Is Great Sportswriting Becoming a Thing of the Past?
The first book I remember reading from cover to cover was a prematurely scripted ten-year history of the Dallas Cowboys during their formative years of the 1960’s.
“Dallas Cowboys” Pro or Con?,” penned by the late Dallas Morning News sportswriter Sam Blair, was released in 1970. It’s long since out of print, and beyond dated. To give some perspective, this is a book that came out during the first year Monday Night Football went on the air. Nonetheless, almost 45 years after being absorbed by the narrative, passages of the book remain imprinted upon my conscious, leaving lasting memories which has instilled great affection for traditions that remain with me to this day. Why so?
It’s not just that Blair’s book came out the year of the NFL-AFL merger, when pro football was transitioning into America’s pastime and the Cowboys were well on their way to becoming “America’s team.” What drew me to the stretch of years leading up to my 8th birthday was the prevailing sense that through Blair’s words I was inside the huddle with Don Meredith barking out the next play. I was inside the locker room when Tom Landry was at his emotional low point after three miserable seasons when Cowboy fans were calling for his firing and the crosstown rival Dallas Texans has just won the AFL championship. I was beneath the second deck of the old Cotton Bowl stadium during that miserable 1962 night game played in what seemed like an empty stadium when rain fell so cold and so hard the few thousand fans that showed up all sat beneath the overhang. I was on the airplane to Cleveland right after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the Cowboys were forced to play a game against the Browns just three days later. I was next to Bob Lilly when he hurled his helmet 60 yards downfield at the old Orange Bowl after a crushing last-second defeat to the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V. I was in the jungles of Vietnam when Army jeeps rolled through Saigon with Dallas Cowboys stickers affixed to the bumpers. That’s the lasting impact of a powerful, well-written narrative. [SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW]
I suspect most of us are hard wired to remember our most impressionable youthful experiences. That’s why there’s such big market for nostalgia. The histories of the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers have been written about ad nauseam. But they still sell because so many people grew up supporting those teams and there remains an insatiable appetite for alternative perceptions of our most fond memories. We might recall how Bobby Thompson blasted that home run in the 1951 “Giants win the pennant” game, which became known as “the shot heard ’round the world.” Aside from playing the same blurry black and white newsreel over and over, reading various witness’ accounts to the story someone enables us to enjoy the moment over and over again. It also gives those of us born years later a sense of what that iconic moment of sports history was like, sitting in Ebbets Field, heartbroken after yet another defeat. We become children again, all Brooklyn Dodger fans, with each page turn of “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn.
The mind, not the eyes, are a trap for the imagination. We don’t often remember what’s seen and heard exactly, and such memories gradually fade. But we do tend to remember what’s written upon the printed page because reading is active, not passive. Reading requires active participation and mental engagement. Watching television does not.
Take this short passage from Sam Blair’s book which recounts the early morning of the famous “Ice Bowl” game, the 1967 NFL championship played at Green Bay. This became the coldest day in NFL history. Players weren’t coddled and paid millions of dollars in salaries back then. Cowboys stayed at a Holiday Inn. Ill-prepared for the conditions they were about to endure, they dressed thin cotton pants and shirts and were barely equipped with thermal underwear. Hours after this scene took place, Bob Lilly and George Andrie would end up face down on the frozen tundra of blistering Lambeau Field, inches away from Packers’ quarterback Bart Starr who raised the ball across the goal line with seconds remaining, giving Green Bay their third straight NFL title.
Don Perkins’ first memory of Dec. 31, 1967, was the shock of waking up in a different world.
“The hotel operator called all the players’ rooms and said: “Good morning. It is 8 a.m., and the temperature is 16 below zero,” recalled Perkins, who would play fullback in the Dallas Cowboys’ heralded NFL championship rematch with the Green Bay Packers that day. “I said, “Come on, lady, you’re joking!’ Then I opened the blinds, saw the ice caked on the windows and decided maybe she wasn’t.’
Bob Lilly got the chilling message from his roommate, George Andrie.
“George had gone to early Mass when I woke up,’ Lilly said. ” I looked out the window and I couldn’t believe how sunny and clear it was. Then George came in the room. He didn’t say anything about the temperature outside. He simply got a glass of water, pulled back the curtain and threw the water on the window. The water froze before it ran down to the window sill. And it was 70 degrees in that room.’
