Saturday, June 12, 2010

Great moments in OMF: Non-sports columnists columnizing on sports

(Moral of the story: Anything only known to us through black-and-white photos and film footage, probably not relevant to the present day.)

It seldom ceases to amaze why columnists who are not on a sports beat get to waste ever-shrinking newspaper space writing about sports. It almost always ends in mental cutaways to Barbara Bush saying to a reporter, "I'm embarrassed for you," or Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski bellowing, "Donny, you're out of your element!" That alone is usually enough to say, don't bother with behind-the-curvers.

Still, you wonder why someone such a columnist at the Toronto Star gets to cliché-monger his way through a fine whine about the Toronto Maple Leafs having the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought among the Original Six teams, since the Chicago Blackhawks won for the first time in 48 seasons. It also covers a twit typist for the Ottawa Citizen using the World Cup as a device to betray his own aging white guy insecurity by recycling feeble footy jokes about "let's go to Nairobi to find out how to make a soccer ball out of garbage" and "stay tuned for Ghana versus Serbia!"

There are people who pull off the cross-over. Stephen Brunt can touch on universal themes through his books and columns. Earl McRae, whom it was privilege to count as a colleague, could do it with aplomb. There are people who are shifted from sports to "city side" to plug a hole. It's a very short list, though.

The practice could be justified by saying, "Well, sports affects people's lives and the mood of a city and everyone is entitled to an opinion." Anyone who writes a column eventually resorts to writing one about how they have no use for a particular sport (if memory serves, someone wrote a "I choose not to golf" column for the Simcoe Reformer one time, but at least it ran in the appropriate section).

It never goes the other way, though. A sports columnist does not get to say, "Screw writing about the Senators' salary cap situation. Today, I am writing about light-rail transit even though I am barely acquainted with the details and the paper has people with a much firmer grasp of the subject. It affects Senators' fans lives and everyone is entitled to an opinion."

Besides, most of the time, when the columnist ranges into sports, it's a gong show. Take it away, Royson James:
"Consider, since the likes of Frank Mahovolich and Red Kelly and Ted Kennedy, hockey’s best players have not worn the blue and white. Canada’s Team — the grand and glorious Maple Leafs — has failed to sign a single one of the game’s greatest players during all those championship-empty years.

"Wayne Gretzky may consider this his NHL home city, but Leaf team owners managed to scuttle any chance The Great One would skate for the home side. Bobby Orr, Mark Messier, Pavel Bure, Teemu Selanne, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the most spectacular talents shone elsewhere. Leaf fans settled for Darryl Sittler, Mats Sundin and Doug Gilmour."
Talk about a flagrant misread — which teams did the transcendent stars of the 1950s and '60s such as Maurice Richard, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Jean BĂ©liveau play for again? HockeyDB also has no listing of a "Mahovolich."

A cursory understanding a sports history, which granted is not a job requirement for laying out pages in either Toronto or India, would suggest it is folly to compare the Original Six days with the modern 21- to 30-team NHL. The Leafs of yore were one of just six teams. In those days before the entry draft, they had right of first refusal on any player in the richest and most populous region of essentially the lone country scouted by the NHL. All that, and Bobby Orr ended up in Boston. Speaking only as smugly as someone not yet alive may, it is a wonder the Leafs captured only nine of the 25 Cups during the Original Six period.

The Montreal Canadiens, with first crack at players in the second most populous region of the same country, won 10 over the same time span. Like Harry Sinden said once, "Let me tell you about that so-called great rivalry ..."

Point being, why give space to someone who writes the Blue Jays won "back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992" and expects overworked copy-editing cats, who someday soon will be located in Sagar, would correct it to 1992 and 1993? Or thinks he's scoring debate points by referencing how the New York Yankees "routinely sign baseball's biggest names and brightest stars" without informing readers who might not follow sports religiously that Major League Baseball has no salary cap, unlike the NHL?

The same goes for Mark Sutcliffe at the Ottawa Citizen, the same guy who finds humour in the abject poverty of Nairobi, spewing about CBC's World Cup coverage. There is no need to party like P.C. thugs circa 1991 and accuse him of anything ending in -phobia. Hacky and hickish suffice.

Someone who feels it necessary to spend two good paragraphs explaining to readers Canada is not playing in the FIFA World Cup should probably see if the LCBO has that little-known English lager Shutyerwordhole on special during said FIFA World Cup.

Far be it to say Sutcliffe is writing more out of his generational discomfort than any actual knowledge. That would be a classic case of a writer creating an imaginary divide to soothe his own ego, and he's not to be bested in that Olympic event:
"What does it say about our hyphenated national identity that between Sidney Crosby's goal and the next Winter Olympic hockey tournament, this is what passes for a unifying event: Millions of Canadians enthusiastically waving the flags of other countries?

" ... Plus, the soccer audience is more urban and urbane than the typical Canadian, which might attract a different advertiser to the CBC. Hockey evokes a rural picture, with guys in mullets and lumberjack shirts sipping Tim Hortons while they watch their kids on the outdoor rink. Soccer is played by the archetype metrosexual, David Beckham."
Metrosexual? No one has used that word in three years, although in Ottawa, being three years behind the times would have ahead of the general populace by a cool decade.

Short answer, it says we live in a great country where people have an option in their rooting allegiances. It is not harmless, although it's a challenge for the Canadian Soccer Association when the national team is playing a home friendly.

However, that is a question for the soccer crowd to answer and report back to the group. Point being, people who do not know sports being allowed to embarrass their newsrooms and the trade is bad editorial policy, or old media fail. That space could be used on something more meaningful. The non-sports columnist opining on sports belongs in the Bad Idea Jeans Hall of Fame.

It also goes against the grain of a better way to do it, finding broading meaning by staying specific to a subject. Be universal by being particular. Like, no wonder this site went back to being a hobby blog, eh? That's how the mulleted Tim Hortons patrons would say it.


TheGuysmily said...

This column would be good for a hoot if it didn't cut so close to reality. You certainly hit on a real problem that exists in media--at least from my recessed position in the general, non-media community grandstand. I guess I have done a wonderful job of transitioning into my cranky-old-man years because I offer story suggestions to media outlets on a regular occasion. However, all too often I am rebuked by a program manager/news director/editor by being told that "their audience" is not interested in the details of an issue. Think about that for a moment, ". . . not interested in the details of an issue." That type of rational clearly illustrates that media is very much in the business of appealing to the lowest common denominator--the least informed--in society. Well, your blog and the CIS blog, among others, are always refreshing in response to the devolution of traditional media story tellers. Keep up the good fight and I hope you get your own column someday soon.

The former Happy Slide

Go Stangs Go

Anonymous said...

A lot of these "non sports columnists" seem to have suspect knowledge of their own supposed areas of expertise, let alone commenting intelligently on sports related issues.

Anonymous said...

You mean to tell me Royson James actually got paid to write this crap?
LOL, I bet one of his childhood heroes was "Chy Chy Rod-wee-gweez".
Speaking of, I hereby nominate James for 2010's Les Nessman award for non excellence in sports commentary...he's the front runner for sure.