Friday, August 21, 2009

On the Death of the Sports Columnist

I'm not sure how this happened, but it's been fifteen years since I graduated from college, which means it's been fifteen years since I moved to Akron, Ohio, and secured a furnished one-bedroom apartment on Arlington Road that cost approximately three hundred dollars a month. I didn't really know anyone in town, except some friends of a college friend of mine, and so I found the apartment by default, with the help of a real-estate agent who, when I inquired about the quality of the neighborhood, cupped a hand to her ear and said, "Listen to that quiet," just as an ambulance scurried past and a car backfired and a neighbor began screaming at his dog. I broke my lease and moved across town a short time later, but that's not what this story is meant to be about; this story is meant as a response to this piece from the New York Observer, about the supposed death of the general newspaper sports columnist, and as a response to the varied blog responses to the Observer piece, which can essentially be summed up as, "Good riddance."

Fifteen years ago, I was a fledgling sportswriter at a mid-sized newspaper; fifteen years ago, I sat in that dank apartment on Arlington Road, reporting on high-school football two-a-days and awaiting the inevitable theft of my car. I tried to log on to this thing called America Online, but I couldn't quite figure it out. I tried to cook a steak, but the pilot light on the stove was broken and the kitchen reeked of gas, and so, to keep myself from losing my mind, I began to read.

It wasn't like I hadn't read books before. I spent my childhood reading, but this was different. This was the first time I can remember actually studying the writing while I did it. I read novels; I read The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and several others I'd skimmed over in high school and college, presuming, for some reason, that they did not apply to me. At work, I would spend my idle time scanning the wires, reading newspaper columns from faraway cities, printing out the ones I liked and hoarding them in a manila folder. I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was going, and then one day, I was browsing at Borders--I spent hours at Borders, browsing every inch of every section--and I purchased a collection of columns from a Detroit sportswriter named Mitch Albom. I knew of Albom, of course; I had read his columns over the wire, and I had read them in the early incarnations of The Best American Sports Writing collection, and yet this was the first time I had read a group of them, all at once. I brought it home that night, to the apartment on Arlington Road, and as I listened to my neighbor scream at the television, I read Albom's series of columns about the Iditarod.

Now, I will admit I haven't gone back and re-read these columns in many years. I'm not sure if they'd still seem as good to me as they did then, but all I know is that in the summer of 1995, these columns absolutely blew my mind; every day, Albom filed a missive from another faraway Alaska outpost. I remember the columns were so good, so well-liked, that the newspaper sent him back to Alaska for more after he'd returned home midway through the race. I remember the columns as a near-perfect synthesis of observation and reporting and storytelling, each day's missive leading directly into the next. I remember reading those columns and thinking, We can do this? In a newspaper?

Obviously, a few things have happened since then. Albom changed (he became a different kind of writer, and made a fortune in the process, for which it's hard to blame him); but newspapers also changed; the Internet changed; and in turn, the culture changed. I think you can make a strong case that certain sports columnists got far too caught up in these changes, that they became tangled up in the outside influences of talk radio and television and blogs, that there was a tendency to retreat away from reporting and storytelling and into formula, into the argument model, into sentimental treacle, into facile thought and armchair posturing. The model itself was obviously reliant upon the space available in print, and on natural daily deadlines, and all of these things are now either fluid or irrelevant. Everything is changing, and in a way, I agree with Spencer Hall and Dan Shanoff and all the others who hail this new model, in which word count is irrelevant and styles are more wide-ranging. I also agree that, in the end, the writing is the thing, but this is also what concerns me, because so much of the writing I read--online, in print--seems overly colored by these new priorities.

The beauty of Albom's columns, when I stumbled upon then fifteen years ago, was that he appeared to have crafted every word. He was especially aware of the rhythm of his prose, of the way the words sang, of the way they came together to form sentences and paragraphs, of the way they danced rather than wrestled you to the ground. They weren't "takes." They weren't overly aggressive, or overly snarky, or overly sentimental, or overly anything. They were real stories. That was, I suppose, the beauty of writing in a confined space; you had to craft your voice in order to fit. You had to work at it.

Done well, it was an art form. It still is. And that discipline translates into other forms; that discipline, I have no doubt, is what allows Dan Jenkins to craft sublime 140-character Twitter posts, and 800-word columns, and 5,000-word profiles. And that discipline, I fear, is what could be lost in the Internet age.


WCS said...

Cool piece...When you say, "sentimental treacle," I can't help but think of Rick Reilly. It's funny: I'd never been an SI subscriber but last summer decided to delve into his two books that are comprised of his best SI columns, Life of Reilly, and Hate Mail From Cheerleaders. I kept hearing about all his accolades (million time best sportswriter, etc.) so I decided to see why he was so well-respected. I read both books on the subway while commuting to my internship all summer, and loved them! I got it: he's smart, witty, and tells compelling stories in a pithy way.

Around the same time I was reading his books, he went to ESPN, and so I started reading him there. But soon thereafter, I began disliking him more and more actively. I'm not sure if my discovery of Deadspin unfairly colored my opinion, but he started feeling inauthentic and well, kinda treacle-y. I feel like Reilly, at some point in the past few years, started writing like Rick Reilly would--instead of just writing (almost as if he became too self-aware of what brought in the bills instead of just writing). Sweet story, a few nifty similes, and a moralistic ending; let's get paid. I still read him, but almost out of habit more than genuine enjoyment. Am I alone? Have others tired of his style? Maybe there's just a lifespan on his formula or maybe he's just run out of dental metaphors (or maybe I've just burnt out on him). All I know is he suddenly feels VERY dated (though apparently still quite well read given his work is invariably one of the most sent pieces on, but perhaps based on his reputation more than the verve of his writing?). Is the Internet's flourishing cynicism unfairly making Rick Reilly seem like your grandma's favorite sportswriter? I'm not sure if you care to comment specifically on RR, but wonder if you had any reaction to my experience/thoughts. Thanks!

Michael Weinreb said...


For what it's worth, Reilly spent years as a beat writer and feature writer at SI before he became a columnist, and confined himself to that 800-word box. And he was undeniably brilliant:

WCS said...

Makes sense. I think all of those pieces appeared in the "best of" collections and THAT was the writing that made me understand why he's so revered. Wonder why he refuses to write any longer these days? Bill Simmons' podcast with RR is interesting b/c they discuss their differences in style. Reilly takes a few subtle swipes at BS IMO (e.g. RR's sons just "skim" Simmons' columns)