Columnists: They Write and Rant, but Are They Right to Root?

First published in The War Eagle Reader.  You can find it here.

Last week, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy laid it down for Boston sports fans in a column titled, “Your Sports Columnist Is Here to Write, Not to Root.” (Read it quick; Globe links have a shorter life than fruit flies.)

In the column, Shaughnessy makes the following statement about Boston sports teams: “I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. … I love the story.”

It’s a good opportunity to talk about what Auburn fans should expect from their sports journalists, especially their columnists — and maybe to call Shaughnessy on his statement above, though just a little.

What Shaughnessy is stating might be an idealistic standard more than daily practice for columnists, of whom Shaughnessy is definitely one of the best.  When times are bad, particularly, that statement is their North Star.

What prompted Shaughnessy’s column, clearly, is Globe readers’ anger that he has been so critical of the New England Patriots recently, during what has been a difficult season for them.  So he issued his declaration of principles above.

But I would also argue that Shaughnessy and his colleagues do care if the home teams win or lose. And, I would add, that’s OK.

While it’s possible and commendable for a columnist to be objective, it is also undoubtedly true that even an objective columnist recognizes that a home team doing well is a good thing for the community, and he or she (too often he) can reflect that in columns.

State opinion on Auburn’s miraculous run has been positive, especially as it relates to the state’s BCS streak.  You didn’t see post-Georgia columns with the headline “Disastrous 4th-Q Collapse” or post-Iron Bowl columns decrying, “Embarrassing 2nd Q!”

The same is true of Shaughnessy’s columns, especially during Boston’s pro sports teams’ recent run of good results.  And Shaughnessy’s extensive bibliography of Boston sports books are not filled with angry venom, either.

When Boston won the World Series, he didn’t grouse about poor trades or roster moves.  But you can also be sure that during the Bobby Valentine season of chaos, he was just as critical.

Side issue: I should warn you that reading Shaughnessy’s past columns could cost you all of 99 cents for four weeks.  The Globe has its archives shut up tighter than a college football practice session.  Even academic sources on Auburn’s library site do not offer the Globe.  At a time when news outlets are struggling to generate revenue, I say good for them. But back to the topic.

In my Sports Reporting class, I give three standards for a good column — and to Spring 2014 class members: You are still required to show up for this lecture.

A column informs. The columnist introduces new information and reporting, along with intelligent analysis of info and stats.  It should not be merely a rehash of fan comments or pushing of buttons.

A column engages.  A good columnist develops a long-term relationship with his readers — not just by angering or reinforcing them, but by establishing an interactive, intelligent (on the columnist’s side) and sometimes emotional discussion. Shaughnessy is an expert at this.

A column upholds.  Much like good political commentary should look out for the voters (not just one political party), good sports commentary looks out for the fans and for the purity of sport — to give them the best for their valuable attention and financial investment.

But Shaughnessy is correct that sometimes that means taking the fans on — to challenge them to consider information that is not 100 percent positive about the teams they cheer for.

When all three of the above standards are met, the readers develop a trust in the columnist to look out for them — even when the home team, by performance or by policy, does not.

I will leave it to readers to discuss whether columnists on the local, state, regional and national level do that.  To see Shaughnessy’s philosophy in action, why not spend 99 cents and see how he does it?  You’ll be helping out a media outlet whose work during the Boston Marathon bombings shows a continued commitment to bring together the best of journalism.

And you’ll get a good take on a columnist who knows when (and how) to write and when to root — even if just a little.

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