Cheering in the press box: All jock journos do it, but most keep it on the down low

Until Tuesday morning, I couldn’t have picked out Mike Chambers in a police lineup.

Today I can.

Chambers is the guy wearing wrinkled, brown trousers and a white, beer-stained shirt that battles mightily to conceal an ample belly; he’s also sucking on a celebratory stogie and holding the Stanley Cup aloft, a ritual normally reserved for those who’ve actually accomplished something more than tapping out 1,000-word essays for the Denver Post.

That’s right, Chambers is a jock journo whose task it has been to chronicle Colorado’s blood-sweat-tears-bruises-and-broken bones run to the National Hockey League championship, a mission accomplished on their foe’s freeze Sunday night when the Avalanche laid waste to the title-holding Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1.

As far as it can be determined, Chambers’ contribution to the Avs’ success was nil. He didn’t score a goal, he didn’t help Nathan MacKinnon get on the scoresheet, and I doubt he had a hand in cooking Cale Makar’s pre-game meals. In reality, he did nothing other than make his editors less grumpy by meeting deadline, something that doesn’t qualify him to a) have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup or b) hoist hockey’s holy grail in the manner of a champion.

So one wonders what Chambers was thinking when he posted a couple of pics of himself and Stanley on his Twitter feed. Well, clearly he wasn’t thinking straight, and the half dozen empty beer bottles behind him would be the first clue to support that notion.

He describes it as “probably the most memorable experience” of his career, which began full time at the Post in 2000, but he doesn’t make it clear if he’s referring to the plum assignment of tracking a Stanley Cup champion hither and yon or lifting the battered mug.

The thing is, the boys and girls on the beat (any beat) are there to talk and write about the athletes/teams they follow, not wave pom-poms. It’s that old ‘No Cheering In the Press Box’ thing.

My question is this: Does anybody really give a damn?

Well, certainly Chambers’ misstep is a dent to his credibility, and hard-core adherents to jock journo’s golden rule have hastened to deliver a stern tsk-tsking from their seats on the press row. Meantime, observers on social media have given a hasty thumbs down, while others haven’t been so quick to coat him with tar and a layer of feathers. They note that he had been caught up in the moment and saw it as a harmless bit of carry-on. Besides, they point out, the pics were posted on Twitter, not on the sports pages of the Post.

Except a news snoop need not be sitting on a perch in the press box to be cheering in the press box. Chambers was cheering in the press box, even if on the cesspool of nasty natter that is Twitter. He has made it an extension of his job. Most jock journos do.

Most, however, also keep their cheering interests on the down low.

Trust me when I tell you that the boys and girls on the beat are telling a big, fat fib when they say they don’t cheer for the athletes and/or teams they cover, even if you don’t see their noses growing or their pants on fire. Sports scribes/broadcasters are human (okay, there’s some question about Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless), so they have their favorites.

An example would be Mike McIntyre of the Winnipeg Free Press. On Feb. 18 this year, he wrote this: “If I’m to be taken seriously as a journalist, I can’t be out here waving pom-poms for the home team.” Fine. Except less than a month later, here’s what he scribbled: “The 2022 MLB season is especially exciting for those of us who root, root root for the home team — as in the Toronto Blue Jays.” In his newsletter to readers, he mentioned his “beloved Toronto Blue Jays.”

His boss, sports editor Jason Bell, admits to cheering “unabashedly for the Toronto Blue Jays.”

So what happens if the Blue Jays advance to the World Series? Does the Blue Jays fan/editor dispatch the Blue Jays fan/scribe to the Republic of Tranna to deliver dispatches from the event? How credible can the reporting be when both parties are waving pom-poms?

Former Chicago columnist Jerome Holtzman wrote the book (literally) on cheering in the press box, and this is what he had to say: “I won’t deny that the heavy majority of sportswriters, myself included, have been and still are guilty of puffing up the people they write about. I remember one time when Stanley Woodward, my beloved leader, was on the point of sending me a wire during spring training, saying, ‘Will you stop Godding up those ball players?’ I didn’t realize what I had been doing. I thought I had been writing pleasant little spring training columns about ball players.”

So, sure, the cheering can be hidden in the subconscious, but that’s one of the reasons newspapers have sports editors. To keep writers on-point and credible.

I recall my time covering the Winnipeg Jets for the Winnipeg Tribune. The team was in disarray, on and off the ice, and I received a phone call from the newsroom while hunkered down in a Marriott Hotel in Cincinnati.

“We don’t think you can see the forest for the trees,” I was informed. “We think maybe you’re missing the problem…the coach. But if you don’t think he’s the problem, don’t write it.”

Larry Hillman, a very nice man, was bench puppeteer of that Jets outfit, and I was quite fond of him. He was sincere, soft-spoken and always obliging of his thoughts and time. Cutting him a new one wasn’t something I had considered. Still, I’d been given pause for ponder, and concluded that better coaching was the very thing the Jets required. I wrote the column. Shortly thereafter, Hillman was dismissed and I felt like throwing up for skewering such a good man in print.

So, sure, there were people and teams I rooted for during my 30 years in jock journalism, and I don’t apologize for it. I believe, as a human, it comes with the territory. You just have to keep it out of your copy and/or commentary, and you certainly don’t post it on social media (that’s just dense).

Whenever the topic is cheering in the press box, I leave the final word to my first sports editor, Jack Matheson, once accused of being too buddy-buddy with Ray Jauch, coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“All right,” he informed his Tribune readers one day, “I’ll come clean, Ray Jauch is a friend of mine, but I didn’t know they had enacted some sort of legislation making it a crime for sports writers to have friends. I don’t see anything wrong with being friendly with a man you work with every day of the week. Where does it say a football writer and a football coach have to have an adversary relationship? Yes, we’re friends. I don’t know about ‘good’ friends, but that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, either, because we have something in common. We’re thrown together into the football jungle, and Ray Jauch wants to win because it’s his job and I want to win because I live here and I like to be proud of the athletes who represent us.”

An ode to the old ‘hood by a one-time, would-be mayor of East Kildonan

Once upon a very long time ago, when I was no taller than a picket fence and weighed less than a bushel of grass clippings, I used to tell the other five people in our East Kildonan household three things:

  • I would one day be elected mayor of E.K.
  • I would one day become a world-renowned photographer.
  • I would one day play in the National Hockey League and be in the Hall of Fame.

Snickering always ensued whenever I would spew my impish bravado, but, to me, it wasn’t pie-in-the-sky dreaming. It all made sense in my tiny mind, which did not include boundaries or restraints.

Melrose Park CC

After all, I was the best little hockey player my age in E.K. (won the Little NHL scoring title at Melrose Park Community Club with eight goals in the final game of the 1960 season), so it wasn’t a fanciful notion that I one day would follow in the skate marks left behind by someone like Terry Sawchuk, an E.K. lad whose goalie pads I once wore until a coach wisely determined that our team would be better served with me playing centre and scoring scads of goals than stinking out the joint by standing between two red, metal posts and allowing scads of goals. More to the point, it was pure fantasy that I wouldn’t get to the NHL.

Similarly, I could think of not a single compelling reason that would prevent my photographs from being displayed in renowned galleries hither and yon. “Photog of the year,” I would tell the others, weekly.

Being chosen mayor of E.K. and its 25,937 citizens (1960) was more of an iffy bit of business.

