Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Big Sneer: Sports Writing in the Internet Age

In the internal dialogue we all carry on with ourselves, there are some insults and degrading thoughts of others that we suppress or at the very least never take beyond our minds for public consumption.

Writers have always had a bit of a free pass to air out their innermost thoughts. If they can spin a subtle and original insult, they may be articulating what many of the rest of us are already thinking. A skilled writer can weave a convincing narrative so as to accommodate just about any conclusion and accompanying character assassination.

When the topic is over-paid and often badly behaving professional athletes, the license to unload is more easily granted. With the easing of standards regarding language use and acceptable topics in mainstream media over the past few years, a nastiness has crept into sports reportage that wasn't there in the past. This has been compounded by the wild-west anarchy of the internet where more and more fans are going to search for content. This has in turn led to increased pressure on traditional rags to unleash at least a few poison pens in their sports departments to satisfy the apparent growing desire for a writer skilled in the art of sneer.

This is qualitatively different than real, fair criticism and constant questioning, which is no doubt part of the sports journalism game. Winning is demanded by many and with the power, money and prestige involved, the kind of pressure columnists can channel from an outraged fan base is necessary and expected.

At first glance, nastiness seems to attract the most attention, both from those who love to revel in the indignity of it and those who genuinely love seeing others get down in the filth and bring a situation in line with a perspective they can understand. But does the attention last and help build the writing into something that evolves and develops? Or does it eventually stagnate and rot?

I believe that those who deal exclusively in the continual public flaying of various athletes appeal to a certain audience. That audience is passionate about the kind of diatribes that feed their idea of what is clever and appropriate. So passionate that they create a false sense of how popular the columnist may be. Choosing the basest or vilest or no holds barred stomp-down usually appeals to a core group who really enjoy the spectacle and voice their approval very loudly.

Part of it is the anonymity many writers on the net choose, the being outside of yourself high that pushes people to state things they otherwise normally wouldn't, contributes to the ongoing motivation. Which could be a positive thing. After all, it means things that would have remained unsaid are now stated.

The power of seeing your words fly up on the screen in perfectly formatted script and potentially accessed anywhere in the world may further spur on the venom spewers to greater feats of churning out content. Many people for whatever reason are simply skilled at carving up their targets with words and piquing the baser instincts of readers.

Overall I rate these trends as positive. More voices equals more diversity, the freer exchange of ideas, more reading etc., etc. Out of the indiscernible heap of slingers of crass verbal assaults and acidic verbiage will certainly emerge some who fashion new styles of writing and discussion.

Personally I will be trying to avoid the hard-core smack-downs for one main reason. They spell a dead end in terms of looking at any particular issue with a degree of nuance or in a way that leads to the uncovering of new insight or unique perspectives. It's like choosing the most black and white explanation for anything. It cuts of all further need for investigation. I will likely fail miserably in this goal many times but will try my damnedest.

And because I will be trying my best to avoid the nasty insults and simplistic attacks, when I finally do snap after some particularly gutless cheap shot or indefensible comment from someone else, the litany of obscenities that come raining down will carry all the more weight...

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