Thus began one of the strangest days in football history.
That narrative instills a greater sense of curiosity and makes us want to read more, doesn’t it?. We want to know what the bus ride was like to the stadium. What was said? What exactly was the pep talk before the game in the locker room? What was it like putting on a uniform not made for such brutal conditions and stepping out into the elements, a risk which could have resulted in the loss of fingers and toes from frostbite? What was the emotional state of the players after playing a game many called one of the greatest football games of all time between so many legends? Thank goodness for writers, or we’d never know the answers to these curiosities.
Last week, you might have heard the announcement that that ESPN is pulling the plug on “Grantland,” the website for sportswriters and sportswriting. In the broader context today of how we watch games and the way sports are covered, relatively few people are likely to take note of this demise. Admittedly, Grantland was everything ESPN’s nightly SportsCenter is not. It’s a sort of “director’s cut” for hard-core journalism. It elevated sports. It set a gold standard. It also provided a platform for reflection and, with time, a greater sense of historical perspective. Yet, while the broadcasts were watched by the millions, the medium for writing suffered by comparison.
Apparently, ESPN doesn’t think much of writing or the intelligence of its audience. And, it’s easy to see why the decision to shutter Grantland was made in a corporate culture driven purely by profits rather than any sense of greater responsibility (ESPN, owned by Disney, is reportedly being squeezed to cut costs so they can to continue paying sports leagues exorbitant television rights fees). Indeed, there are a number of interesting rumors and theories floating around about the inter-office and executive boardroom politics of this decision, mostly dealing with Bill Simmons’ recent departure from the website, and the fallout of the void afterward. I don’t know about these details, but what’s obvious here is the imminent decline of long-form sports journalism and the ominous future for writers and narrative.
Certainly, sports is a visual medium. Fans demand the immediacy of breaking news. We no longer read the story of what happened in last night’s ballgame in the next morning’s newspaper. If we follow teams and players, we already know the final score from our televisions and smartphones. That said, reflection and a sense of context has a place, and it isn’t provided by SportsCenter or social media. There should be a platform for the Frank Defords, the John Feinsteins, the Rick Reillys, the Mitch Albums, the Peter Kings, the George Plimpton’s, the Blackie Sherrods, and the Sam Blairs. That platform should be supported by a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that bills itself as “the worldwide leader in sports.” Instead, there’s a word for ESPN’s action. It’s abandonment.
Instead, ESPN feeds us a steady chorus line of ex-ballplayers and burned-out former head coaches and calls a 25-second sound bite “analysis.” There are so many talking heads on these pregame and panels, the studio looks like a shooting gallery. When it comes to budget cuts, why not start there? Do we really want to hear Shannon Sharpe spewing his final score predictions? Does anyone care about Mike Ditka anymore, who coached his last game 16 years ago? Has Magic Johnson ever provided anything interesting or intellectually stimulating to any discussion? And how in the hell Matt Millon still a paid analyst, who proved to be the worst general manager in the history of pro football? Where would the iconic broadcaster and larger-than-life personality Howard Cosell fit in today’s televised sports coverage? Hell, he probably wouldn’t be able to get a job.
There’s clearly an infinitely-profitable mass market for “Jerry Springer Show”-style sports coverage in America. Television ratings prove this. Trouble is, that’s become the predominant market. “Pardon the Interruption” and “Around the Horn” are about as in depth and analytic as a drunken tweet. For those amused easily and lacking broader curiosity, there’s plenty of fast food reheated over and over again in the sports coverage universe. Trouble is, quantity has not produced quality. ESPN is McDonald’s.
“Grantland’s” closing isn’t just a loss for talented sportswriters and one less online outlet for creative expression. It’s a far more disturbing casualty of diminishing collective curiosity. Less writers and less writing means less reflection and less enjoyment. Like Sam Blair’s historical narrative, great sportswriting is in serious danger of going out of print.
Footnote: An even better read on the early history of the Dallas Cowboys, which mimics how the NFL and professional sports changed dramatically during the period from 1960 to 1970 is “Cotton Bowl Days,” authored by John Eisenberg of The Baltimore Sun. This is a must read for anyone wants to read more about the clashing forces that influenced pro football and made the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. I cannot recommend this book more highly.