Say Ball!

by Tom Swift

Sports is my first language.

I don’t remember reading many books as a kid, but I do remember racing to beat my older brother to the sports page in the morning. Scrums sometimes ensued on the occasions I had first dibs, as I insisted on reading every word of the section — even all the agate (the page that lists every score of every game played the day before — from high school to the pros, from ice hockey to badminton — in six-point type, if necessary). I didn’t do this to be annoying. (At least that wasn’t the primary reason.) I simply loved consuming the words and numbers. I loved reading about sports.

I don’t, frankly, remember reading many books in college, either. I did read books in college, of course, I just don’t much recall the experience of doing so. I do fondly remember nights I avoided reading the assigned books (or going to parties) and instead huddled in my dorm room and devoured stacks of Sports Illustrated and other sports periodicals and sports books I had dug up at the library. (I even took a self-study course in sports literature with one of my English lit professors.)

Sports talk radio was not as common then as now but I recall in young adulthood when I would get absorbed listening to the local all-sports station on afternoons and evenings and the national sports feed during overnights.

In other words, I grew up in a pretty intense sports culture, more or less of my own choosing, as I didn’t just read or listen to sports. I played them — including hockey, baseball and football. When my friends and I were not playing games we talked about them (or traded baseball cards or played sports-themed video games — sports really was the thing for me in the first two-plus decades of my life. My first job was as a sports writer). I don’t follow or play sports these days as I did then. But you never lose the comfort and the confidence — the feeling of being at home — as you do when you are immersed in your native tongue.

Sports is a rare crucible that shows us what is not possible to see in most of the rest of life: clear winners, as demonstrated through the application of mind, body, and spirit. Pull up a barstool. Who is the best cardiologist of all time? The best chief executive officer? Head scratches. Who is the best defenseman? The best basketball team? Teeth gnashes.

Sports is so ubiquitous in our culture. Writing and talking about sports is facile. Doing it well, however, is as rare as running across a heavy weight champion. Or so it seems sometimes. So much of the sportswriting that does exist today is a product of our time — analytical and numbers-intensive. It is short and clickable. It is more about the writer than the subject. Not even my beloved Sports Illustrated writes what I read while huddled in my dorm those years ago. It, too, has taken to shorter topical pieces written by good but not all-star writers. It used to be SI was the pinnacle of sportswriting — no longer; writers leave there for .coms all the time. It used to be newspaper columnists were quasi stars. We read and cared what they said each morning. Now they are talk show hosts and podcasters. They are wonks. They are employed by leagues and teams.

I get that the media landscape has shifted in the last decade. Yet I still don’t understand why there is not more and better long-form sports journalism outlets (those focused on something other than advanced metrics, I mean). You have tens of thousands of people who watch four days of NFL draft coverage — clearly not every sports fan has the attention span of a middle schooler, not everyone needs even action to be interested the story.

If you are still publishing a printed periodical isn’t it incumbent on you to put a premium on the writing? After all, people will have learned the score —and pored over every stat they care to consume — hours, days, sometimes weeks before you showed up. In-depth reporting and great writing is about all you have to sell. (I plan to let my subscription to The Hockey News lapse for this reason. I plopped down money three years ago hoping I was getting the SI of hockey and instead I get monthly features on mascots, equipment, and left-wingers in Kamloops. I get list issue after list issue. Next up (I only half-kidding expect): the top 100 right-shot defensemen ever! When THN does tackle a star or a best-kept secret story the writing is filled with cliche and received wisdom. Sports writers should be writers first, sports fans second. This seems seldom the case anymore. If you eat-sleep-watch hockey then you probably don’t have any sort of unique perspective on same. If it’s all you know, it’s all you have to give.)

Alas, what is left is a landscape in which so much sports writing is hackneyed and hyped up. It’s broadcasting on paper. So much of what remains is sentimental writing, which is for me a criticism less about emotion — I am a sucker, after all, for the sports movie in which the underdog wins in the end —- and more about writers who tell us rather than show us why we should care.

Which brings me, finally, to why I was prompted to write the above. I recently got a review copy of a book due out early this fall about an accomplished high school running team. It’s classic fare in which the writer is more promoter than chronicler; the athletes are “amazing” because the writer says they are. (And, no doubt, their running times and racing trophies suggest he’s not wrong about their abilities. He just doesn’t show us the why or how very well and his tell tries to be clever but isn’t.) In the end, I could not review or even blurb the book for I have no interest to spend hours of my life in an effort tear down a title that almost certainly few outside of elite high school running circles will read anyway.

I did open it, though, as I do when I open magazines and books these days, hoping I will witness a sportswriting upset.