Inspired by my favorite podcast, The Road to Now, and some work I’m starting looking at the historical roots of access in sports journalism, I’m publishing parts of my dissertation that describe the history of sports journalism. This is part 3 of 3
We can’t talk about the history of sports journalism without dealing with its relationship to other forms of journalism. Sports journalism’s place within journalism as a whole has always been a complicated one. In his memoir, No Time Outs, Christopher Walsh writes:
“We are the enemy; we are free publicity. We are valuable commodities; we are expendable. We have the greatest jobs in the world; we have no lives. We are not real journalists; we are the best journalism has to offer.”
That quote highlights this relationship. Sports coverage is popular, and has been for more than 100 years. Since the days of the Penny Press, sports coverage has been a means to increase a newspaper’s circulation. People want to read about their hometown teams. Robert McChesney wrote that sports coverage became important to newspapers in large part because sports is ideologically safe — it doesn’t offend people, boosts civic pride and contributes to the perceived well-being of a community. This ideological safety, however, runs counter to the self-perceived role of traditional news journalism. This leads news journalists to view sports journalism as mere entertainment, not “real journalism.”. Where news journalism has its roots in the idea of being the fourth-estate and the public watchdog on public officials, sports journalism’s roots are far more promotional. James Michener wrote that “One of the happiest relationships in American society is between sports and the media” (p. 355). In the 19th century, media played a critical role in making sport both an acceptable social institution and a popular commercial one. Through their coverage and promotional efforts, newspaper sports journalists helped to standardize and codify the rules of horse racing, baseball and college football, and television coverage starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s led to the growth of the NFL as the country’s most popular sport.
Scholars and observers have noted that sports and the media have long had a symbiotic relationship. Media have relied on sports’ popularity to increase circulation and readership, and sports have relied on media coverage for free publicity. In the early days of the 20th century, teams routinely paid for reporters’ food at home games and travel to road games, with the expectation of positive, promotional coverage in return. Arch Ward, the influential sports editor of the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, openly curried the favor of leagues and teams, expecting preferential access in. George Vecsey wrote in his memoir that he and his colleagues at New York City newspapers in the 1960s made a concerted effort to assert their editorial independence in part by paying for the own travel and traveling on their own, rather than on the team planes or trains. Those norms and practices of early sports journalists are a legacy still adopted by the current profession, but the legacy of that history remains in how sports journalism is viewed by “real” journalists.