E.K. City Hall

I mean, what did I know from politics? But I remember reading once in the Elmwood Herald that there were 48 homes in E.K. that still had outhouses in 1959, and I didn’t think that was right. Seemed to me, even at my tender age, that everyone should have been in full flush. I also took note of various rat infestations and trouble with delinquent teens. You know, hooligans who ran in packs and got their jollies busting into schools and businesses, or just hanging out in large numbers prepping for gang rumbles.

It all made for an appealing Triple P platform: I would flush out the Poop, the Pests and the Punks. Vote me.

Except it never came to a vote.

East Kildonan merged with numerous municipalities to form one big Winnipeg in 1972 (Unicity, we called it), and that gathering of bits and pieces ended my political career before I could take my notions to the people.

That meant Stanley Dowhan served as the final mayor of E.K., and I have no recollection of his worthiness for the job. Ditto Frank Dryden, George Suttie, Mike Spack and Mike Ruta, although I recall that my dad didn’t think any among them was worth a lick, perhaps because they failed to rid the various neighborhoods of the outhouses, rats and teen punks, but more likely because he didn’t seem to like anything.

At any rate, I never became mayor of East Kildonan.

Bronx Park

Never made it to the NHL or the Hockey Hall of Fame as a player either. Turned out that the Manitoba Junior Hockey League was my ceiling, although I had a flirtation with pro hockey when I took up John Ferguson’s offer to suit up with the Winnipeg Jets in the final exhibition skirmish of their inaugural rookie camp in Sainte-Agathe, Que, in 1979. I set up the first goal in that game, then picked up my pen, notebook and tape recorder to resume a 30-year career in jock journalism, one that took me from the outdoor frozen ponds of Melrose Park and Bronx Park to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Montreal Forum, Madison Square Garden and all the finest shinny barns on the continent. I wrote about Pee Wee champions, Junior champions, World Hockey Association champions, Stanley Cup champions and global champions, so I took a different route to the NHL.

As for photography, exactly zero galleries made room on their walls for my work. The best I could do was an honorable mention certificate in the North America-wide Kodak International Photo Contest, and a cover pic on a golf magazine.

I don’t view those as failings, though. Not even missteps. It’s life. It’s the journey.

And I can’t imagine a better starting point on the journey than our middle-class neighborhoods in East Kildonan, tucked into the northeast section of Winnipeg.

89 Helmsdale Avenue

E.K. was very much a work in progress when our family put stakes into the ground in the mid-1950s, initially in a very modest story-and-a-half homestead at 429 Melbourne Ave., then at 89 Helmsdale Ave., a grand house that stood majestically where Helmsdale and Kildonan Drive intersect, just four dwellings removed from the banks of the always-rushing Red River.

The first traffic lights weren’t installed until 1955, at the intersection of Henderson and Melrose (now Kimberly), work crews were still paving my block on Melbourne in spring ’56, telephone booths were located at various street corners, and we weren’t connected to the bustle of downtown Winnipeg in a significant way until October 1960, when the Disraeli Freeway opened to traffic.

Until then, we lived in our own little world, and everything we needed was within walking distance.

The Roxy

The Roxy Theatre was a 10-minute scamper from home, and we often spent our Saturday mornings there watching cartoons and horse opera. Once Porky Pig told us “that’s all folks” for the final time in May 1960 (last movie, Sleeping Beauty), it became Roxy Lanes. If my dad needed nails or other handyman supplies, Melrose Hardware was two blocks away, a few shops removed from Ebbeling Pharmacy on Watt Street. If they didn’t have the right goods, Kildonan Hardware was just a whoop and a holler away, next door to Helmsdale Pharmacy where us teenage kids would hang out and sample Mrs. Anderson’s banana splits and ice cream sodas when we weren’t in frolic at Bronx Park.

Mom could do her shopping at a variety of markets, including Safeway, Nell’s Grocery, Zellers and Petty’s Meat Market, which served the tastiest corned beef east of the Red River. Corned beef on rye was often a Saturday afternoon treat.

Fast food joints and restaurants were plentiful, from Dairy Queen to Champs, which served Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, to Gondola Pizza and its its nine-inch pies (with a drink) for $1.25.

Again, everything in walking distance.

But if my parents wanted a one-day getaway to, say, Palm Beach just north of E.K., corner filling stations were in abundance and gas was sold by the gallon, not the litre. And my parents didn’t require a loan from one of the neighborhood banks to put an Esso tiger in the tank.

St. Alphonsus

Not once did I take a bus to any of the three schools I attended but didn’t like—St. Alphonsus, St. Clements, Munroe Junior High—and the one I did like, Miles Macdonell Collegiate, and we came home for lunch. Every day. Sometimes my mom would be there to make soup and sandwiches for us, otherwise we’d whip up the peanut-butter-and-jam sammies on our own. When we returned to school after chowing down, we didn’t bother to bolt the doors, even though E.K. was not without nogoodniks.

Our top cop was Chief Constable Einfeld, who once was in hot foot pursuit of two two bank robbers only to hopelessly watch them flee to safety when he tripped on a curb and did a face plant, like something us kids might have seen in a Keystone Kops film at the Roxy.

Rossmere golf course: Hold the onions!

There was another oddball legal snafu in the 1950s, whereby a nearby resident thought it would be a swell idea to plant onions on one of the fairways at Rossmere Golf & Country Club (oh, yes, we had our own golf track and a couple of curling clubs). Apparently the guy had been given the okie-dokie to onion-up the golf course, and I’m guessing that members, albeit annoyed, were grateful he hadn’t planted a tomato or potato patch.

We read all about these goings-on in the Elmwood Herald, which was our go-to source for local news, even as most homes subscribed to either the Winnipeg Tribune or Winnipeg Free Press. I don’t recall either the Trib or Freep publishing the scores and goal-scorers from our Little NHL games at Melrose Park or Playground A-B-C games at Bronx Park on a weekly basis, but the Herald did, and that included my eight-goal gem, which I mistakenly assumed to be the first step on my path to the NHL and shinny immortality.

So many good memories, including the arrival of color TV (Ronny Cruikshank was the first of our group to get it), cable TV, and both CJAY TV (CKY) and KCND signed on. Those of us who didn’t have cable could bring in the KCND signal from North Dakota via wonky rooftop antennas and TV-top rabbit ears (and maybe a wad of tin foil.)

One entrance to Fraser’s Grove

It all sounds so quirky today, but it was my childhood and I loved E.K., even if I ran away from home numerous times (I never got any farther than the railway tracks that separated us from Morse Place). I’ve owned two homes in the old ‘hood, one on Leighton and the other on Kimberly, and I’ve long imagined myself living on Kildonan Drive, near Fraser’s Grove, where us Catholic kids would have our once-a-year school picnics.

That isn’t part of the picture now, though. Just like the NHL/Hockey Hall of Fame, the photo galleries and the political career that have faded from focus.

Hey, stuff happens, but sometimes stuff doesn’t happen, and even I can giggle about my impish impulses now.

International Women’s Day: Where are all the female sports writers in our daily newspapers?

I’ve never wanted to be one of those wrinkled relics who gently rocks on the porch or in the parlor and reminds anyone who cares to listen that everything was “so much better back in the day.”

Back in the day, after all, covers a whole lot of ground and, for me, that’s a retreat to the 1950s, shortly after one war ended, another kicked in and a third, which none of us fully understood, droned on until the 1970s.

