Boswell notes import of being a sportswriter

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: We ought never forget how absurdly fortunate we are to work as sports journalists, writes ANTON RIPPON

When the Sports Journalists’ Association’s president, Patrick Collins, told the Association’s 2015 annual meeting that his had been “an absurdly fortunate” career, those gathered in an upstairs room at the Old Cock Tavern on Fleet Street knew exactly what he meant. To be actually paid for writing about something as trivial as sport does seem a rather preposterous way to earn a living. War reporting, yes. But sport?

Tom Boswell: sportswriter with right priorities
Tom Boswell: sportswriter with right priorities

Bill Shankly might have said that football was more important than life and death. But, of course, he wasn’t being altogether serious. Shanks just knew how to capture an audience. Even the most fanatical supporter wouldn’t accept promotion to the Premier League in return for a few years less to live. Although I know at least one die-hard Derby County fan who might have been tempted to emulate Dr Faustus and turn their soul over to Lucifer in return for reversing a 3-0 home stuffing by Hull City in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final. The shame of that will haunt us Rams fans for many a long day.

That is the thing about football: it may not be more important than living or dying, but it is about more that just the winning, the losing, the drawing. If, as happened to me on a train recently, when a likely looking stranger strikes up a conversation, and you express the view that some Arsenal fans are an ungrateful lot for campaigning to see Arsene Wenger sacked, and the stranger can’t wait to tell you: “I’m not interested in sport,” well you soon lose interest in talking to them.

We talk more about sport than we do anything else, even the weather, and certainly more than politics. So maybe being paid to write about it doesn’t seem so ludicrous after all.

The other day I came across a cracking book about sports journalism, published in 1992 – never underestimate the value of an Oxfam shop – in which the Washington Post sports columnist, Thomas Boswell, considers Collins’s “absurdly fortunate” way to earn a living. In the introduction to Game Day, a collection of Boswell’s work between 1970 and 1990 (the 68-year-old is still writing for the paper he joined in 1969) he says: “The fun of writing a column about sports is that, much of the time, you aren’t really writing about sports at all. You’re writing about what might be called the common sense ethics of everyday living. Game are about who won, who lost, and how. But they are also about what’s right, what’s wrong, and why.”

Boswell says that talking about sport is a good way of probing people, learning about them, judging their values. Are they generous, broadminded? Or are they envious and judgemental?

According to Boswell, any woman who marries a man with no favourite team, no childhood hero, and an incurable need to telephone a sports talk radio programme at one in the morning has probably hooked herself a cold fish.

Much of the sub-text of sport is about morals. Says Boswell: “A large part of a sportswriter’s job, although it is seldom acknowledged, is to present, as clearly as possible, the central characters and issues in what amounts to an ongoing national conversation about mores: how do we act and how should we act?”

Boswell asks: “At what point does obsession with victory reduce an entire sport to absurdity?”

Whenever I see Jürgen Klopp interviewed, I can’t help but feel that, deep down, the Liverpool manager regards football management as an absurd way to earn a living. He never seems too far from wondering what it’s all about, and he seems amused by it all. That infectious smile seems to ask: “What am I doing here?”

But never underestimate the value of football, or most other sports.

Boswell holds: “Sports, with their artificial simplicity, their final scores, their winners and losers, prod us away from that sea of gray, at least for a while.”

JB Priestley: knew a thing or two about the place of sport
JB Priestley: knew a thing or two about the place of sport

JB Priestley said as much in The Good Companions, when he wrote about Bruddersford United AFC: “ … it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art. … A man who had missed the last home match of ‘t’United’ had to enter social life on tiptoe in Bruddersford … ”

Writing in 1992, Tom Boswell said: “For 21 years at the Washington Post, I have, like other sportswriters, had a great luxury. I’ve been allowed to report and write several thousand stories without ever being ordered to produce anything of lasting worth.

“If I couldn’t figure out a person or a team, if I couldn’t understand an issue, if I couldn’t crack the case, nobody threatened to fire me. As long as I got the facts right, met the deadline, wrote to length, and didn’t get us sued, I was free to proceed to the next job. And hope for better luck.”

Maybe that is the absurdity of our trade.

  • Anton Rippon is an SJA member and regular contributor to this site. Derby-based, he was a long-time football reporter for the Sunday Telegraph, the founder and former owner of sports book publishers Breedon Books, and the author of numerous books on sport and history