HAVE YOU NOTICED how terrible the columns in the sports section of your local paper have gotten? It's not that the quality sports writing in general is falling. As Glenn Stout, the editor of the Best American Sports Writing series says, the great sports writing of today is at least as good, if not better, than previous generations. "The features and profiles are, by and large, much better than most of the ones done in the past" Stout said in an interview.
No, the problem is with the sports columnists. With a few exceptions, they have become know-nothing, self-aggrandizing, laughing stocks; a bunch of blowhards who squander precious inches of newsprint on trash talk, instead of crafting coherent essays. Who it to blame for the decline and fall of the sports column? ESPN.
A recent study by Missouri School of Journalism doctoral student Scott Reinardy purports to show that sportswriters and their editors "believe jargon, entertainment-based writing and ESPN's SportsCenter is altering the tone of sports writing," and that "creativity is being substituted for fact-based reporting, and sports reporters' aspirations of being on radio or TV has impacted their sports writing and reporting." One needs look no further than shows like ESPN's Around the Horn and Quite Frankly--which feature current and former sports columnists and loud-mouthed TV sports pundits--to see the effect that the channel has had.
One-time Around the Horn participant, and current Los Angeles Times columnist, T.J. Simers was fired from the show when he gave the San Diego Union-Tribune his real opinion of the program. "I hate it. I hate that show. But I hear a cash register going off in my head when I do it."
In an interview, Simers elaborated on his disgust for the program and what it has done to his profession. "There was an encouragement to be goofy, go beyond column writing," he explained. "As you did this, they encouraged conflict and stupidity . . . if you were more outgoing, more demonstrative you appeared on more shows."
And appearing on more shows means getting famous and making more money. "All of the sudden you're walking around and people notice you," Simers said. "Players notice you. It becomes such an ego boost that you start to do whatever [the producers] want. If they want you to yell louder, you yell louder. If they want you to put on costumes, or stuff hotdogs in your mouth, you do it."
STOUT BELIEVES that in order to get the attention of TV producers, sports columnists are altering the way they write. The difference between great columnists of the past, and the most famous columnists of today, he says, is that columns "once had a shape, a story. That is what is now lacking. . . . They're sort of staccato now, rather than a melody." The reason for this, Stout believes, is that columnists are "writing in sound bites. That's something that gets the attention of TV and radio. If you can speak in sound bites as well, well then that's your entrée into the world of television and radio."
Why is there such a drive to be on TV? Bryan Curtis, a staff writer for Slate, posits that the sports column isn't what it once was. "The sports column isn't the glorious art form that it might have seemed like back in the day," Curtis writes in an email. "There are so many tools out there now--satellite TV, stats on the Internet, streaming press conferences from the team websites--that practically anybody can write a sports column. (And, with the Web, you've got your own bullhorn/blog to post it on.)"
But while technology has leveled the prestige of print, television remains a uniquely mass medium. "TV, on the other hand, is still a pretty rarefied medium," Curtis continues. "You or I can't go on ESPN and talk about the game. So maybe that's another part of it. TV seems like the pinnacle of sports punditry because it's only reachable by a select few."
Take, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Stephen A. Smith, who, after serving as a regular guest on ESPN programs for the last few years, recently got his own show on the network. In an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this year, Smith revealed his philosophy as a writer: "I have an obligation to make sure you know that what I say is exactly how I feel, and I don't care how you take it." Note, Smith's goal is not to educate or enlighten the reader. He just wants you to know his opinion and he will shout as loud as it takes to get it across.
Mark Shapiro, a former VP of programming and production at ESPN, says in the same piece, "Stephen A. Smith moves the needle on ratings. . . . He leaves an imprint. People might come back because they hate him. The bottom line is, they come back."
SIMERS FEARS that yodelers like Smith and Skip Bayless (a pundit on ESPN.com and ESPN 2's morning show Cold Pizza) are not only ushering in a new ethic to sports columns, but are affecting veteran columnists, too. When asked about ESPN's two best sports pundit shows, The Sports Reporters and Pardon the Interruption, Simers notes that "if you're a careful watcher, those shows have changed over a period of time. They're becoming screamers too."
The problem with sports columnists appearing on TV and radio is that, like the rest of us, they only have so much time in the day. "I don't think there's any question that if you're spread thin, you're not going to put out a good column," Simers says. When Stephen Rodrick noted that "sports television turns [pundits'] columns into shrill, non-reported versions of their televised rants" in Slate earlier this year, Tony Kornheiser (who, in addition to his responsibilities as a Washington Post columnist, hosts a morning radio show and co-hosts Pardon the Interruption in the afternoon) had a conniption fit, calling on the Post (which had recently purchased Slate) to fire the writer.
To most in the know, however, there is little doubt that Kornheiser's column is suffering. And even worse, it appears as though the Washington Post doesn't care. "Apparently [Kornheiser] doesn't care about the column any more, and the newspaper is willing to live with it because they get so much national exposure," says one veteran Washington, D.C. sports correspondent who asked to remain anonymous. "People across the country know that Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon write for the Washington Post, so [the paper] doesn't really care if the two of them just mail it in." When asked in an online chat last month why "It seems like the really high profile guys (Kornheiser/Wilbon) spout off without examining the facts of the situation," the Post's soccer writer Steven Goff retorted that "Some of our columnists are busy with their TV shows."
In his foreword to 2004's edition of The Best American Sports Writing, Stout fears that the gravitation towards television and radio appearances "is a crude admission that writing, well, just isn't that important, and it often shows in their print work." What happens is an inevitable decline in quality: "The result is writing that aspires to have the same effect, writing informed not by language or literature but by shtick, by not-so-comic or clever monologues that attempt to shock, provoke or otherwise exhibit 'edginess.'"
Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at the Weekly Standard.