Also likely to be lost is the identification of a particular team or season with a writer, an aspect of sports’ arguably unique ability to bring a city together. Washington football fans still talk about the pieces Kornheiser wrote in 1991 on the city’s slow but sure acceptance of the notion that the Redskins were Super Bowl contenders. They are known as the “bandwagon” articles, as Kornheiser wrote week after week about jumping aboard the proverbial vehicle with both feet, all the way to a title. Kornheiser perfectly captured the mood of the city, from cautious optimism to justified confidence.
More often, the columnist writes for the livid fan; he becomes the lightning rod for the collective anguish of a city when expectations are not met. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News shared a Shakespearean relationship with the New York Yankees as they floundered under George Steinbrenner’s tyrannical ownership in the 1980s. His fearless pounding of the team and its buffoonish boss, despite criticism and intimidation from the Yankees, spoke for the countless fans suffering through a long and embarrassing stretch of mediocre baseball.
It isn’t easy to find contemporary examples of this tight relationship between columnist and local fans. When you do, it more often than not will be in the midsize city with fewer professional teams, where columnists such as Jason Whitlock and Joe Posnanski of The Kansas City Star and Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch can concentrate on the city’s one or two true obsessions—like Chiefs football and Cardinals baseball; they have the time and the mandate to tuck into their teams and their towns. (Whitlock, it’s worth mentioning, has managed the rare feat of staying abreast of local sports-world doings for the Star while also writing thoughtful pieces on the national scene for AOL and foxsports.com.)
Once upon a time, the sports columnist was considered the paper’s expert on the local teams as well as national issues. He or she was also expected to be a regular presence in the press box and the locker room, actually spending time with the players and coaches who provided the fodder for the columns. As the situations of Kornheiser and Le Batard attest, the current thinking among many columnists is that sports is best covered from a detached reserve, preferably one that doesn’t involve missing American Idol. Nuance and complexity don’t work as well as irony and sarcasm on TV and talk radio, and the reporting muscles have atrophied in the face of the extra money and workload. Ironically, the more a columnist becomes a multiple platform “personality,” the less connected to the actual games and teams he seems to be. Today’s best columnists are easily identifiable—they are the ones who don’t consider interacting with athletes something to be avoided. T. J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, for example, gets interesting and hilarious columns merely by getting in the face of cosseted players like Kobe Bryant. It’s not surprising that Simers was fired from Around the Horn, ESPN’s show for shouting sportswriters, after a brief stint.
As Jason McIntyre, who blogs about sports and the media at The Big Lead, told me in an e-mail:
Perhaps it is complacency, or the fact that they have a TV or radio show to prepare for, but columnists seem to be drifting further from one of the basic tenets of journalism—cultivating sources and breaking news. If access is one of the things that supposedly separates newspaper journalists from the masses who flock to blogs and message boards, what good is that access if the columnists aren’t using it?