I spent the last few years working on a biography of Red Grange, a football player who played in the 1920s. In my research, I studied a century’s worth of sports writing, from W. C. Heinz and Red Smith to Hunter S. Thompson. As I read through yellowed newspapers, I encountered descriptive writing, clever word play, references to Shakespeare, the Bible, heroic couplets—and a wise eye toward human nature. I could see, smell, and hear these games. And when the stars played poorly, the writers didn’t soften the language leaving their Underwoods. They were not glorified flaks, as they are now often portrayed. Thompson, for instance, would study game film with NFL players to better understand their athletic choices.
Sports journalism has had its failings—homerism, winking at behavior that should have been scrutinized, and turning a blind eye to racial inequality, to name a few. The biggest story of modern sports is performance-enhancing drugs, a story which has been subject to some uneven coverage. While there were whisperings in the press, and Sports Illustrated bravely highlighted the issue in 2002, I wonder if Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal would have gotten past Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler, Heinz et al. My bet? Through their dogged reporting and descriptions of the players’ ridiculously bulked-up frames, the juicing would have been exposed early on.
The sports section is called the “toy department” by those who think its mission is more fun than consequential. But go to any major sporting event and you’ll see that the importance of sports to our culture is obvious; they are part of people’s dreams, of how they define themselves. The sports pages used to hold the honor as one of the best-written and best-reported sections in a newspaper. It’s important for sports, for newspapers, and for our society that they recapture that mantle.