If It Bleeds, It Leads
“The cheap drama artists of my profession are…specialists at nosing out failure: hinting a fighter’s legs as suspect once he’s over thirty and finally in his prime; reporting a hitter’s wrists are stiff just when he’s learned to go the opposite way and can help the team by advancing runners. They see only the germs of defeat in victory, venality in all human endeavor. Sportswriters are sometimes damned bad men, and create a life of lies and false tragedies.”
– The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
Grantland Rice is perhaps the most famous sportswriter in history. He wrote in the first half of the 20th Century, and he most famously coined the name of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen” in 1924.
In fact, he likely penned the most famous lede in sportswriting history.
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.
Here’s the funny thing about the evolution of sportswriting and the written word in general. As Pacific Standard says in their article about the history of bad sports writing, no one would publish that lede today.
The prose is laughably purple, the sort of grand mythmaking that gets kneecapped by any decent editor and reduced to red line edits. It’s the actual, literal antithesis of honest reporting—which was actually the point.
Back in the 1920s, sportswriters wrote about athletes as if they were mythical creatures. They intentionally built them up to heroic proportions, despite their everyday faults. Even moreso than now, sports were a way to escape from the harsh realities of the Great Depression and the constant threat of war.
However, as Pacific Standard points out, Dick Young changed all that. He turned sportswriting into the artform of trolling that it has often become today. Some examples:
He mocked soccer as a “foreign sport” and heckled Pele at a press conference. He hypocritically branded pitcher Jim Bouton a “social leper” following the publication of Ball Four, a book that revealed many of the clubhouse secrets Young himself wrote about. He slyly floated the rumor that catcher Johnny Bench’s first marriage ended because he was secretly gay. He compared arbitrator Peter Seitz to a “terrorist” following a ruling that eliminated baseball’s reserve clause and opened the door to free agency. He referred to Muhammad Ali by his birth name of Cassius Clay well after the boxer’s conversion to Islam and subsequent name change. He started his career favoring liberal causes, but spent most of it making cruel jokes about everything from Latinos to the death penalty.
He is also, maybe, the most influential sports writer of all-time.
These days, with Dick Young laying the foundation, many sportswriters take the exact opposite approach of Grantland Rice.
Jason Whitlock has remained relevant at Fox Sports by penning genuinely perplexing hot takes that argue Jay-Z is to blame for the problems imposed on America’s black population, and not, say, institutional racism. Gregg Doyel is a CBS Sports national columnist and uses unproven allegations as kindle for telling a 20-year-old college football player who may have a drinking problem to leave behind his life and go play in Canada. Even Dave Zirin—one of sports’ best and sanest writers—can fall victim to the chase for absurd arguments, as he did in writing that he has a right to expect a public comment from LeBron James on the George Zimmerman verdict. It probably would have been best for the white guy not to tell the black guy what he should do about the situation.
Sportswriting these days is mostly crap. I like Wright Thompson, but even he falls prey to the game of sensationalism time to time. It’s all over-the-top, reactionary, sensationalistic nonsense. We don’t need to turn athletes into mythical heroes, but we also don’t need to poke and prod at every little element of their lives and expect them to be super humans at sports and life.
As the previously mentioned Jim Bouton says, “Why can’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time and cries into his glass that he will soon be dead, like his father and his uncle? Why do our heroes have to be so perfect and unflawed?”
Great point. One that I wholeheartedly agree with.
But, sadly, that type of approach is hard to find in sportswriting today.
If it bleeds, it leads.