We also had the very real threat of nuclear annihilation, the assassinations of three good men, the Ohio National Guard gunning down college kids at Kent State, segregated washrooms/schools/watering taps/lunch counters, and thousands on the streets in protests that began peacefully but often turned violent (“Four dead in Ohio,” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). The young people weren’t in outrage because of something silly, like wearing a mask to the corner store. Their talking points were racism, equal rights and bombs bursting half a world away in Vietnam.

We also had vaccines. Oh, yes, we were required to stand in line at school while a non-smiling nurse jabbed a needle into an arm.

There was nothing kind and gentle and “so much better” about any of that, and even as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Woodstock et al served as delightful diversions and girls wore flowers in their hair, they couldn’t make the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., bulletproof, nor could they convince the American war machine to lay down arms. They were playing music, not sprinkling stardust.

But there was noise of another kind, too. Good noise.

Women began to raise their voices, first with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in February 1963. Unfulfilled housewives took to the notion that there was something for them other than the June Cleaver wife/mother model, something more substantial and rewarding than spending their days vacuuming in pearls and heels, wiping the Beaver’s runny nose and, of course, dutifully putting a hot meal on the dinner table for hubby the moment he arrived home from a demanding day in the real world.

Moreover, women took to the streets, protesting outside the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and figuratively burning their bras by tossing high heels, makeup, mops, pearls and undergarments into the Freedom Trash Can.

Girl power hit the streets in another way in December 1971, when Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine arrived at newsstands, and Time magazine, duly noting this wave of fresh female awareness, named American Women its Person of the Year in 1975.

Gloria Steinem, circa 1970s.

“Enough U.S. women have so deliberately taken possession of their lives that the event is spiritually equivalent to the discovery of a new continent,” Lance Morrow wrote in Time.

Cinderella no longer was waiting to be asked to the ball, she asked the man, and some were so bold as to pick up the tab on a dinner date in full view of other patrons, hitherto a social taboo. The female workforce in the United States had doubled from the 1950s, and women on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border began going where few had ventured—to police forces, fire departments, courtrooms, construction sites, boardrooms, the political arena, West Point, etc.

Many took to journalism, at daily newspapers, which were not yet an endangered species, and they didn’t wander solely into the arts, entertainment or society sections. They invaded news and—egads!—the toy department, where gnarly, booze-swilling, stubble-chinned, good-time Charlies held sway.

There had, of course, been female sports scribes on our Frozen Tundra pre-1970s, Bobbie Rosenfeld of the Globe and Mail and Myrtle Cook McGowan of the Montreal Star to name two, but they were rarities, like snowfall in June.

Then it happened. A proliferation. Christie Blatchford joined the Globe and Mail and soon was penning the coveted main sports column. Mary Trueman and Nora McCabe were also on board, the latter described by Sports Illustrated as “an obscure journalist” after she had rattled John McEnroe’s cage to the point whereby the tennis brat expressed an unsolicited interest in her sex life, suggesting she needed to get laid more often.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Sun hired tennis pro Jane O’Hara to write sports, and Alison Gordon signed on at the Toronto Star to tell all about baseball’s Blue Jays.

Rita Mingo

On the home front, Winnipeg Tribune sports editor Jack Matheson had the good sense to hire Peggy Stewart and Rita Mingo, while SE Maurice Smith countered with Barb Huck at the Winnipeg Free Press. Pioneers all. (Oh, we also had a female managing editor at the Trib, the youthful Dona Harvey, who was full of upside.)

And I think of them—and others like Judy Owen, Ashley Prest and Melissa Martin, who came along post-’70s to write sports at the Winnipeg Sun and Freepevery International Women’s Day.

When gazing across the jock journo landscape today (newspaper division), I don’t see a lot of female staff bylines in our major dailies. There’s Rosie DiManno, who flits between hard-core news and the toy department, and Laura Armstrong at the Star; Rachel Brady writes for what passes as a sports section at the Globe; Kristen Anderson covers hockey for Postmedia Calgary.

Neither of my hometown papers includes a female in its stable of sports scribes.

I wrote about this lack of female sports writing exactly 10 years ago this month (and a few times since), and nothing’s really changed. The boys are still dug in like ticks in a hound dog’s ear. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because newspapers are dying and women don’t see jock journalism as a career path that warrants their attention. Perhaps it’s the “women don’t know sports” stigma/narrative that still has oxygen to this day. Could be they shy away rather than expose themselves to the cesspool of gender-based commentary on Twitter and other social media platforms. But, hey, that doesn’t prevent them from picking up a microphone and talking to a TV camera.

I don’t have the answer. But I do know this: It was “so much better back in the day.”

Pay attention to what you don’t see in our sports coverage

Gender bias in sports media is hiding in plain sight. Every day.

Chances are, however, that you don’t recognize it because you read, see and hear only what’s in front of you, and you fail to contemplate what’s not in front of you.

But pick up a newspaper (if people still do that), go to a mainstream media sports website, or tune your flatscreen to an all-jock TV channel, and if you look and listen closely enough (you won’t have to strain) you’ll notice what’s absent from the coverage.

That’s right, female sports.

Oh, sure, the jock outlets acknowledge activity on the distaff portion of the playground, but it’s extremely sparingly and often done begrudgingly, like a parent allowing a child to stay up an extra hour on a school night. Just don’t do it too often, if you know what’s good for you.

I mean, if an editor were to deliver an inordinate amount of female sports coverage, chances are readers/viewers would be lickety-split with a reminder that “nobody cares” about the girls and women who run, jump, throw, skate and bounce balls.

The only sports that seem to generate close to equitable content are tennis and, in Canada, curling. Oh, there’s also figure skating. For some reason, mainstream news snoops are rather smitten with female fancy skaters, most likely because they tend to be dainty and delicate creatures who smile a lot and perhaps remind them of their sisters or daughters. But that’s only 10 days every four years when the Olympic Games torch is aflame.

Otherwise, sports reporting remains a man’s world run (mostly) by men, talked about (mostly) by men, and written about (mostly) by men.

That was confirmed (once again) earlier this year by TIDES, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which studied, then graded 100 newspapers/websites with a big, fat F for their gender hiring practices. That F doesn’t stand for fantastic, fabulous or fine.

“While women saw slight improvements in 2021, the overall record of the sports media for having women in prominent positions remains terrible,” said Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute.

Here’s the evidence:

  • 83.3 percent of sports editors were men.
  • 75.8 percent of assistant sports editors were men.
  • 82.2 percent of columnists were men.
  • 85.6 percent of reporters were men.
  • 75.3 percent of copy editors/designers were men.
  • 78.1 percent of web specialists were men.
  • 63.7 percent of upper management were men.

No surprise, therefore, that the huge majority of decision-makers assume the consumer wants (demands?) a steady diet of the big-ticket items, which is to say major men’s professional team sports. So why would they be inclined to force-feed readers/viewers a bag of unsalted peanuts and a glass of soda water when nachos, cheeseburgers, extra-large pizza with double cheese, and pints (tall boys, naturally) are available. Pig out, boys.

All of which explains the numerous studies that historically peg the amount of female-centric content in sports coverage anywhere from 3-to-5 percent. (See: USC/Purdue University.)

The gender bias is blatant and yet subtle.

