Call it The Attack of the Ink-Stained Wretches. Or maybe The Rumpling of Sports TV. The plot: A growing number of well-known sportswriters, led by Will McDonough of The Boston Globe and Frank Deford of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, are stepping away from their typewriters and word processors from once to several times each week and appearing on TV or radio. It's a welcome trend, signifying a movement in sports TV away from chattering pretty-boys and former jocks and toward hard reporting and biting commentary. But, as we shall see, it sometimes puts the Oscar Madison types in the difficult position of serving two masters.
Besides McDonough, who dishes up inside information for CBS on The NFL Today every Sunday, and Deford, who delivers commentaries for NBC's NFL Live pregame show, dozens of guys from the print media are pulling in another income from the airwaves. Mike Lupica, a columnist for the New York Daily News, does Sunday commentaries and interviews for The Coor's Sports Page on superstation WTBS. Newsweek's Pete Axthelm, who helped start this trend when NBC hired him in 1980 for its NFL pregame show, is on ESPN's NFL GameDay and NFL PrimeTime shows. And almost every major market in the country regularly has print reporters on local TV or radio shows, reporting sports, delivering opinions or bantering with callers. Billy Reed, a columnist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and a longtime SI contributor, appears on two TV and two radio stations—one of each in Lexington and Louisville. As Reed has said, one can only wonder what legendary newspaperman Grant-land Rice would have thought of today's multimedia columnist.
The best of the new breed from a news-gathering and reporting standpoint is McDonough, 52. He doesn't look like a TV guy: His wispy gray hair can spring up and out when the wind is blowing, and a television station manager once described him as not being "cosmetically correct." Nor is he notably eloquent. But few, if any, reporters are better wired to what's happening around the NFL than McDonough, who has been the Globe's lead pro football writer for 27 years. He has given The NFL Today a credibility boost by scoring one news coup after another. His most recent scoop: On Nov. 8 he reported that Detroit Lions rookie Reggie Rogers, who had been placed on the nonfootball illness list for "emotional reasons," actually had drug-related problems. Rogers immediately denied the story. His brother, former Cleveland free safety Don, died of a cocaine overdose in 1986 at 23 years old.
McDonough's TV connection benefits both him and the Globe. His CBS salary is in the neighborhood of $140,000, far more than what he makes at the paper. Meanwhile, the network exposure enhances McDonough's value to the Globe by making him seem even more authoritative and by opening up new sources. The paper gains in stature and perhaps readership by having one of its own on national TV. (The Globe's Bud Collins has been a key member of NBC's tennis-reporting crew since 1972.) But there's that hitch. Allowing a print guy to moonlight on TV or radio raises the question of which boss gets the inside news first.
"You ask me who's my master? I'm my own master," McDonough says with characteristic feistiness. "I kid them at the Globe. I tell them that, to me, the only time a conflict of interest occurs is when whatever they're trying to do conflicts with my interest." McDonough does have a rule: Whatever stories he picks up Monday through Saturday go to the Globe first and CBS second. For example, he heard about the drug aspect of the Rogers story on a Saturday and wrote about it for Sunday morning's paper. Then on Sunday afternoon he went with it on CBS. Last December, McDonough broke the news that Alabama coach Ray Perkins was moving to Tampa Bay of the NFL. McDonough says that he was tipped to the story on a Saturday but didn't have it confirmed by a second source until Sunday. That was too late for the item to make the Globe—and just in time for him to air it on CBS.
Writers who don't generally break news on the air but are instead hired to comment on it—Deford, Lupica, Reed, Skip Bayless of the Dallas Times Herald and Buddy Martin of The Denver Post, to name a few—have an easier time balancing their loyalties than does McDonough. Conflict or no, print's invasion of the airwaves is good news for the fan. TV's blow-dried heads can use the knowledgeability of a McDonough. Maybe sports-writers aren't all lovely to look at, but, as Deford says, information sticks to them like lint. Granny Rice would have loved this trend.