Sportswriting, circa 1952: Three scribes walk into a bar. They drink. They banter with the bartender about the pennant race. They drink some more. They talk with some stiffs about an upcoming prizefight. They drink some more. At the end of the night, they pay the tab and usually go home.
Sportswriting, circa 1992: Three scribes walk into a television studio. They shout about spoiled athletes. Go to commercial. They moan about the rotten state of sports. Go to commercial. They whine about Deion Sanders. Go to commercial. At the end of the show, they get paid and always go home.
Every time you look up these days, typists are talking. Sportswriters on TV have become as common as rats in a drain. The ink-stained wretches—who used to be fleet of foot only when it came to a free buffet—are now sprinting into line to collect cash for conversation.
They show up on pregame shows and halftime reports. They've even made it to the networks and ESPN as regular talking heads.
And, boy, can they talk! Sportswriters have become the insurance salesmen of the 1990s: You don't ever want to get stuck in an elevator with one.
Cable, that video junkyard, is the natural home for most reporters and columnists. Three panel shows can be seen nationally: ESPN's The Sports Reporters, BET's Budweiser Sports Report and SportsChannel's The Sports Writers on TV. (Warning: Do not adjust your sets. Most of the men on these shows are a bit overweight, a tad unkempt and badly dressed. Of course, the exception is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S own svelte, kempt, natty Rick Telander, who appears on SportsChannel.) Many of the panelists are bright, congenial and genuinely funny; others are just Bill Conlin and John Feinstein.
Of course, sportswriters should be read and not seen. But they've realized that TV, in addition to offering financial benefits, validates their authority. And, curiously, just when many writers are preaching that Deion must choose between sports, these same pundits are reaching out to other mediums in record numbers.
The Boston Globe has graduated the most multimedia, marquee players: Bud Collins (NBC), Peter Gammons (ESPN), Will McDonough (NBC) and Lesley Visser (CBS), as well as Bob Ryan and Jackie MacMullan (The Sports Reporters). At any given time at The Globe, half the writers are on deadline, the other half are in makeup.
Heck, I even called the SI offices last week to talk to any editor or writer, but they were all out taping their own public-access talk shows. (Incidentally, I never go on TV myself, but that's largely for security reasons.)
Once upon a time, sportswriters hated television. They resented how it influenced events. They resented how cameras pushed them toward the rear of press conferences. They resented how the medium diminished their role as conveyors of information. Most of all, they resented TV's on-air stars who made much more money for much less work.
But finally, the dirty little secret is out: They all wanted to be sportscasters.