what you think about what they wrote, although some of them enjoy conversations with knowledgeable and objective fans. They care a lot, however, about what their peers think of their writing.
  • Many sportswriters happen to be writing about sports at this time in their lives but are broadly talented and may move on to other forms of journalism, books, etc. My favorite example is Lewis Grizzard, whom I met when he was little known.
  • Being a columnist is more challenging than covering a beat. Columnists are required to be interesting, insightful, moving, funny, or provocative every time they write. They must find their own inspiration for their columns and must not "go on vacation" (that is, have a dry spell) very often.
  • Sportswriters are people and, like you and I, they have natural reactions to the people whom they write about. Some coaches and athletes are likable and cooperative. Others are neither, but a sportswriter does not have license to ignore someone who is unpleasant. The story must be written.
  • Most sportswriters are good people who love what they do. They don't make a lot of money, they constantly tap their reservoirs of creativity, they travel on very tight budgets, they put up with obnoxious editors and publishers, they are criticized by readers, they are sometimes anathematized by athletes and coaches, etc. They don't always come across to the public as good people, but often that's attributable to a defensive persona which they feel forced to don or sheer lack of energy when they're off-duty.
  • (Caution: I am told by a sportswriter that this item is no longer true.) A few sportswriters hardly watch the game they're reporting on. Instead they eat the press box food, chat with their colleagues, etc. The real work starts when the game is over, particularly if there is a tight deadline. The teams' publicity departments provide statistics, play-by-play summaries, quotes from players and coaches, etc. If you read critically a writeup of a game, you may be able whether the author paid attention to it while it was happening or didn't. (Of all the press boxes I went into, only Tulane gave out free beer. A fair number of writers at those games were completely plastered as they finger-pecked stories on their manual typewriters.)
  • Sportscasters, except for the regional and national networks, tend to be less objective than sportswriters employed by media. Often the sportscasters are paid, directly or indirectly, by the teams whose games they announce. You can believe what they say, but the question is what are they not telling you that they know. The best sportscasters transcend their relationships with their employers.