Way back in the olden days before wall-to-wall coverage on television, highlights programs, and home video recording devices, sports writers wrote about sporting events. That is to say, they described the events for those who had not seen them and as a way of reliving the events for those who had seen them. Writers used a good deal of imagination in describing what happened on the field, indulging their desire to be real writers, not just newspaper schlubs. The best writing in the newspaper was often in the sports section—vivid, powerful, dramatic, and accurate. The latter was so because numerous people actually witnessed the events the writers covered, and hence errors would be quickly exposed.
The best sports writers would do a superb job of describing the ebb and flow of a game, its dramatic ups and downs, and its place in the context of the season. The story was the game itself, and the personalities of the players were important only to the degree that they fit in as characters in the bigger story on the court or on the field.
Writers such as Red Smith, Damon Runyon, and A. J. Liebling made sports journalism as interesting as a well-written novel or short story, because the drama on the field was real and they were willing to bring all their skills to bear on telling that story.
Events off the field were occasionally brought to bear, but they were largely kept out of the story unless they clearly and directly affected the performance on the field. Hence injuries were important to mention, but marital problems and contract status weren’t.
That has changed since TV has made sporting events so accessible over the past three or four decades. Aware that their audience could easily see the games if they wanted, sports writers and their editors increasingly concentrated on the interactions among players and those between players, coaching staffs, owners, and the public. The personal lives of the players and other team personnel came to be seen as a legitimate news topic in that one could say that it does affect play on the field. Similarly, sports "analysis" have moved away from critiques of the on-field or game-preparation decisions of coaches and players, to a greater emphasis on how teams are put together, with personality conflicts and personal conduct as central areas of interest.
Hence, it is a real treat when one finds a story or analysis that is actually about on-field events and strategies, as in Gregg Easterbrook’s ESPN.com American Football Conference preview. Easterbrook’s entire analysis concentrates largely on the on-field strengths and weaknesses of the teams. In so doing, he mentions personal items where appropriate, which means when the truly affect what the team does on the field, as when he notes new Kansas City Chiefs’ coach Herm Edwards’s contract squabbles with his erstwhile employers the New York Jets last year (which certainly appear to have affected the team’s performance) and the suicide of Indinapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy before the team’s only playoff game last year (which they lost, to eventual Super Bowl champs the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
Easterbrook does bring in a few silly sidelights to keep it fun, such as his reports about team cheerleaders, but the emphasis is remarkably strong on analysis, and it is very good analysis indeed. As an example of what a real sportswriter can do, consider the following excerpt on the convergence of offensive strategies in the league on a single style. It is one of the most useful and insightful things I’ve read on any sport in a while:
This time of year, many NFL teams are crowing about the new offense they are installing. Teams installing a new offense for 2006 include the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Lions, Rams, Redskins, Saints and Vikings. Often "new offense" means that instead of saying "power 80 slide quick," the quarterback will say "blue X-under 247." Both translate as "square out right" — much of the installation of a new offense boils down to new terminology for standard plays. But there’s a larger trend. In recent years, NFL offenses have converged toward a homogeneous product where everybody runs roughly the same stuff, hybridizing previously distinct offenses.
As recently as 15 years ago, some teams were power rush, some teams were run-and-shoot (no tight end, three small receivers running complex crossing patterns), some teams were West Coast (most passes short), some teams were Bart Starr classic (don’t throw much but when you do, throw deep), some teams were hurry-up — there were distinctly different philosophies of offense. Now everybody’s using a little of everything. For instance, the five-wide, empty-backfield set, which a decade ago only a few teams were willing to show, is now in every NFL playbook. It’s now in every high school team’s playbook! The "bunch," which in the early 1990s only Minnesota was using, now shows up everywhere. Once only Buffalo and Cincinnati would go no-huddle before the last two minutes; now most teams show this tactic occasionally. And with the exception of Arizona and Philadelphia, everyone’s run/pass ratio has converged. Nobody in the NFL has tried the Texas Tech offense yet: very wide splits from the linemen, emphasis on throwing lanes. But otherwise, in recent seasons every team has sampled a little of every offensive philosophy.
The kickoff game this season is Miami at Pittsburgh. Twenty years ago that game would have matched distinctly different offensive philosophies: power rush versus an up-the-field passing game based on the post and sideline fly. In 2006, the Dolphins and Steelers likely will show a similar mix of formations and plays. Everybody’s trying a little bit of everything. It is, after all, the 21st century.
Unlike most sportswriting, after you read Easterbrook’s analysis you actually know more than you did before. That is what good writing is supposed to be all about.