For example, Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail recently wrote an essay on the Canadian men’s national soccer side giving Mexico the cold shoulder in a frost-bitten, World Cup qualifying skirmish in frigid Edmonton.

“For the first time in our sporting history,” he submitted, “Canada may have an enemy that isn’t Slavic or Scandinavian.”

Say again? I assume “our sporting history” includes women’s hockey, so what part of the Canada-U.S. rivalry in Ponytail Puck does Kelly not understand?

I mean, I realize Donald Trump did a few loopy things while in the White House, but I don’t recall him selling America―lock, stock and the right to bear arms―to a Slavic or Scandinavian nation. The good, ol’ U.S. and A. is still in North American, due south of our Frozen Tundra, and there’s no True North sporting thrust-and-parry that matches the bitterness and intensity of Canada vs. the Yankee Doodle Damsels on a sheet of ice.

But Kelly’s comment is typical of mainstream jock journalism. Unless someone has lit the Olympic Games torch, female sports is a tree falling in the forest and no one has been assigned to see or hear it.

Another example would be the debut of the Toronto Six, a member in good standing of the Premier Hockey Federation (nee National Women’s Hockey League). The Six dropped the puck on the first home assignment in franchise history on Saturday, and whupped the Connecticut Whale in front of a packed York Canlan Ice Arena. Here’s how mainstream media in the Republic of Tranna handled the event:

TSN: 0 coverage on 60-minute highlights show.
Sportsnet: 0 coverage on 60-minute highlights show.
Toronto Sun: 0 words in print edition; 0 words on website.
Toronto Star: 0 words in print edition; 135 words of CP copy on website.

The following day, the unbeaten and first-place Six doubled down with another victory over the Whale, which warranted a 55-word sports brief in the Star and no mention on the TV highlight packages or in the tabloid.

In another daily on another patch of the Frozen Tundra, the Winnipeg Free Press boasts of a robust record on the female sports file, yet the numbers scream, “That’s bogus!”

September 2021
Men’s articles/briefs: 409
Women’s articles/briefs: 29
Editions that included local female sports coverage: 7 of 30.

October 2021
Men’s articles/briefs: 456
Women’s articles/briefs: 32
Editions that included local female sports coverage: 11 of 31.

The Freep toy department is governed by men and its stable of scribes is devoid of females, although that isn’t unusual given that, across the vast land, Jills who write about jocks are as scarce as smiles and belly laughs at a gravesite.

That isn’t apt to change any time soon because, based on the latest TIDES study, change to gender bias on the sports media landscape is moving slower than the globe’s glaciers, and the women don’t have a Greta Thunberg prepared to stand up and raise a big stink about it.

Thus the bias, both blatant and subtle, shall continue unchecked, and the men who make the decisions don’t need to care.

Doggone it, the girls and boys on the beat are all barking up the same tree

I feel bad for today’s jock journos.

Not bad as in “sorry to hear that your dog just died,” but bad in the sense that the whole COVID thing has forced them into the world of Zoom, whereby they stare at a monitor and interrogate athletes/coaches from a great distance.

It’s a remote scrum and, unfortunately, the girls and boys on the beat collect the same sound bites.

Consider a Zoom chin wag with Paul Stastny the other day. The Winnipeg Jets forward informed news snoops that head coach Paul Maurice had been channeling his inner Winston Churchill, bidding to rally the troops during their most challenging and fretsome stretch of a National Hockey League crusade that had fallen off the rails.

Sir Winnie

“The one thing you guys don’t see is he’s got these Winston Churchill speeches and I don’t even know how he thinks of them,” said Stastny.

That right there, kids, is sound-bite gold.

It isn’t just a quote, it’s a column. You take it and run with it for 700-800 words. You have fun with it. You have the Jets fighting them on the beaches, fighting them on the landing grounds, fighting them on the fields, the hills and the streets. Just like Sir Winnie said of the British when Hitler was lobbing bombs at London during WWII.

Except everyone else can be, and is, doing the same thing.

I read the Stastny sound bite on Twitter, in the Winnipeg Sun, in the Drab Slab and I’m guessing it made the gab shows in Good Ol’ Hometown.

Because of the Zoom world, the one-off quote has gone the way of the 8-track.

But it never used to be that way.

Back in the day, we had post-game/post-practice scrums, but some, like myself, would listen in only because we didn’t want to miss anything significant. We’d jot down a quote or two and then, once the rabble had dispersed, we would pull a player or coach off to the side for a natter on the QT and ask a question that we hoped would lead to a verbal nugget that no one else had.

Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun was adept at that. He’d base an entire column on a sound bite that had escaped all other ears.

I dug up some nuggets that way, as well. Examples:

Ulf Nilsson chasing Valeri Kharlamov.
  • The night the Jets became the first North American club team to paddywhack the Soviet Union national side, I sought Swedish forward Ulf Nilsson for some insight, given that he had two goals and two helpers in the 5-3 victory. I found him on a rubbing table, waiting for trainer Billy Bozak to come along and use his magic fingers to soothe Ulf’s wonky hip.

“I was proud to be a Canadian tonight,” Ulf told me.

It was an astonishing comment. Here was a Swede repeatedly beaten black-and-blue by Canadian-born ruffians who resented his very existence during his fledgling years in the World Hockey Association, yet he was “proud to be a Canadian.” There wasn’t another news snoops within earshot. The quote was mine.

  • At training camp, I slid beside Jets head coach Tommy McVie during a morning scrimmage and we both watched Morris Lukowich burst in from the left wing and snap a shot into the top corner.

“Watching that is better than having sex,” Tommy said in his big, baritone voice that sounded like it came from the bottom of an oil drum.

“Geez Tom,” I responded, “that doesn’t say much for your wife.”

“Maybe not, but she didn’t score 60 goals last season.”

No one else had that quote.

Bob Cameron
  • At another training camp in another sport, I went on the prowl for veteran punter Bob Cameron, the senior citizen of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I located him, alone, in a small room. He was tugging at his eyebrows, first the left then the right…then the left then the right.

“What are you doing, Bob?” I asked.

“Checking out my eyebrows,” he replied. “I’ve already got old man eyebrows. I’m not old enough to have old man eyebrows. I have to trim these suckers. I need a pair of scissors. You don’t have any scissors on you, do ya?”

I scribbled a column on Bob’s eyebrows, because only I had that quirky quote.

  • I was writing for the Toronto Sun in 1982 when Jimmy Mann of the Jets sucker punched Paul Gardner, breaking his jaw in two places. Not long after that, the Jets were in the Republic of Tranna for a skirmish with the Maple Leafs, and I was sitting with a gaggle of news snoops about two dozen rows from the ice surface in Maple Leaf Gardens. The Jets were below us, going through the motions of a pre-game skate.

At one point, Jimmy wandered off on his own, stopping at the nearby boards and motioning to me. I withdrew myself from the pack of news snoops, and met him.

“There’s something everyone needs to know,” he said.

“What’s that, Jimmy?” I asked.

“I am not an animal.”

That was the big, bold, shouting headline on the front page of our sports section the next day. Neither the Globe and Mail nor the Toronto Star had that quote, but it was used in follow-up articles.

But again, unlike today’s batch of news snoops who have zero access except via Zoom, we had the advantage of going one-on-one with the athletes/coaches. Hell, we could call them at home. And that, in turn, meant the readers weren’t finding the same old, same old in each of the newspapers or on air.

