The Associated Press Managing Editors' sports committee report, which provided the basis of the article, What's with the Sports Page? (SI, April 6), was a disservice to newspaper sportswriting on two counts: 1) the answers to the questionnaire were anonymous; 2) rather than presenting a true picture, it was a confession by a few faultfinding managing editors of their failure to correct subpar performance on their own sports staffs.
Main allegations were slanting of news because of too much personal interest in home teams and too close association with sports figures; nonpursuit of many behind-the-scenes stories due to influences of sports management; surface writing and acceptance of publicity releases rather than digging for stories; general deterioration of sportswriting.
Any managing editor who will go to the files of his own newspaper, study and compare the sportswriting and sports coverage of today with that of 20 and 30 and 40 years ago—and conclude that today's is inferior—is working for an incredibly sorry newspaper.
Sportswriting probably has progressed more than any department of the newspaper. One reason is that it had more room to progress; the sports pages of yesteryear, for the most part, were regarded as necessary evils and assigned to some editorial staffer to handle in his spare time. As for the individual writer or columnist, for every four or five standouts such as the oft-mentioned Pegler, McGeehan, Gallico and Rice of the 1920s and McLemore of the 1930s, all in New York City, today there are 50—and not all in New York.
Most noticeable general improvement is the decline in partisanship for the home team. (Again, check the files.) Today's sportswriter has less chance than anybody on the newspaper to get away with unfairness. And I take sharp issue with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S statement: "The political reporter may be no less partisan than the sportswriter...but he is trained and disciplined to keep his partisanship in check where news is concerned." Anyone who can say that just hasn't observed closely the reporting of political campaigns where rival newspapers support opposing candidates. It is generally accepted that almost anything is fair in politics; sport, on the other hand, is quick to outlaw any piece of unfairness that can be covered by a rule, and there's virtually no chance for a flagrant violation of the code of sportsmanship to go undetected and undenounced. Some of this has to rub off on a sports reporter.
By its very nature, sports reporting demands enthusiasm more than cynicism. The trick is to govern this enthusiasm so that the sports reporter can be on the side of the home team and still have an unobscured view of the visiting team's virtues.
It is my firm belief, in the realm of human frailty, that the sportswriter is no frailer than the managing editor. He is no more likely to defer to coaches or to sports management, for the sake of maintaining cordial relationships, than a managing editor is likely to shut off one of his best news sources by inconsiderate treatment. The sportswriter may be even less inclined to do so, for prime news sources are more vital to Page One of a newspaper than to the sports section. The informed sports editor of today knows that an exclusive sports story, welcome and gratifying as it may be, isn't nearly so valuable now as it was in a less hurried era when readers had time to remember which newspaper had scored the scoop. Present subscribers are more conscious of consistently pungent features. An exceptionally gifted columnist can "carry" an otherwise ordinary sports page which meets every standard of objective reporting. Some columns and features require more thought, more time, more touch than the diggingest scoop; however, if a press agent is sharp enough to make his blurb validly amusing or informative, it shouldn't be passed up simply because he has an angle. Almost everyone, in and out of sports, is interested in the success of something.
In the over-all circumstances of happiness in which games are played and enjoyed, sports produce an inordinate lot of fun for the participants and for the spectators, and I believe that many people who turn to the sports pages regularly do so because there is so little fun to be found anywhere else in the newspaper.
It is quite possible for sportswriters to have fun—more fun than managing editors—and still do a good job, without developing a single chink in their integrity. And I have a full measure of respect for managing editors; so many of them used to be sportswriters.
SPORTS EDITOR RUSSELL won first annual Sportsmanship Brotherhood plaque (right) for outstanding sports reporting in the Grantland Rice tradition.