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Ten Types of Sports Journalists

Having read sports journalism for almost as long as I've been alive,
I've noticed certain patterns in journalistic styles. Most journalists
try to find a voice or style very early in their careers, and they tend to
stick with it--especially if they're successful. As a public service,
I thought I'd whip up a quick guide to the various archetypes of sports
journalism from the perspective of a fan.

Sometimes it seems like sportswriters deliberately write things to
annoy the fans. Sometimes it seems like journalists bend facts to support
whatever opinion they're trying to push forward. Sometimes it seems like all
journalists have some kind of incredible bias towards or against a team
that you, the fan, either love or hate. And you know what? Sometimes you're

But there's only one mission all journalists have, no matter if it's a
newspaper, magazine or web site: make money. Sell papers or magazines.
Get hits for the web site so those advertising banners get noticed.
Journalists don't get paid to be wishy-washy; rather, they're supposed to have strong
opinions and express them in a provocative manner. This is the most important
thing to understand about sports journalists: their job is to make money
for their publication. The second thing to understand is that most sports
journalists gave up on being fans of a particular team a long time ago
(with the exception of the Homer, below). While many will hold on to certain
vestigial affections (especially for an alma mater) for teams of their
youth, the grind of covering sports on a daily basis really helps to beat that
sort of boosterism out of most journalists. Most, but not all.

The third thing to understand about sportswriting is that because of
the somewhat ephemeral nature of sports, it's harder to sell a story on
its own merits. A juicy political scandal or local interest story will
draw in anyone, but sports-related stories by their very nature lack the
kind of gravity of other areas of news. What this means is that
sportswriters will sometimes write about sports as though they are more
important than they really are (until some horrible event "puts it all in
perspective"). While I personally regard sports as something with a
great intrinsic beauty and certainly as a phenomenon with powerful cultural
implications, the reality is that fans and writers tend to describe sports
with the same sort of language reserved for religion, politics and war. And
while sports certainly mirror all three of those activities in some ways,
having a certain degree of perspective is important for the fan both in
terms of their general behavior and how they react to sportswriting.
Sportswriting must be deliberately provocative both to grab the attention
of the reader and in an attempt to recreate the visceral excitement of
the sporting event--and fans should not overreact to this.

With that in mind, I've outlined the ten types of sportswriting
tendencies that I've encountered most often. Obviously, not every writer
fits neatly into one of these categories, but I dare say that every writer
has some qualties seen in each. For the more negative qualities, I have
chosen not to name names but rather will leave the task of coming up with
examples as an exercise for the reader.

1. The Agitator. This is my very favorite sort of sports journalist. As
long as one thinks of them as professional wrestling villains, then you
will laugh at them as much as I do. Their goal is to provoke their
readers with strong and often calculatedly "outrageous" opinions. Quite
often, these opinions (which usually contain sweeping generalizations)
condemn players or coaches as being utterly worthless, usually on the basis
of a single game or play. An Agitator has the useful skill of being able
to contradict what they wrote the previous day if necessary. This brings up
the best way to deal with them: ignore them. Don't try to argue with them.
They're not interested in logic or debate, but they do love to get hate
mail. Remember: wrestling heels love to hear the boos. Agitators often try
to disguise themselves as Crusaders or (most sneakily) Information Men, and
many will try to be Comedians as well. But they are more interested in
insults than causes, and their punchlines are always calibrated for maximum
cruelty. The great thing about them is that there are Agitators who take
shots at ethically dubious players and programs for their sliminess, and
other Agitators who take shots at squeaky-clean players and programs for
their haughtiness and/or dullness. The most interesting Agitators embrace
their nature, while the worst sort tends to snivel, "Hey, it's only my
opinion" when they draw criticism from their readers.

2. The Crusader. In my opinion, this is the most ridiculous form of
sports journalist. Many writers tend to look at sporting events as
narratives, with heroes, villains and supporting characters. Some take
it further by thinking of them as morality plays, and this is where the
Crusader comes in. They will "analyze" some moral issue related to sports
and render a judgment. You'll recognize a Crusader when you see one when
their judgment is rendered in absolutist terms, with little regard to
the murkier aspects of a subject. Oddly, the Crusader regards themselves
as some kind of expert in the kind of ethical problems that have plagued
philosophers for thousands of years. If you're actually interested in
a thoughtful analysis of issues or even an analysis of the sport itself,
look elsewhere. Like the Agitator, the Crusader is not really interested
in rational debate and is likely to hold positions that contradict each

3. The Homer. The most useless of all sports journalists. The only
difference between a fan and a Homer is that Homers get paid to spout
off. Homers tend to have the most undesirable trait of the average fan:
when the team wins a game, they can do no wrong; but when they lose, the
sky is falling and calls for the head of the coach ring out. Homers
are relatively harmless when they work for team publications; they're
quite easy to avoid there. But if they somehow work for the local paper,
they are to be avoided at all costs. Many Homers are expected to toe the
line that the team sets, and some earn Insider status as a result. The worst
thing about them is that they rarely offer any objective views or reports
on the sport. If a writer invokes officiating as a primary reason for a
loss, you are probably reading the work of a Homer. If a writer
effusively and constantly praises a team or coach in an obseqious manner,
you're reading a Homer.