I’m uncertain how it will shake down once we’re past the pandemic, but it will never be the way it was back in the day.

And that’s why I feel bad for the girls and boys on the beat. Nobody’s dog died, but they’re all barking up the same tree, and that’s most unfortunate.

A close encounter with Mr. Cough Up A Lung…things that make me go hmmm…Ellen and Portia in their Alcatraz mansion…NHL teams still spending…at home with TSN…reinventing the sports page…and other things that make me go hmmm

So, I had my second WTF pandemic experience while at the market the other day and, of course, it was unpleasant. With gusts up to ghastly.

Standing in the checkout line, I heard coughing a few feet to my aft. It wasn’t just a controlled, clearing of the throat kind of cough, understand. This was hork-up-a-football kind of stuff. Hack! Hack! Hack!

I turned and observed an unkempt man of substantial girth.

I noted, with an appropriate level of alarm, that he wasn’t covering his mouth and—get this, kids—he had a protective face mask dangling from his freaking neck. Now, I realize those things are optional, but this dude was under the misguided notion that his green mask was a fashion accessory from the Armani COVID-19/2020 Spring Line.

I cringed and edged toward the checkout counter, whereupon Mr. Cough Up A Lung attempted to cut me off. The gall.

I glared as only a prunish, little old lady in a supermarket checkout queue can glare. (It’s a stern look that strongly suggests you don’t want to get prickly with me, buster.) He backed off, as if I was packing heat, but not without a grunt of disapproval.

“You were in line before him,” the store clerk quietly confirmed scant seconds later.

We both glanced in his direction. He wiped his nose with a bare left hand, and I just about lost the fried ham-and-egg sandwich I’d had for breakfast.

I paid for my goods, hurriedly packaged them and left my cart for an employee, who correctly noted that I seemed edgy. She sprayed the cart with a bottle of disinfectant, then wiped it down, and a thought occurred that I might have her hose me down, as well. Or perhaps have her dial 1-800-COVID-19 and report the cad. But I chose to scurry through the exit instead, like there was an unpaid-for rump roast hidden under my cape.

I squirmed during the entirety of a five-minute trek home, knowing the back of my garments and hair were coated with the oaf’s spittle and phlegm.

I can only hope I got rid of all his creepy-crawlies, but there’s no guarantee.

Like I said, it was a WTF moment.

Things that make me go hmmm, Vol. 1: There’s supposed to be approximately six feet of physical distancing between us while we’re out and about during the pandemic. Or, in Canadian measure, the length of a hockey stick. Hmmm. Judging by the closeness of folks I saw on the street, they think it’s the hockey stick Wayne Gretzky used when he was a toddler.

Ellen’s Alcatraz

There are good jokes, there are bad jokes, and there are jokes that fall flatter than any 10 miles of Saskatchewan tundra. Ellen DeGeneres knows all about that, because the TV gab gal did a blah, blah, blah thing from home last week, and not even the laugh track from an Archie Bunker rerun could have saved her.

“Today,” she said, “I am filming this in my living room because it has the best light and sound and all the other rooms in my house are filled with toilet paper.”

I giggled. Then this…

“One thing that I’ve learned from being in quarantine is that people—this is like being in jail, is what it is,” she regretfully continued. “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.”

That’s $27 million, 8,188 square feet, six bedrooms and 8.24 oceanside acres worth of jail. In lovely Montecito, Ca. The Crowbar Inn it ain’t. Oh, and Ellen’s cellmate? Why, that would be her her bride, Portia de Rossi, who’s gorgeous and lovely. Such a hardship that must be.

Ellen has yet to offer a mea culpa for the offensive portion of the video, but she, or a convenient flunky, performed a hasty edit and the reference to her personal Alcatraz no longer exists.

Interesting to note that Portia de Rossi, when not working the camera and lighting for the daytime TV diva’s home show, is teaching herself to cook during the lockdown. Main course? Ellen’s Humble Pie, of course.

Things that make me go hmmm, Vol. 2: Some cab drivers have refused to transport nurses to and fro. Some banks and pharmacies aren’t allowing nurses to enter their facilities. Some scoundrels have stolen medical equipment from nurses and paramedics. An Asian nurse was hit with an umbrella and spat on. A guy hurled a huge splat of spit on the floor buttons of a Vancouver apartment elevator. Hmmm. You don’t suppose there’s a special corner in hell reserved for those people, do you?

Can you count to 19,027,499, kids? That’s how many American greenbacks National Hockey League outfits committed to just nine greenhorns in the past six days. Leading the way was Dylan Samberg, a runny-nose rearguard whose $3.525-million deal with the Winnipeg Jets included a $92,500 signing bonus. Cole Holts ($92,500), Cameron Crotty ($92,500), Cole Schwindt ($92,500), Alexander Barabanov ($92,500), Mark Kastelic ($80,000) and David Tendeck ($50,000) also were handed bonuses for doing squat. Hey, I don’t blame the kids for the cash grab, but it seems to me that there’s something totally tone deaf, also odious, about NHL teams signing players to six- and seven-figure contracts when half the people in North America are wondering when their next paycheque will arrive.

At home with Rod Smith.

This week in jock journalism…

TSN resurrected its signature SportsCentre, which had been put on the shelf for two weeks because there just wasn’t anything to talk about other than COVID-19 shutting down the playground. Turns out there still wasn’t much to talk about other than COVID-19 shutting down the playground, but Rod Smith gave it his best shot.

Rod anchored the gig from his home and, get this, not once did he grumble about jail, hoarding toilet paper or the number of gay people in the room.

I don’t recall Rod saying who was working the camera, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Portia de Rossi.

Anyway, as mentioned, the show was low on substance and high on vacant blah, blah, blah and, truthfully, the most interesting aspect was our peek-a-boo at the various TSN personalties’ dwellings.

Smith, for example, sat at a desk with a shelving unit as a backdrop. It included: Books, two footballs (one deflated, no doubt autographed by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick), a vintage radio, a vintage camera, a mini Team Canada jersey, a coffee mug, two ceramic beer mugs, and a football team photo.

At home with James Duthie, Dregs. Pierre LeBrun and the Bobfather.

The rest of the roster looked like this:
Mark Masters: Bobble head dolls, books, a world globe, a framed document, a cap.
Frank Seravalli: A pair of skates, a Gritty doll, a typewriter, a hockey helmet, a mini Stanley Cup, books, Canadian and American flags, a mini Liberty Bell.
Gino Reda: A goalie mask, a pic of Gordie Howe, a hockey puck, a golf flag from a Wayne Gretzky tournament, some kind of medal, three books, a big red Maple Leaf, a mini Grey Cup, a trophy.
Darren Dreger: An old fashioned radio microphone, sports books, a bobblehead doll, a framed picture, a Gemini Award.
Bob McKenzie: A glass bowl, a plant, a framed print, three gold candles.
Pierre LeBrun: A pic of 2004 Team Canada from the world championships, a framed pic of Martin Brodeur (I think. It might be Bill Ranford).
James Duthie: French doors, family photos, two tall glass thingies.
Matthew Scianitti: Books, a football, the word “Believe.”
Farhan Lalji: Various framed pics and newspaper clippings.
Dave Naylor: Books.

