#Hot Corner

O, for the days when sportswriting was great

I'm tired of writing about Grant Balfour's medicals so I decided instead to wonder if Michael Wilbon's on to something when he says sports writing ain't what it used to be in this interview:

Wilbon, though, laments that the volume simply isn’t the same. He says the impact of social media and the post-it-first mentality of sports websites have altered the craft. It’s all about information, and less about style and quality, he said.

"Tony Kornheiser likes to say, ‘This is the golden age for sportswriters,'" Wilbon said. "'He said, 'Don’t confuse that with the golden age for sports writing.'"

--snip--

People don’t write takeouts and profiles anymore. There’s a few, but that used to be a staple of sports journalism. It’s not a driving force now. It’s all news and information driven now. It’s all this metrics and stuff I don’t give a shit about. I’m not saying it was better 30 years ago. It’s just different.

--snip--

Listen, there’s still good sports writing. Great sports writing. But is there as much of it as there was 30 years ago? No, not in my opinion. Who’s the Frank Deford out there now? Leigh Montville? Dave Kindred? Our Ralph Wiley? Is there anybody out there writing a column like Tony Kornheiser did 20 years ago? Is the Republic going to fall if nobody can turn a phrase like Barry Lorge did? No, but I like that.

It’s just different. The biggest development: Beat writers don’t watch the game. They’re tweeting. When I was at the Post, I told the beat writers, ‘Would you put that down and watch the game.’ They’re sending the editors the inactives just before kickoff. For what? It’s going to be on TV in two minutes. It’s hard to do all that and then produce great writing.

It's easy to mock Wilbon, but it's hard to pin him down. He spends about two-thirds of the interview arguing that sportswriting's not as good as it was, and the other third saying it's no worse, but merely different.

It's certainly different. But I would argue that it's actually better.

Is there less great writing -- that is, beautiful sentences and finely wrought paragraphs -- than, say, 30 years ago? Actually, I'm not sure about that. If there really was a Golden Age of Sports Writing, I suspect it was in the 1960s and '70s. I know it's fashionable to say that the Golden Age was whenever you were growing up, but sometimes there really is a Golden Age of something. The Golden Age of Stealing Bases was in the 1980s. The Golden Age of Disco Music was in the 1970s. Sometimes factors combine to make something particularly strong. And there was a lot of damn good writing about sports in the 1960s and '70s.

There's still a lot of damn good writing about sports. But our attention spans our shorter, our educations less focused on great literature. So it wouldn't surprise me at all if sportswriters today were less literate, maybe a bit less willing to challenge the readers. Which is lamentable.

But look what we've gained! Writers are much smarter than they've ever been AND there are a lot more of them, thanks to the Internet. Like Wilbon, I'm not all that impressed by "news" ... but "information"? Yes please and thank you sir may I have another? Nobody's forcing information down my gullet, but boy I sure do enjoy knowing it's there when I want it. If you're a sports fan who wants to read about your team or your sport, you've got more choices than ever. How can this not be a good thing? A better thing, even?

Yes, I enjoy a good turn of phrase as much as anyone. And while I might not find many of those during my daily rounds of the sporting press, there's hardly any shortage of them in the world. For those, we've got The New Yorker and a practically infinite number of other magazines, not to mention novels past and present.

Anyway, it might well be a false choice. I suspect there's just as much brilliant writing about sports as ever, but that the market for that sort of thing is smaller than it was. Which means you have to look a little harder for it. I think what's really tripped up Wilbon isn't a decline in great writing, but a decline in great writing where he used to find it.

It's still around, though. These days, everything's around. You just gotta want it badly enough. And sometimes it's just easier to imagine it's gone, and give up.

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