Sports features don’t need to be written so neutrally

RamonesI don’t know about you, but I get bored pretty damned easily, which is evident by the scant number of posts I’ve planted here during the past few years, by the constant changes to my classes, and by the way I constantly re-arrange my offices (and this blog). My wife loves to tell the story, while wiping a faux tear from her face, about the time I uttered this heart-melting romantic line to her: “You’re the only thing I’ve never been bored with.” Yes, ladies, grab some tissues. But it’s true. More than 27 years later, she’s still my sweetie.

After 20 years of journalism, I also grew bored with writing in third-person objective even though it is a terrific approach to neutrally report news, such as Prince dying 10 minutes ago. When news breaks, readers want basic info related to who, what, where, when, why and how. [So far, we have learned that Prince had been hospitalized last week related, it appears, to the flu.] But soon thereafter, readers want analysis, opinion and context. After decades of  getting hemmed in by objective reporting standards, I needed a change, which is why I used first-person to write Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot.

Today’s best sports writing takes chances, refraining from the same, tired approaches for non-breaking news stories. Take this piece by Bleacher Report on Noah Spence, where writer Brandon Sneed guides us through the story of a young football player struggling to overcome a dubious early college career at Ohio State in order to perform well and get drafted in the NFL Draft. In the piece, Sneed assesses Spence’s past problems, his NFL Combine efforts along with his own efforts to get the big guy to talk. Sneed tells the story more like a columnist than as a reporter.

I love the way Sneed assesses the reporting process here, which is both instructive to young sports journalists and illuminating to sports fans:

But that’s not why everyone is here today. No, we’re here because Noah was at Ohio State until he was banned from the Big Ten two years ago after failing two drug tests for using Molly, the powdered version of Ecstasy.

So now, more than just about any other college kid trying to land a job after graduation, he is growing up in front of what sometimes seems like the whole world. At the combine, he had to answer question after question about the partying and the drugs.

That’s also why I’m here—because Spence is likely going to be very good in the NFL, but mostly because his people, namely his publicist, said he’ll answer my questions.

Everyone’s talking about his game, but also, maybe even mostly, they’re talking about the story surrounding his game: the great athlete fallen from grace, reborn in a humble new place, now redeemed and ready to tell his tale so kids might be cautioned and the world inspired. And maybe also, you know, so his reputation can improve, and his draft stock can rise along the way.

This all lines up with the tattoo on his chest, the one he’s told nobody about, but one that I’ve been told he earnestly believes: “All things work together for good for those that love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.

The next morning at quarter to 11, I go to the Eastern Kentucky weight room. Spence’s publicist scheduled an interview, just me and Noah, from 11 to 12. He’s already waiting, wearing black sweats and a blue hoodie that pulls tight against his chest, arms and shoulders. We shake hands. He’s a big guy: 6’2″, about 250 pounds. Not huge for what he does, though he knows that. Still. Big.

We sit at a table just outside the weight room and start talking. We’d met briefly the day before, at his pro day. He had been reserved, but I figured it was because he was focused. But now he still seems less than enthusiastic—he’s kind and accommodating, but seems uncomfortable, as though he’s forcing this. Then, after 10 minutes, a woman pops her head out of the room and says, “Ready when you are.”

She’s a producer for some NFL Films show. They’re scheduled to interview him at noon, but apparently they’re ready now. And so is Noah. It seems his publicist is more eager for him to talk than he is. But he tells me he’s just ready to get the day over with so he can get back to bed. Sick and all. We’ll talk later, he promises as he gives me his number, and then I fly home.

When we talk again two days later, he says he’s feeling better, but, “Man, honestly, is there, like…” he pauses. “I don’t know, man. I just kind of want this story to go away.”

I tell him that we all went into this with the agreement that he wanted to tell his story, and it’d be nice if he followed through on his end so I can do the job I’ve agreed to do—but also, if he’s changed his mind, then, you know, as a human being, I understand.

He’s the one having to grow up in public. And isn’t there something inherently weird about that? You’re a college kid just trying to get your career started, and that process is being meticulously documented? And lots of strangers are talking and talking about it? That’s weird, right?

“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “It’s pretty weird when you really think about it.”

So, yeah. We can talk or not, dude. Your call.

“I just thought after the combine interviews and all that, that’d be the last time I had to talk about it. And I’m seeing that it’s not. I talk about it everywhere, all the time. Anytime I have to talk about something, that’s always what I have to talk about.”

Yeah. That would suck, to have to keep reliving your failures. But also, I’m going to have to write something.

He sighs. OK, he says—we’ll talk in a couple of weeks. “My word is my word,” he says. He just needs a break. Talk to the others I’m going to talk to first, he says. He even gives me numbers. His high school coach, some of his old, good friends, his Ohio State roommate.

I get the expected takes from everyone involved. They hit all the right beats, making Noah sound like a great kid who did something stupid, then stopped doing the stupid thing, and now lives cursed by its shadow because we live in a world where everyone likes to talk about everything. They want people like him to tell everything about themselves, too.

Of course, it’s all really only because he happens to be super good at football. He’s the only player to ever start every game, all four years, on the varsity squad at Bishop McDevitt High School in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Sneed also writes candidly, unafraid to address drug usage – or his own opinion on Spence’s amazing ability to make all-conference during his sophomore season at Ohio State after recording 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, and earning academic all-conference with a 3.0 GPA. Can you imagine the following passage making its way into a mainstream print publication?

“That he did all of that while taking Ecstasy every weekend is sort of superhuman. Not to glorify the use of illegal drugs, but there’s a reason people can usually tell when someone is on them. They tend to wipe you out.”

There is much in this story for both young writers seeking to veer creatively from inverted pyramid style and for readers desiring to know as much as possible about a tremendously talented kid trying to overcome some past indiscretions. Great stuff.

If you’re looking for another terrific approach to writing features, check out “The Curse of the Ramones” in this week’s edition of Rolling Stone, which relies on historical documents (books, articles, interviews) to deliver insights into the band members’ early years 40 years after the New York punk rockers broke onto the scene. In many ways, this story is like a research paper, but one worth reading thanks to the writers’ strong voice, depth of knowledge and ability to offer context. If you don’t revisit (or download) classics such as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Rockaway Beach,” or “California Sun” after reading this piece, you might need to be sedated yourself, and not in a good way.

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About jgisondi

I covered sports and worked as a sports copy editor for more than 20 years at several newspapers in Florida, including the Fort Myers News-Press, Clearwater Sun, Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. I started writing for a weekly sports publication in Coral Springs, Fla., at age 15. I have been hooked on sports journalism ever since. I was fortunate to have worked with some amazing editors along the way, journalists who took the time to help me even when my copy was not top-notch. Now, I teach journalism at Eastern Illinois University and work as an editor for Landof10.com, a vertical that focuses on Big Ten athletics. A second edition of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports" will be available sometime in February 2017. The book is a practical guide to preparing, observing, interviewing and writing about 20 different sports, from auto racing to wrestling. Chapters also address ways to cover high school sports, fantasy sports, to develop sports blogs. You can also learn how to cover games, to write features and to interview better. Fans can also learn basic rules of these sports, along with ways to better observe the action. New chapters in the second edition will address social media, advanced analytics, fantasy sports coverage and revised, expanded chapters address game coverage, features and columns, among other new sections.
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