Paul Maurice

Both Paul Maurice and Kevin Cheveldayoff emerged from hiding to flap gums and wag chins with news snoops and, naturally, the Winnipeg Sun and the Drab Slab dutifully recorded their pearls of wisdom. I didn’t read a word of what the Jets coach and GM had to say, but let me sum it up for you in 21 words: “Yes, we’re disappointed the NHL season was put on pause; yes, we’d like to see the season completed; wash your hands.” Let me know if I’m wrong.

Memo to the boys on the beat: Just because Maurice and Cheveldayoff move their lips, it doesn’t make it news.

On that note, interesting comment from Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna: “Rather than talk about possibilities of completing the season or playoffs, why doesn’t Gary Bettman just say this: When there’s something to announce, we’ll announce it. Until then, we’re staying home and social distancing. The regular peddling of hope comes off as either disingenuous or delusional.” Here’s a better question: Why do the Postmedia papers run a story every time the NHL commish opens his mouth? If what Bettman says is “disingenuous or delusional,” shouldn’t Postmedia stop reporting it?

Sports sections (those that survive COVID-19) have a chance to reinvent themselves with activity in the playground on pause. Rather than ignore the existence of the Internet and continue to churn out the same old, same old copy that’s ancient news by the time it lands on a reader’s doorstep, they can be delivering more of a magazine-style product. Give us some quality deep-dive reads, give us a package of quirky quick-hits, give us some Q&As that delve into social issues, give us off-beat, give us personality and entertainment. Just don’t keep giving us boring.

Got a kick out of this line from Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab: “Sam Katz has worn many hats in his lifetime. Which is why his take on the COVID-19 pandemic—from government response to the short and long-term impact on citizens, communities and even sports clubs—carries plenty of weight.” Oh for gawd’s sake. Sam Katz is relevant like the back of a garbage truck is a salad bar. He has nothing of significance to add to the coronavirus discussion. I spent 30 years in jock journalism and I never met a phonier man than the Winnipeg Goldeyes owner. And that’s saying something, because I covered a lot of boxing.

And, finally, things that make me go hmmm, Vol. 3: Donald Trump, the apprentice president of the U.S., seems to think the COVID-19 pandemic is more about his TV ratings than body counts. Hmmm. If the guy can’t be Time Magazine Man of the Year, he’s a shoo-in for TV Guide Man of the Year.

COVID-19 and the Live and Let Die syndrome

Let’s say I contract COVID-19.

And let’s say I’m in a hospital bed, struggling for what might be my final breath. Someone half my age, also in last-gasp mode, is bedded down in the room next to mine. We both need a ventilator. There’s only one available.

So which of us lives and which of us dies?

Well, a rousing game of rock, scissors, paper to claim dibs on the ventilator is out of the question because, hey, we’re dying and I’m not prepared to squander my final wheeze on a silly schoolyard/pub game. So, what, we leave it up to the medics to decide? Nope. Not moi. I insist that the 35-year-old live on.

Which means, yes, I’m quite prepared to die, and I’d rather spare any doctor the uncomfortable dilemma of making the COVID-19 choice of live and let die.

Death doesn’t frighten me, you see.

Actually, I don’t think anyone truly fears death. The fear is in not living any longer. We fear leaving before we have fulfilled a dream, or before saying what needs to be said, or before counting all of our money. We fear the loss of those external elements that we believe make us who we are. We fear death of self before death itself.

But is death not the ultimate confirmation that we have lived? Without death, there is no complete life.

I’m now in my 70th lap around ol’ Sol, and mortality has dogged me for the past 20 years. It’s what happens when we arrive at a certain station of life and, for me, that was age 50, when the angels began to collect former newspaper colleagues, honorable adversaries and dear friends at an alarming rate.

Gone are Matty and Pick and Witt and Gus and Jon and Shawn and Abby and Robby and Skull and Siggy and Reyn and Shaky and the Baron and Trent and Jeems and Milt and Chester and Cowboy and Bish and Billy P—all 20 of them leaving since the turn of the century, which doesn’t seem that long ago. I admired those people and learned something about journalism from each of them in different ways. What to do, what not to do, how to do it, how not to do it. Some valuable life lessons were tossed into the mix, as well.

And that’s only a partial list of the dearly departed. It doesn’t include the numerous sports figures—Fergy, Baiz, Moosie, Frank McKinnon, Vic Peters, etc.—with whom I once shared space and oxygen. Nor fellow elbow-benders like wee Des, Georgie Boy and Hillbilly John. Again, all gone in the past 20 years.

I don’t dwell on death, but it is a constant for those of my vintage, and never more so than now, with the COVID-19 body count rising each day.

Medics like B.C.’s top doc, Dr. Bonnie Henry, talk about an “ethical framework” that determines who does and who doesn’t get a ventilator if we reach crunch time during the pandemic, but I prefer to take it out of their hands.

If it’s between me and someone with plenty of runway remaining, I’m good to go.

Donald Trump

So, Donald Trump wants to see activity in the playground “very soon,” and the American president believes it will be business as usual for the National Football League in September. “I want fans back in the arenas…whenever we’re ready, I mean, as soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey,” he told news snoops on Saturday. Well, that’s a warm-and-fuzzy sentiment, but also extremely unicorn-ish and full of fairy dust. “Nobody gives a shit (about sports) right now…better to turn hockey rinks into makeshift hospitals or morgues,” says Dr. Alan Drummond of the Canadian Association of Emergency Room Physicians. So there.

If Donald Trump refuses to ship 3M protective masks to our Canadian health workers, I say we recall Neil Young, Alex Trebek and the Stanley Cup. But they have to keep Celine Dion, Howie Mandel and Nickelback.

Most of us follow our personal doctors’ advice. I mean, if told to take two aspirin and call ol’ sawbones in the morning, I take two aspirin and make that call. Yet when the finest medical minds in our country advise us what to do (stay the frig home) during the COVID-19 crisis, they are ignored by many among the rabble. I find that to be a most curious bit of business. Even more curious: Why would it take a celebrity athlete, singer or movie star doing a PSA to convince some that the safest place to be right now is behind our own closed doors? Seriously, you’ll listen to, say, Connor McDavid instead of Dr. Theresa Tam? The mind boggles.

Ashley (DeadEye) Jones

On the subject of boggled minds, mine went for a shake, rattle and roll the other day when I happened upon something called Swamp People during a channel surfing expedition. Yowzas. What some folks won’t do for a buck. They get their kicks—and earn a healthy portion of their yearly income—by grabbing guns and hunting alligators in the thick of the Atchafalaya River Basin swamps in Louisiana every September. Not surprisingly, most of the Swamp People are men, but one woman was featured on the show, and I can guarantee you that Ashley (DeadEye) Jones is someone you want on your side when the fur starts to fly. Working solo on an air boat, she tagged three gators and lived to talk about it over some Cajun cooking. Truthfully, I didn’t know people like this even existed, but these ‘gator trolls have been on the History Channel for 11 years.

Tough times continue to hit the rag trade due to COVID-19, and the Winnipeg Free Press has asked workers to take a 12-to-20 per cent whack to their wages. Publisher Bob Cox took the lead, with a 50 per cent slash to his salary, and we can only wonder what newspapers will look like when we break through to the other side of this thing. Many won’t make it.

About two weeks ago, columnist Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna was bragging about a 20-page sports section in the Toronto Sun, at the same time ridiculing the Toronto Star for running just two pages of sports coverage. It was a disturbing and tone-deaf boast. Today, the Sun has shrunk from 20 pages to 12 pages of nothing worth reading, with no section cover. Like the aforementioned Dr. Alan Drummond submits, “Nobody gives a shit (about sports).”

