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Mather: What I’ve learned about sports writing

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Two years ago, I somewhat tentatively signed up to be a sports writer for The Stanford Daily. I was a Cardinal fan who had been radicalized by two years on this campus, and I figured that The Daily might be a good way to put my interest in Stanford Athletics to good use.

Two years later, I’m amazed at how far this experiment of mine has come. I can hardly count the hours I’ve poured into writing, editing and producing this newspaper. Before I started, I probably pictured myself writing no more than 30 or 40 articles for The Daily. My final count, barring any future amendment, stands at 138.

It wouldn’t have been this way if I hadn’t enjoyed every minute of it. It has been a real privilege to follow around each of the various Cardinal teams, whether in the Levi’s Stadium locker room or out on the Stanford golf course. I’ve appreciated each and every word that all of you have sent me about my work, whether in nicely worded emails or in quickly jotted tweets. I didn’t even mind that much when a bunch of people on a USC fan forum called me a nerd.

These two years have changed my view of sports in a number of different ways. I came into The Daily as a fan, supporting the teams I did without too much additional thought. Now that I’ve seen more behind the scenes, I’ve become a little bit more shaken by the realities of the modern athletic scene. It’s kind of incredible how many ways ethics are bent to bring us the stunning performances we watch on TV.

Stanford is, generally speaking, one of the good guys when it comes to athletic integrity. Though no multi-million dollar program is immune from mistakes, at least with Stanford you get the sense that everybody is trying to do the right thing. In a lot of places, this isn’t nearly as much the case.

The two years I’ve written about athletics have seen an almost immeasurable number of scandals – and a good deal of additional incidents that really should have been. There’s the massive corruption case levied against FIFA. There’s the ever-increasing amount of evidence that playing football skyrockets your risk of a traumatic brain injury. There are the cases of pay discrimination between men’s and women’s sports. Each of these is a massive problem that was largely neglected by a multi-billion dollar industry, yet this list is, in reality, little more than the tip of the iceberg.

The challenge for the sports writing world in the coming years will be finding ways to respond to these challenges. The way that so many publications handle sports writing is kind of analogous to riding a roller coaster over and over again: It’s fun and all, but eventually you start to notice that you’re always running down the same track. You can’t necessarily blame them – the recap/preview cycle is the reader-chosen way of digesting sports journalism – but at the same time I wonder how well-suited it is to making the sporting a more just place. So much energy is invested in getting these articles out that it’s hard to design, write and promote coverage that deals with more serious issues.

I think it’s time for a reader revolution in the world of sports journalism. It’s easy to view sports a pure leisure, but the fact of the matter is that they possess huge financial, ethical and personal ramifications. We don’t necessarily have to dwell on all of these at length, but it is our responsibility to give them the light of day. Without our attention, the incentive structure for athletic leagues and systems can never really change.

The last thought – or suggestion, rather – I leave you with is to take a closer look at the various forms of reporting that focus on these issues in the modern sporting community. Scandals shouldn’t, and can’t, be cyclical, so reporters are usually sticking out their necks a little when they highlight something that isn’t strictly speaking about what happened on the field. It’s easy to ignore these things after games and seasons conclude, but by doing so we miss the opportunity to make the world a little bit better.

 

Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.