Spoiled Sports
What ever happened to the definitive section of the newspaper?


The other day, I was reading my morning newspaper (remember them?) and the front-page was giving me the usual feeling of sour dread. There was the Washington sex scandal that would not go away, the election that could not come soon enough, the war that will never end, and … too much.

I turned to the sports for some relief.

There was a time when you could count on the sports section for news that was at least conclusive. Somebody won and somebody lost. One player was the hero; another the goat. And, in the golden days of sports writing, you could find prose that would transport you and give you that sublime feeling that comes with understanding something true about the world. Reading Red Smith, say, or W. C. Heinz was like reading a good novel (remember them?). You read them for the real news; for the truths they caught, in prose, about the human condition. If you have never read the piece Murray Kempton wrote for the New York Post after Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, then do yourself a mercy. Kempton, of course, was a genius, and, typical of him, he chose to write about the losing pitcher in that game, Sal Maglie of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The piece has been anthologized as often as Hemingway’s The Big Two Hearted River and for the same reason. It is immortal.

There are still gifted writers working the sports pages. Tom Boswell, for one, makes the Washington Post worth the price. But something has happened to the sports pages. You don’t get the old feeling of clarity when you read them these days. Maybe it is because the games are all on television, and even if you miss them, the scores are there on ESPN, where you can catch up on who won and lost while you are shaving.

So the stories on the sports pages are now about this other stuff.

For instance, there was the story that caught my eye when I had fled from the front page. It was all about how Michelle Wie had fired her agent and hired a new one. This in a year when she had already fired her caddy and hired a new one.

Well, now, how about that.

It’s news, I suppose, that a teenaged girl, a golfer who hasn’t won anything yet, is making some personnel changes in her retinue. But somehow, it just didn’t give me the lift I’d once counted on from the sports pages. Wie is news because of her talent and her youth and her gender. Otherwise, she is dull as soap. Just another programmed, money-machine athlete. She has never said anything especially colorful or unexpected and probably never will. So we might as well read about her agent and endorsement deals. Which is about as satisfying as reading the nutritional information on a package of cereal.

The University of Miami football team was also in the news.  But not for its blowout win over Florida International. Seems that during the game there had been a brawl that was ugly even by Miami standards … if Miami football can be said to have standards. The endlessly replayed video of the fight caught one Miami player wading into the melee swinging his helmet like a club and another stomping on a rival who was down on the ground. In an especially apt touch, there were 700 kids in the stands who had been invited as part of a police supported “Join-a-Team, Not-a-Gang” program.

Vastly more time and ink was spent covering the brawl and its aftermath than was devoted to the actual game. Miami’s head coach, Larry Coker, called the episode “disgraceful.” He could have been Nancy Pelosi talking about that Republican who got in trouble over his fondness for pages. But Coker than went on to say, “We have great kids in this program. They’re not good kids. They are great kids.”

Coker suspended a bunch of those “great kids” for Miami’s next game, which is, conveniently, against Duke. (You may supply your own lacrosse joke here.) The university president, Donna Shalala, wrote an open letter calling the fight “outrageous.” But she backed Coker on the suspensions, which many considered slightly less lenient than the 28 months Lynne Stewart got for serving as a messenger for her client, an imprisoned terrorist. (It is possible that Scooter Libby will do more time than Stewart.)  

Shalala was in Clinton’s cabinet, and he famously assured her that there was nothing to the Monica Lewinsky business. So she learned stonewalling from the master. There is an art to it, and one component is to strike a pose of courage when you are doing something weak or duplicitous. So during a press conference, Shalala shook her fist and declared, “This university will be firm and punish people who do bad things. But we will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in the public square. I will not eliminate their participation at the university. I will not take away their scholarships.”

Cynics might have wondered just what audience this oration was meant for. Big donors to universities have been known to take an inordinate interest in football. After Duke, things get a little more serious with games against Georgia Tech and Boston College, among others. Miami is struggling and need wins to get to one of those major bowl games, which, as it happens, bring big bucks.

There were, of course, other stories on the sports page. A pitcher for the Chicago White Sox was being questioned after a shooting in the Dominican Republic. And, the cops were considering arrests after a brawl at the end of the Dartmouth/Holy Cross football game.

Dartmouth. Holy Cross.

It was enough to make the old-fashioned fan long for one of those feel-good stories about steroids. Or something about the soap opera Dallas starring T.O., Bill Parcells, Jerry Jones, and Drew Bledsoe.

The Cowboys play the Giants next Monday night, so the wait won’t be long.

 Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.