If you’re having trouble coping with self-isolation, consider that this is how many of our seniors live year-round. It might be health/mobility reasons that keep them inside, in might be financial, it might be a lack of motivation to get out and about. Whatever the case, many seniors are out of sight, but that doesn’t mean they should be out of mind. Give a kind thought to our elderly. They’ve earned it.

Let’s talk about this week in jock journalism, with canoodling and crickets and a Chihuahua chase and cop cars and Harry Potter and Generation All Thumbs and boxscores…

My, oh my, the things we learn from the sports pages these days.

I mean, did you know that a chameleon eats approximately 15 live crickets every other day? Did you know that losing a neighbor’s dog can land you in the back seat of a cop car? Did you know that people gather on large fields to run around with broomsticks stuffed between their legs and call it a sport?

True, true and true.

Here’s something else you probably didn’t know: “Morgan Rielly and Tessa Virtue are the pandemic love story we need right now.” That was a headline in the Globe and Mail on Friday. Hmmm. And here I thought what we needed most during the COVID-19 pandemic was toilet paper. Silly me.

Morgan and Tessa

“Who needs Harry and Meghan when we’ve got such an appealing couple?” asks Marty Klinkenberg, a Globe scribe anchored in Edmonton.

He also informs us that the Tranna Maple Leafs defender and the darling of our fancy skaters created “a Canada-wide buzz” when first observed in public together on Jan. 8, at one of those fancy-schmancy functions that only the pretty people get to attend in the Republic of Tranna. Again, silly me. I thought that “buzz” I heard on Jan. 8—and every day since—was my tinnitus, which has reached banshee-level in volume.

Whatever, Tessa and Morgan are the power couple we apparently “need” while people are dying across the country, and I just hope they don’t expect us taxpayers to pick up the tab for their security.

Canoodling of the rich and fabulous aside, since COVID-19 shut down the playground last month, the majority of our jock journalists have been feeding from the same trough of storylines.

To wit:

* Life is bigger than sports.
* (Insert athlete’s name) is disappointed the Olympics have been postponed.
* (Insert athlete’s name) is looking forward to the Olympics next year.
* (Insert athlete’s name) is disappointed the NHL/NBA/MLB season have been put on hold.
* (Insert athlete’s name) is doing (insert activity) to keep busy during the lockdown.
* (Insert athlete’s name) is looking forward to the day sports resumes.
* Why is (insert organization’s name) waiting so long to cancel the season?

And, of course, there’s been a steady stream of retro looks at everything from the Richard Riot to Jesus feeding a gathering of 5,000 with just five loaves of bread and two rainbow trout. (Any day now, I expect a TSN Top 10 featuring Christ’s miracles.)

But some among our flowers of jock journalism managed to add a colorful twist or two to the usual hum-drum storylines related to COVID-19 in the past week. And a couple went totally off-script.

For example:

  • Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail told us about taking his neighbor’s dog, Chili, for a walk.

“My new best friend and I were ambling down a formerly busy stretch of King Street in Toronto when I felt a tug on the leash behind me,” he wrote. “I turned to look. And what I was looking at was a collar no longer attached to a dog.”

A Chihuahua chase and a rollicking romp ensued, with Kelly eventually finding himself confined to the back seat of a cop car.

“It’s even tighter in there than I remembered,” he remembered.

I’d like to tell you how the story ends for Cathal and Chili the Chihuahua, but you really should read it for yourself. It’s fun stuff.

  • Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun informed us that Olympic-wannabe swimmer Kelsey Wog is into reptiles, specifically chameleons, those crafty, little lizards that change colors (you know, kind of like Tom Brady going from blue, red, silver and white to red, pewter, black and bay orange). Chameleons fancy insects, so, by Jiminy, cricket shopping is part of Kelsey’s regular routine.

“They probably eat, like, 15 or so every other day,” Wog told Friesen. “We got 200 today. We just go when we run out.”

Just wondering: Is the local Crickets ‘R’ Us store considered an essential service during a pandemic?

  • Terry Jones of Postmedia E-Town wrote about dodge ball and something quirky called Quidditch.

“What I’d give for some good quidditch quotes right now. Or some decent dodgeball data,” he lamented, tongue firmly in cheek.

I had never heard of Quidditch until I read Jonesy’s column, and I’m still not totally convinced it actually exists anywhere other than in J.K. Rowling’s fertile mind. The Harry Potter author apparently fictionalized Quidditch in one of her books, but it’s rumored to be a very real thing, whereby people of otherwise sound logic tuck broomsticks between their legs and scurry about a large pitch attempting to toss balls through hoops. There are chasers, beaters, keepers and seekers, all of whom believe running with a broomstick stuffed between their legs is safer than running with scissors.

I suppose it is, but I’d say this broomstick-between-the-legs business gives new meaning to the term “bust his balls,” except some women also play Quidditch, and I can only wonder why.

  • Steve Simmons of Postmedia Tranna paralleled current COVID-19 self-isolation to a different time and place.

“In a way, this reminds me of rainy days at our tiny cottage when I was a kid,” he wrote. “You weren’t allowed outside. You didn’t have much inside. You stayed in and watched the rain. There was no television or computers or phones to play with—but somehow the time passed and usually quite pleasantly. We played cards and records and Monopoly and Rummoli and backgammon and Scrabble and Boggle, depending on what age we were. We danced. We sang. We made up songs. We invented games. We played charades. We did jigsaw puzzles. Everything was some kind of competition.”

Hey, maybe there’s a Quidditch board game that today’s Generation Xbox can embrace. Naw, probably not. There’s no joy for Generation All Thumbs unless it includes a joystick or a controller gamepad.

  • Mad Mike McIntyre of the Drab Slab is so saddened by the worldwide jock shutdown that he wrote “a love letter, of sorts, to sports” and counted the many ways he misses activity in the playground.

“I miss pouring through the statistics in various leagues, combing through boxscores and leaders in every category,” went part of his moan. He also misses “being in the press box, Paul Maurice’s daily gab sessions, the roar of the crowd, going to the gym, and getting excited (about a fresh Blue Jays season).”

I’d tell Mad Mike to get a life, but he’s right: Most of us are missing what we consider the good things in our lives. He’s also correct when he tells us that the COVID-19 pandemic “shall pass.”

I just hope I remember where I parked my broomstick when we break through to the other side. Can’t wait to give Quidditch a go. Or not.

Nothing but fake news in shrinking sports sections

No one can see the finish line, no one knows where the finish line is, and we are left to wonder what the wide, wide world of sports will look like once squints and medics around the world force COVID-19 to tap out.

That includes the sports sections of our daily news sheets.

Back on the Ides of March, I gave a worrisome nod to the girls and boys on the jock beat, suggesting they’d be running on fumes by now, with little or nothing to write about other than the coronavirus ransacking the playground.

“Truthfully, I’m concerned about today’s jock journos, print division,” I wrote. “They had no desire to quit sports, but sports has quit them. And now they’ll begin to run on fumes. I mean, they’ve already exhausted their main talking point—shutting down was ‘the right thing do do; life is bigger than sports’—so there’s nothing left for them to wax on about until the squints (scientists) have their say, and that might be many, many months from now. Their only hope is for the Olympic Games to proceed, which is a faint and delusional expectation, and I’m sure it’s a shuddering reality for some. I really wonder how many of them will still be there when sports breaks through to the other side (of the coronavirus).”

