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Frank Deford
May 08, 1989
As the author leaves SI, he offers up a few insights
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May 08, 1989

Let The Words Wobble

As the author leaves SI, he offers up a few insights

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Looking at things under a microscope is not at all the same as getting close to things, and I think the one great loss sports journalism has suffered in my time has been that of quaintness and charm. The price we have paid for more expertise is less intimacy. Sports was never meant to be covered like NATO or the bond market. I always figured the best way to write about sports was rather the way Winnie the Pooh spelled. "It's good spelling," Pooh says, "but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places."

Television, of course, has played a major role in this trend. For all of its almighty breadth, television has, paradoxically, limited what we write about. The nature of television is to audition a lot of stuff and then quickly reduce the options. Above all, TV is a medium of concentration and certification, whereas writing and radio are best at discovery and idiosyncrasy. But you know how it goes: If one police show works, run police shows to the exclusion of cowboy shows. If Today works, replicate it with Good Morning America. Likewise sportswriting.

When I joined SI, people assumed that the cathode-ray tube would treat us to the fascination of sports the globe over. In fact, after we saw the lunkheads diving off the cliffs at Acapulco twice, maximum, it was back to Ray Scott high atop the 50-yard line. And today: 100 Big East basketball games on TV on the same weekend are better—i.e., safer—than one soccer game or even one women's basketball game.

To my dismay, television hasn't broadened our interest, only miniaturized it. Thanks to TV, we know exactly what a split-fingered fastball looks like, right down to the stitches. As a result, sportswriters may not be doing as good a job as they used to in transmitting the essence of a game. More insidious, the writing press is becoming increasingly content to cover only the "authorized" sports—those with network contracts.

And as our numbers multiply at these authorized events, we often throw off more heat than light. Probably the single worst event in this regard is the Super Bowl, where packs of writers stumble into one another in a hall of mirrors. A summit conference is evidently the political equivalent. If the greatest enemy of free inquiry is no press or a controlled press, the next greatest threat is a surfeit of press, which is what we have in sports journalism at precisely the most important moments.

Still, the intense young journalists coming into sports today are much brighter than my raffish contemporaries, and sports should attract even more capable chroniclers in years to come. Two generations ago the young journalist's ideal was the war correspondent. Then, in a less heroic, more skeptical period, Woodward and Bernstein made investigative reporting the highest aspiration. How could mere games compete with such serious enterprises?

But today, with peace and tedium blessedly ascendant on much of the planet, who of any wit or passion would want to come out of higher education and devote precious time and words to the mysteries of the yen or Newt Gingrich? Sportswriting is about young people, and it lends itself to flair and drama. If we just let our work wobble a bit and start looking in the wrong places, the best of times in this profession could commence.

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