Examining sportswriting: Reasons to keep game stories; columnists becoming cliched

I wanted to share a couple of good pieces that look at modern sportswriting.

Roy Peter Clark writing at Poytner.org makes the case for keeping game stories:

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post.  His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Goff’s story for more than a month now.  I am about to X-ray it for you to reveal what I think makes it special.  You can read it now.

It is worth reading Clark’s breakdown of Goff’s story, which includes this passage:

The phrase that stands for me is: “the Brazilians looked like a team of schoolboys new to the sport.” The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.

Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing.  What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective. There are moments when the skillful writer can merge the elements of information and judgment, the kind of move we might expect from a Frank Rich reviewing a Broadway play or a presidential debate.

Clark has a good point about Goff’s story. However, most games don’t have the historical impact and scope of a World Cup semifinal. The majority of them are White Sox-Texas in the dog days of August. In those cases, the traditional gamer doesn’t work anymore. That’s why we’re seeing alternatives.


Jason Gay examined the modern sports column in a column for the Wall Street Journal:

Is this the greatest sports column ever written?

It is most definitely not. It’s not even the second-best, third-best or even the sixth-best. It is modestly possible that this sports column could be somewhere between the seventh- and eighth-best ever written, but please, the resolution and final number is meaningless. This is not a sports column about answers. It is only about the questions.

Can the Seahawks repeat?

Did Big Papi disrespect baseball?

Is Andrew Luck now elite?

Is Tom Brady no longer elite?

Did LeBron Make a Mistake?

Will the World Cup skip Russia?

Could Manny Pacquiao beat a shark?

Is Messi Overrated?

Is golf dead?

Do the Cubs still play baseball?

Had enough? Are you intrigued—or simply annoyed?

Chances are you are used to it. We are amid the Great Socratic era of sport. There is no lust for answers; it’s all about the queries. The teasers. The open-enders. The argument-starters. (And, if we’re being fair, some good old-fashioned nonsense, and ludicrous fallacies.)

Later he writes:

The great/insidious thing about these questions is that the debate can be endless. The worst thing that can happen to a sports debate, of course, is a resolution. You watch the Spurs play the Miami Heat, and they’ve answered the question. The Spurs can beat the Miami Heat. Soundly. Yowza.

But could the Spurs beat the 1984 Celtics? Could they beat the ’96 Bulls? The 74 B.C. Romans? The ’68 Stones? Now those are questions without a resolution. It’s like The Smiths vs. The Cure. Rod Lavers versus Stan Smiths. Pancakes versus Waffles.
We’ve all engaged this maddening monster. I’ve definitely done it. It’s fun. And the reliable defense is that we’re simply trying to replicate conversations that happen all the time in public—like around a grill at a barbecue. (Of course, there is only one question I’ve ever had around a grill at a barbecue, and that is, How Long Do I Have to Keep that Corn on the Grill?)

So where this rate among all-time posts?

One thought on “Examining sportswriting: Reasons to keep game stories; columnists becoming cliched

  1. He’s got a point. Many, many of these stories particularly on web sites don’t actually report or tell you anything. Many are all about “lists”… the purpose being to start arguments and get page hits.

    That’s not “journalism” in my opinion.

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