Some readers of this blog may know that, at one point in my (then) young life, I had wanted to become a sportswriter. However, following an encounter with a then-outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, who advised me in the mid-1960s, that, as a woman, I would have a tough row to hoe, I never pursued that career. Instead, I pursued writing through radio news and public relations/marketing/media relations.
Then, after I retired from my “day” job, I decided to write Empty Seats, a coming-of-age novel focusing on three aspiring young baseball players who tried to make the leap from minor league baseball to “The Show”–Major League Baseball–in 1972. The book wasn’t only about baseball; it tackled a number of social issues as well. However, baseball was the predominant theme throughout the novel. (A sequel to Empty Seats is in the works and, I hope, will be out by the end of 2023.)
What does all this have to do with the headline here?
Even though I never became a professional sportswriter, I have always read what I consider to be outstanding sportswriting–Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessey, Chad Finn, Jackie McMillan, and Alex Speir of The Boston Globe, Doug Glavin’s occasional baseball pieces in The New York Times, Christopher Clarey’s reporting on grand slam tennis events, Tyler Kepner, James Wagner, and, of course, Red Smith, all from The New York Times as well. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is filled with outstanding journalistic efforts from sports journalists.
What has always distinguished these writers from run-of-the-mill sportswriters who only report scores and don’t try to go deeper than win/loss records is that these sports journalists communicate the feeling behind sports. Why do so many people even care about sports if they don’t play professionally? What kind of a grind does a person have to endure to even be considered a professional, and how many do or don’t make it? What kind of psychological toll does it take on a pro athlete when he or she is traded from one team to another? And what happens when a pro athlete like Brittany Greiner is taken prisoner by an authoritarian government and is used as a political pawn?
There’s so much more to sports reporting than standings, who’s got the best batting average, earned run average, sacks in football, goals in soccer, you name it. Statistics have always been–and will always be–part of sports, because, after all, there are always winners and losers. However, people who play sports professionally are just that–people–and the reporters for major outlets such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe go the extra mile to get to that humanity behind the bat, glove, pigskin, puck, or whatever accessory needed to play a specific sport.
As a subscriber to The New York Times (and The Boston Globe, for that matter), I was devastated to learn that the NYT is disbanding its sports reporting desk and will “assign all reporters to other places within the newspaper.” The NYT has acquired The Athletic, a daily sports newsletter, and will turn its sports reporting duties over to those reporters.
Sports reporting is different from general assignment or political reporting, and, in my opinion, the NYT is setting those experienced, technically proficient, intuitive sports reporters up to fail by re-assigning them to other places within the organization. A sports reporter covering NYC Fashion Week? Changes in the NY Stock exchange? Economic trends, vis-a-vis potential upcoming recession? Climate change? Seriously?
True confessions here: I subscribe to The Athletic as well. It serves a purpose: To keep readers up on scores and trends (“Hey! What was the launch angle of Shohei Ohtani’s latest home run? Was it a record for him”). But in-depth reporting? Human-interest sports? Psychology of professional sports? Not so much.
The Athletic also serves sports fans who love to bet on sports (of which I am not one), because it provides statistics and predictions for various teams and sports. It’s sad if that’s what The New York Times believes is important, and if that’s what the management believes will help the organization earn more money in the long run.
Essentially, in the end, the NYT lost money on its acquisition of The Athletic, so who pays the price? Not only the readers but also the writers who have served us so well for lo these many years.
One comment under a posting I saw online said, “Good riddance to another ‘woke’ sports department.” Really? Is that what this has become? Yet another political division between the “woke” and “unwoke”? How about a division between people who enjoy different levels of reading about sports? And why insult the writers who have done an outstanding job (including several Pulitzers, I might add)? I know. It’s the bottom line. That’s where we are now and, it seems, always will be.