4. The Information Provider. Another rare and valuable breed, Information
Providers seek to use their expertise to educate and explain their
sports, often through the use of statistics. They obsess over the mechanics
and details of the sport, breaking down why teams won and lost. They sift
through and present stats in fascinating ways. The best Information
Providers can bring new fans up to speed and teach old fans things they
didn't know. Most of them tend to write for national publications,
writing feature columns. While their writing style is often somewhat dry, it's still
quite worthwhile for the devoted fan. The best I can think of in college
basketball is Mike Douchant. Information Providers have a number of
subcategories, like Feature Writer, Interviewer and Featured Analyst. But
a true IP sticks to the facts and avoids the pitfalls of other archetypes.
And if they happen to discuss a thorny issue, they excel at presenting
several sides to an issue and let the reader decide for themselves what
the best answer is.

5. The Nostalgist. They are easy to spot: their constant refrain is
"things ain't what they used to be." Many have grown bitter with sports
today, and will decry player, fan and management decorum at the drop of a
hat. They will constantly talk about how much better the game used to
be back in THEIR time, dropping the names of hall-of-famers as though
every single player back in the day was one. The Nostalgist takes great joy
in condemning deteriorating skills, expansion and rising salaries while
taking no joy whatsoever in the games as they are played now. Many
nostalgists write about baseball, though a rising number also document
basketball. Most nostalgists are relatively harmless, as they will tend to dodder on
about games from 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago, but if they are combined
with the Crusader they are unbearably obnoxious.

6. The Comedian. They're here every week, so enjoy the buffet and don't
forget to tip your waitresses. You know the type--they're more interested
in getting a punchline across than actually giving you information. Some
are closely related to the Agitator in that their punchlines usually
contain a gratuitous and unfair insult. The real problem is that most of
them just aren't very funny. There's a reason why they're in sportswriting
and not doing standup. Too many Comedians make their punchlines bigger
than the story itself, which is a big-time no-no in writing. That said,
it should be noted that sports is something that shouldn't be taken too
seriously, and injecting a light tone can sometimes actually enhance
an analysis or report--just so long as it doesn't obscure the point of the
article. A subclass of the Comedian is the Hipster, a particularly smarmy
type who often act with disdain towards the sport and its participants,
frequently through the use of unrelenting sarcasm and/or the newest street
lingo. My favorite comedic writer who deals with sports is Nick Bakay,
most recently of His "tales of the tape" are very funny indeed.
But the best humorist/sportswriter is Bill Simmons of ESPN. He can
switch from fascinating and in-depth analyses to gonzo-style diaries of
on-site adventures to long riffs on pop culture as it relates to sports.
Great balance all the way--especially in his own critiques of media.

7. The Objective Observer. A very rare breed in sports, this is a writer
who loves what they write about but has no allegiance to anyone. At the
same time, they retain a great deal of fairness in what they write. Some
of what they say may well sting, but they aren't out to necessarily
Agitate. Some of what they say may be a critique of the sport they cover,
but they aren't Crusaders, either. Unlike many sportswriters, they
usually have an engaging writing style that avoids cliches and platitudes.
They educate, entertain and instruct, avoiding agendas. One can always feel
the love of the game in their writing. This is not to say that they are
naive about the nature of big-time athletics, but rather that they still
love the game despite the insanity that surrounds it. These are writers
so good that you'll read anything by them, no matter what the sport. Two
that spring to mind in basketball are Barry Jacobs and Jay Bilas. Before
I hear cries from the chorus about my Duke bias, I will note that Jacobs
and Bilas have both been accused by Duke fans of not being big enough
boosters and are generally hailed by fans of Duke's arch-rivals as being
among the most objective and even-handed sportswriters. (And as a side
note, there are plenty of writers who graduated from Duke whose work I
loathe.) Jacobs and Bilas break the game down better than anyone else
I can think of (putting them in Information Provider mode) but also have
strong and forceful opinions that they will freely debate.

8. The Beat Reporter. This is the writer whose job it is to follow around
a team and report pretty much everything they do. If the team is a good
one and contains some lively personalities and a cooperative coaching
staff, it can be a great job. If a team prefers to have Pentagon-type
security and gives out "We-will-give-110%" type answers, it's a nightmare.
The beat writer's deadline pressures are pretty tough, so they must sacrifice
complexity and depth for succinctness. A great beat writer gives more
than just facts and figures--they give you a strong flavor of what it's
like to be there. Beware of beat writers who are Homers, because they
will distort game stories beyond recognition.

9. The Gonzo Reporter. This is the special Hunter S. Thompson category.
It generally refers to any piece where the writer becomes part of the
story, especially if they become the main focus of the story. In
Thompson's case, his articles were usually savage critiques of American
culture in the guise of drug and alcohol-fueled escapades--which in his mind
was the only sane response to the insanity of the worlds he covered. (Dig
up his article on the Kentucky Derby some time.) Unfortunately for the rest
of the world, Thompson inspired a generation of pretentious, tedious
sportswriting that either tried to imitate his "attitude" and debauchery, or
worse yet, used the first-person voice to create a treacly narrative--the
"very special episode" of sportswriting.

10. The Insider. Usually, but not always a subspecies of the Homer, the
Insider is a reporter who has somehow gained a level of access to a
program and/or players denied to most writers. An Insider is always happy
to name-drop, but really does have the goods on his team and can provide
interesting and useful information when allowed. Their access level is
usually dependent on the team/coach trusting them not to reveal too much
sensitive information, and going back on this trust can result in a severe
backlash. The Insider can provide the sort of behind-the-scenes nuggets
that die-hard fans crave, but they will rarely criticize the team or
program. There are a few Insiders not tied to any particular team but
who command so much respect that they are fed information from virtually
everyone. These sorts of Insiders can be useful to "leak" information
out to the public for any number of reasons.

by Rob Clough