The River City Renegade

Winnipeg sports media: Don’t expect the boys on the beat to be cheerleaders

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Welcome to Jock Journalism 101, kids.

Today, we will discuss sports scribes, and we are here to praise them. Well, okay, we’re not going to praise them, but we shall defend them.

It seems to me that there is a school of thought that insists the boys and girls who track the trials and tribulations of professional sports outfits should be cheerleaders for the teams they accompany throughout the season. I read this constantly on the comment threads in both the Winnipeg Sun and Winnipeg Free Press.

You should be more supportive of the (Jets/Bombers),” people write.

Why are you so negative? You’re a Winnipeg writer, so you should be boosting the team, not knocking it down.”

Wrong.

Sports scribes are not paid to wear team colors. They are not paid to spice their copy with a dash of siss-boom-bah and a pinch of rah-rah-rah for good, ol’ Hometeam. They cannot possibly wave pom-poms and type at the same time. Some, of course, do that very thing (figuratively). They come across as a house organ for the team they cover. The team’s cup is always half full. Nary a discouraging word is written. It’s all sunshine, lollipops and roses and their copy reads like something straight out of the club’s communications department.

It’s also pure pablum.

The sports scribe who kowtows to a specific outfit is a shameful bit of business. He/she is in violation of the first commandment of sports scribbling: Thou shalt not cheer in thy press box. I have great difficulty with those who are in opposition to that ordinance. They are, quite frankly, a disgrace and the lepers of the sports writing lodge. I have no time for these “homers.”

Having said this, I also know that sports scribes are human beings (honest, some are) who have feelings (honest, some do), so separating the person from the hockey player can be a delicate balancing act. Especially for the beat writers.

Think of your beat writer as a music or movie critic on game day, not as a member of the team’s booster club. It’s his/her job to critique a performance. If the team soils the sheets, you write that it soiled the sheets. If a player is a minus-4 on the night, you write it. You don’t candy coat it with gooey plaudits about good, ol’ Hometeam giving it the old college try. The task is to provide readers with a fair and objective analysis of the team’s/players’ performance, good or bad.

It is the beat writer’s duty to provide the five Ws—who, what, when, where and why—on a daily basis, whether it be a game story, a sidebar, a feature or an off-day analysis piece. Toward that end, you spend as much time with the players/coaches as possible. Basically, you live with them for seven months. You travel with them, you joke with them, you swap stories with them, you sometimes eat with them or share a pint with them…you get to know them, you realize they’re good guys. Thus, on a personal level, you wish for these people to succeed. It’s only natural. You cannot, however, permit that to creep into your copy.

The main writers on the Jets beat are Ed Tait of the Freep and Ken Wiebe of the Sun. I guarantee you they have favorites among the players. If they were to tell you otherwise, their pants would be on fire. I know I had faves when I worked the hockey beat. There were guys I truly liked, both on a personal and professional level. The Swedes were my favorites, most notably Willy Lindstrom and Kent Nilsson. Willy was flat-out funny and Kenta had a dry wit that made me laugh. I was quite fond of guys like Terry Ruskowski and Rich Preston, who were among the group to join the Jets from Houston for the final World Hockey Association whirl. There were many others, and you can’t avoid silently cheering for them.

As a beat writer, you tend to favor players who are go-to quote guys. You know, guys who’ll reply to your dumb questions win or lose. Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler would be examples of that with the Jets, which is why you see them staring at notepads and microphones so often post-game. It also means Ladd and Wheeler are less likely to be assailed in print. The go-to quote guys are seldom, if ever, taken to task by the beat writers.

Trust me when I tell you this: The human element comes into play, very much so, and the boys on the beat want the Jets to win. They really do. I mean, would you rather spend seven months traveling with a winner or a loser? It’s a no-brainer.

That being said, it’s the beat writer’s job to tell you what happened and why it happened, not what they wish had happened.

So don’t expect them to join the cheerleading chorus with their copy.

rooftop riting biz card back sidePatti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old, comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she doesn’t know when to quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C.

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