So here we are, 11 days later, and how is it working out for them so far?

Three words: Running on fumes.

Oh, they’re fighting the good fight, to be sure. Every morning, I call up the two dailies in Good Ol’ Hometown to get an update on the coronavirus scourge, and I also note that the Winnipeg Sun still has a sports section while the Drab Slab continues to make room, albeit limited, for the games people no longer play due to COVID-19.

Today, for example, there are 11 pages of sports in the Sun, and we’ll have to overlook the reality that six of those pages, including an ode to Vince Carter cover, are devoted to athletes and teams from the Republic of Tranna, which makes it the Winnironto Sun more than the Winnipeg Sun. The Free Press, meanwhile, has eliminated its sports section Monday-Friday, and today tucked its four pages of jock jottings (mostly local) in with the funnies, the TV listings, the crossword puzzles and other word games.

Is any of it worth reading? Well, that’s a matter of opinion, of course, but I’m guessing that most among the rabble in Good Ol’ Hometown could get through their day without “reliving the Bautista bat flip” or reliving “the VINSANITY” and taking a “look back at the Vince Carter era with the Raptors.”

That’s what the Sun served up. Like I said, running on fumes.

There wasn’t anything quite so outrageous in the Drab Slab, but last weekend the Freep ran its jock version of War and Peace—a 3,000-plus-word article with thumbnails on every man who laced up a skate and played professional hockey in North America this past winter. Like I said, running on fumes.

It seems to me, though, that the Freep is going about it the right way by shrinking its sports coverage.

I mean, we keep hearing that life is bigger than sports, yet the people at Postmedia apparently didn’t receive the memo. Indeed, one of the chain’s main jock journos, Steve Simmons of the Tranna Sun, delivered this shockingly tone-deaf tweet the other day:

“If you still want to read about sports, you need to keep reading the Toronton Sun. 20 pages today. 14 bylines. Stories about Olympics, NBA, NHL, Leafs, NFL, CFL, horse racing. Our rival today: two pages of sports, two bylines.”

Apparently, Simmons and Donald Trump share a brain.

Seriously, he believes this is about page counts, not body counts? Perhaps the country’s top doc, Dr. Theresa Tam, can include the Toronto Sun-Toronto Star page counts in her next address to the nation. You know, before she bores us with updates on the death toll and tells us how many doctors, nurses and other health-care workers have been ordered into quarantine. (Yes, kids, that’s sarcasm.)

You don’t shame the Toronto Star or the Winnipeg Free Press or the Montreal Gazette because they choose to focus on COVID-19 instead of running installment No. 54,793 in the Tom Brady Saga. You applaud them for it.

Sports isn’t important right now. Ninety-nine per cent of what’s being put on the sports pages these days is fake news that we don’t need, and it isn’t just in the rag trade. TSN, Sportsnet and The Athletic are also faking it. Here are some headlines I read in the past 10 days:

  • “How a shortened MLB season could impact Blue Jays?”

  • “Can Toronto survive with so much cap space devoted to four players?”

  • “Top 11 (purely hypothetical) NHL compliance buyout candidates.”

  • “Inside the ’92 ALCS that redefined the Toronto Blue Jays.”

  • “Down Goes Brown: Ranking all 67 hat tricks from the 2019-20 season.”

  • And my personal favorite: “Why did it take so long to postpone Olympics?”

Good grief. Does it really matter that the International Olympic Committee took its sweet time before snuffing out the flame for the Tokyo Games? No. It only matters that they did the right thing.

None of us knows what’s on the other side of COVID-19, but it surely won’t look the same as it did going in. Newspapers are slashing salaries. Shutting down. Those that haven’t are laying off staff. Sports scribes are being shuffled to newsside to write about germs.

Will Postmedia still be printing a broadsheet and a tabloid in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton by the time it’s all over? Frankly, I fear the worst. I just hope I’m wrong.

Michael Sam: There are no gay voices in Canadian jock journalism to tell the story about a gay football player

And, now, a word about Michael Sam from all the gay sports writers at major daily newspapers in Canada…

Oh. Wait. There are no gay sports writers at the major dailies in Canada.

patti dawn swansson
patti dawn swansson

At least, there are none that I know of.

So, everything that you have read, or will read, about Michael Sam potentially performing in the Canadian Football League comes from the perspective of white heterosexual males, or, in much smaller numbers, white heterosexual females.

Some of them will care that Sam is gay, only because it gives them a fresh angle to scribble about once the large lads commence to grabbing grass and growling at the Montreal Alouettes training camp this month and next. He’ll make for juicy copy. Others will care because of the social significance of an openly gay man participating in the most macho of professional team sports. Still others will care because they are homophobic (if you believe there aren’t homophobes among the flowers of print jock journalists, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Winnipeg that I’d like to sell you).

Nary a word, however, will be written by a man or woman who actually understands what it’s like to be gay.

I maintain that one need not be gay to write about gay issues, any more than one need be an accomplished actor to opine about the merits of George Clooney’s latest work, or a priest to discuss the pros and cons of the 10 commandments.

It helps, though.

I mean, only a gay person can write the Sam story with an appropriate portion of passion. Only a gay person can relate to the paralyzing fear and anxiety of being outed, or coming out, to friends, family and co-workers. Only a gay person knows the sting of rejection and discrimination based soley on a preference of bedmates. Only a gay person can relate to the catcalls and hate language borne of homophobia.

How does one get to the meat of an issue if she or he cannot possibly understand the issue?

I often write about LGBT matters not merely because they are important to me, but because they are me. I live it. Every day. I know what Michael Sam has gone through. What he is going through. What he will go through. It’s all on a different scale and in a different arena, that’s all.

The point is, I can write it from a personal perspective. Nobody in Canada’s mostly white, mostly old-boys club of heterosexual sports scribes can do that vis-a-vis Sam.

Is that important? Absolutely, because it speaks to credibility.

Why do you think we see so many ex-jocks propped up as talking heads on the various panels on televised hockey, football, baseball, basketball, soccer, etc.? Let go of the notion that some of them (hello P.J. Stock, Glenn Healy, Nick Kypreos, Glen Suitor, Milt Stegall, etc.) can be terribly annoying. They’re there because they’ve been there, done that.

Doug Brown, ex of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, pens a piece in the Winnipeg Free Press not because he’s a gifted wordsmith. In general, the former defensive lineman’s weekly column is an exercise in how many big words he can cram into his alloted space. On occasion, however, he puts major points on the scoreboard because he takes us inside the locker room and into the players’ heads, something only a gridiron gladiator who spent considerable time in the trenches can do.

In the case of Sam, who signed a two-year contract with the Als on Friday, I suspect Brown’s next offering will do that very thing.

Assuming Sam survives the final cut and is with the Larks for a portion, or the entirety, of the 2015 CFL season, the “gay” angle will be beaten to death. Like it or not. And it’s my guess that sports scribes across the nation will offer a favorable slant on the one-time Missouri Tiger defensive end’s personal story.

Unfortunately, their copy will be devoid of passion, insight and first-hand knowledge. In other words, the mountain of Sam stuff you read will be missing everything that writing should be about.

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