Pity the sportswriter

As the Super Bowl approaches, remember: Sportswriters may well have the hardest job in journalism

It’s blasphemous, I know, but being a sportswriter is one of the hardest—if not the trickiest—jobs in journalism.

I’ll be thinking on Sunday about those 8,000 stories I wrote for The New York Times, and how I won’t have to come up with an early, running, and final piece for the Super Bowl—not to mention dash to the locker room past a crowd of more than 80,000 people, getting quotes from either glum (the losers) or happy (the winners) guys who could squash me with their fists.

The other folks at The New York Times used to call us the toy department. But what I discovered during my 40-something years writing sports was that, when I wrote about an event that wasn’t strictly sports, it was an easier assignment.

As surprising as it may seem to the non-sportswriter, we are not born with a distinct knowledge of the difference among the foil, epee, and sabre in fencing. Nor did we grow up with the arcane language of figure-skating, appreciating an axel jump or a camel spin—telling a good one from a bad one.

But beyond the expertise is this: You’ve got to write a darn-good story as well, incorporating adjectives and knowledge, avoiding the clich├ęs that infect much of sports reporting, and do it all under a tight deadline.

In fact, in journalism, many of the most famous ledes were in sports stories, not war stories or book reviews, or writing about fires. I loved, for example, John Lardner’s profile of the middleweight boxing champion:

Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.

And what about Red Smith’s conveying the awe in his coverage of Bobby Thomson’s bottom-of-the-ninth home run that brought the New York Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

So The Times sent me to Palm Beach to cover polo. Prince Philip was playing, and I had to write about it as if I knew what I was talking about and could convey the excitement and the aura of the sport. Now, this may be hard to believe, but in my little shtetl hometown of East New York, Brooklyn, home to immigrants, pushcart peddlers, mom-and-pop stores, and apartment houses, I never saw anyone playing polo in a vacant lot.

Did you know that at half-time at a polo match, everyone leaves the stands, walks onto the field amid the manure and clumps of dirt, and smoothes things out? It’s called divot stomping. Yes, those ladies in the floppy yellow hats and high heels pick up the divots kicked up by the horses and pat them down, joined by their gentlemen friends in blazers, who wipe their hands on their breast-pocket handkerchiefs.

My great old friend, Mike Katz, former sports editor of the late International Herald Tribune, prided himself on never driving a car. It wasn’t merely that he didn’t have a license—he just didn’t know to drive. So what did The Times make him? He was the auto-racing writer, and a terrific one. He’d be writing about down-shifting and drafting and radial tires—in addition to the often-bizarre lifestyles of the good ole boys who did this sort of thing.

What our ignorance of sports such as auto-racing, or knowing the difference between squash tennis and squash racquets (not to mention court tennis) did was make us better journalists—for it forced us to ask questions. Even simple, seemingly stupid questions.

Along the way, my vocabulary was increased with the use of “dedans”—you know, an overhang in court tennis, a carryover from the days when tennis was played in the castle courtyard. By the way, did you know that in paddle tennis, someone takes a tennis ball, sticks a hypodermic needle in it, and lets the air out until it bounces no higher than 31 inches when dropped from a height of six feet?

I’m showing off—these are some of the other sports I’ve covered during my intriguing career. I came to each of them knowing nothing: Gaelic football (you must not switch hands while running with the ball), bull-riding, Olympic wrestling, gymnastics, figure skating, cricket, surfing.

But I also discovered that, in some of these offbeat sports, the athletes and their coaches will appreciate it if you put yourself at their mercy, admitting you know little or nothing about the rules and just what it is they do.

But I took a chance when it came to covering football, when the paper asked me to become the Jets writer in 1975. Joe Namath was still the nationally known quarterback for a team that had fallen into disrepair, and it had been half a dozen years since his Super Bowl victory. What could I say to this jaded athlete? I figured, honestly is the best policy.

“Hi, Joe,” I said, during my first day of training camp. “My name’s Jerry Eskenazi. I’m going to be covering the Jets for The New York Times, and I don’t know anything about football.” (It wasn’t entirely true, but I did have to ask the Daily News beat guy just what a tight end was.)

Joe laughed, and stuck out his hand. And for years afterward, whenever Joe would see me, he’d introduce me to people by saying, “He was an honest sportswriter. He told me he didn’t understand anything about football.”

Joe said that in a good way. But over the years, athletes who have been unhappy with the way they’ve been described by sportswriters often complain that we never played the game—and thus couldn’t possibly be in a position to criticize them when they failed at something. I wonder if Van Cliburn felt that way about a negative music review, or Nureyev complained about a critique of his dancing.

I turned the tables once at a press conference for a big harness race, where somehow the organizers had managed to get that 1960s sex symbol, Jayne Mansfield, to show up at the luncheon. She turned out to be quite clever and enjoyed the banter about her image. Then I asked her a sports question:

“Do you know the difference in harness racing between a trotter and a pacer?”

Without hesitation, she replied, breathlessly, “No—but as long as they do, isn’t that all that matters?”

Thanks, Jayne, for that quote. And by the way, a trotter is diagonally gaited while a pacer has a lateral gait.

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Gerald Eskenazi produced 8,000 bylines in more than 40 years with The New York Times , in addition to writing 16 books. He now lectures on sports and the news media.