Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On the Modern Sportswriter

Warning: Disjointed rant about sportswriting ahead.
1. I'm not sure if I ever heard Jim Murray speak, unless you count the time I sat behind him on a media bus at the Super Bowl. For a generation, Murray was the most well-respected sportswriter in America. He earned this position based entirely on words, on phrasing, on the careful construction of an 800-word column in the Los Angeles Times. As far as I know, Murray didn't appear regularly on television. He didn't seem to care much for television. Here's how he described television in his autobiography: "...the yawning maw that chewed up talent, novelty, news, history like a mindless, grazing shark, gobbled sports whole."

Jim Murray died in 1998. Which, these days, seems like a hell of a long time ago.

2. This is not really about Jay Mariotti, or Jason Whitlock. I certainly don't have a personal issue with either of them; I met Jay a few times many years ago, before he became the scourge of the blogosphere, and I found him perfectly nice. I've never met Whitlock, but we have a few mutual friends, and I find his public schtick and his columns amusing (and occasionally brilliant). Still, last weekend was one of the weirdest I can remember in the modern history of sportswriting: One day after Whitlock held a three-hour radio-broadcast "Explanation" for his departure from The Kansas City Star, Mariotti was arrested during a domestic dispute in Los Angeles, evoking unprecedented waves of schadenfreude from coast to coast. This, of course, was because Mariotti plays the heavy on a program called Around the Horn, in which a panel of sportswriters engage in vigorous arguments for 23 minutes. Around the Horn, of course, is preceded by several programs in which sportswriters engage in vigorous argument, and it is followed by a program called Pardon the Interruption, in which two extremely talented sports columnists from Washington D.C. engage in vigorous (if good-natured) argument.

It's all kind of amazing, when you think about it. For several hours a day, the airwaves are essentially dominated by people whose original avocation is/was the written word. Some of the best sportswriters in America have given up writing altogether. Others have emphasized their television work over their writing, because the money is simply too good to ignore.

3. For the most part, I can't blame them for going this route; if I were ever in their position, I might very well do the same thing. There is less money than ever to be made in the craft of writing. There is far more money to be made in television (or sometimes even on radio). It's easier, and it's more lucrative, and that's difficult to argue against. On television/radio, the points can be made faster. Nuanced arguments take up too much time, and outrageous leaps of logic and knee-jerk contrarianism contribute to the entertainment value. It's sports, and people need villains, and Mariotti seemed to enjoy playing that role. That role was, financially, very good to him. But that role also set him up to be vilified, regardless of his innocence or guilt.

4. What's so strange about this is that sportswriters are as high-profile as they've ever been--witness the mass reaction to Mariotti's arrest--and yet sports writing, as a craft, is struggling to find its place in this modern world. That's what concerns me the most about where we are now. I don't begrudge writers making money, or arguing in high-definition. But Jim Murray's argument was that sports had to be "dramatized" in order to win mass appeal, and that writers were able to do this more effectively than practitioners in any other medium. It's an indisputable truth; the best writing lends a nuance to a storyline or an argument that television never could. That's why it's so rare to see. That's why it's so damn hard to master.* It takes a certain sublimation of ego in order to embrace the self-flagellation and audience criticism that comes along with the writing process. Our job, in the end, is not to play a direct role in the drama. Our job has always been to tell the story, or express an opinion, and then get the hell out of the way.

"Television is capable of saturating the market and cloying the viewer," Murray wrote in his autobiography, a book that was published in 1993. Two decades later, these disparate mediums--sports writing and sports television--have merged in unprecedented ways. The writers have become the story. And the yawning maw continues to chew up talent.

*And yes, there are certain bloggers who are helping to fill that gap, but so much of the blogosphere, with its emphasis on quick hits, is modeled more on television than on the traditional model of writing.

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