How to be a sportswriter: Know about more than sports
It’s been a long time since sportswriting was just about sports. It probably never was. If you’re going to be a sportswriter, you’d best know or be willing to learn a few things along the way about economics, business, chemistry, medicine, civic planning, the legal system, media, consumer technology, psychology—the list is probably long enough to fill a blog post and keep you in college forever.
Here’s an absurd column in the Bluefield (W.Va.) Daily Telegraph by Brian Woodson, who wonders “whatever became of sports journalism” in the wake of an AP breaking-news alert that Danica Patrick was dating fellow NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
As if coverage of an athlete’s love life were something new. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe would beg to differ. When heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey married movie star Estelle Taylor in 1925 it kinda made the papers. And don’t get me started on that rascal Leonidas of Rhodes.
When I got into sportswriting I thought it would be all about sports, game action and strategy. But I found myself as a wee lad covering the local boxing scene, a big part of which, I quickly learned, was: Where and when would the next card be? I found myself talking to a promoter who listed all the things he had to pay for—renting the hall and the ring, paying the fighters, insurance, a ringside doctor and a stand-by ambulance, commission fees and so on—and then telling me how much he had to make on ticket sales “just to make my nut.”
I’d never even heard that phrase before. That’s how versed I was in business, which is pretty funny because, as it dawned on me at that moment, I was a business reporter, covering a sport that spent about 99 percent of its time being a business, with occasional three-minute breaks for a couple of dudes to punch each other.
It seems obvious now, in the age of salary caps and “Moneyball” and the machinations of NCAA conferences and TV deals, that we need to know at least a little bit about business and economics to cover sports. It also should be obvious, especially this week, that we need to know a little bit about chemistry and medicine. Science.
That’s a tall order, maybe an impossible one for anyone not willing or able to dedicate years to their science education. But what we can learn, and be better at, as an industry and as individuals, is how to cover science.
Here’s an excellent blog post by Emmett Ryan of the Irish Sports site Action 81. Ryan writes critically about the Sports Illustrated story about the company S.W.A.T.S. The media shorthand for this story is: “Ray Lewis and deer antler spray.”
Ryan writes that Sports Illustrated’s writers, David Epstein and George Dohrmann—who he notes are rightly celebrated as excellent sports journalists—did not subject the claims of the company, which promotes products designed to help athletes, to scientific scrutiny:
Dohrmann and Epstein’s piece was an extensive feature on S.W.A.T.S.’s operation but one that failed to substantially challenge the claims made by the company. When it comes to matters of science, that’s a major omission. When dealing with anything unproven it’s imperative to have a qualified voice to balance matters.
Ryan eventually tracks down a scientist, David Robert Grimes, a physicist at Oxford University, who he quotes saying the claims of S.W.A.T.S. are “total nonsense” and betray “an utter misunderstanding of basic physics.”
An important point in the post, made in a piece Ryan wrote early in his career for the Irish Daily Business Post, is that whenever someone is making scientific claims, the onus is on them to prove themselves. The point is made by Dr. John White of the School of Physics at University College in Dublin, who was talking about a different company that was making claims about an energy-generating machine: “It’s not up to the scientific community to prove them wrong—it’s their job to prove they are right.”
That’s the scientific method in a nutshell, isn’t it? One of those things it helps to know a little bit about if you want to write well about sports.
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Disclosure: Sports Illustrated, like Turner, which owns Bleacher Report, is a Time-Warner company.