The lowdown on jerky jocks

December 03, 1990|By David Holahan

POND SCUM AND VULTURES. By Gene Wojciechowski. Macmillan Publishing Company, 237 pages. $18.95.

AS IF IT isn't enough warning that this is a book by a sportswriter about sportswriters, its first line, which ends with a period, is not a sentence. It reads: "About the title." Author Gene Wojciechowski is clearly proud of his title (an insult tossed at him by a professional athlete) and his book. He is already dreaming of a sequel. This is unfortunate because a little pond scum goes a long, long way.

The book consists of incident after incident in which jocks are allegedly jerks to sports DavidHolahanjournalists (the last term, some would insist, is an oxymoron). The author gets his tales from 130 fellow scribes and maintains that each and every account is "totally true." Reaching this rarefied plateau of veracity is akin to athletes who "give 110 percent 110 percent of the time."

Here's a typical case of scribe abuse. In 1989 a San Diego Union reporter approached ornery quarterback Jim McMahon after a game. McMahon clearly didn't want to talk. But the sporting public has a right to know, so the intrepid journalist persisted: "What about the problems the team's been having in its two-minute offense?"

Were McMahon more cerebrally inclined he might have shot back, "Hey, pal, have you solved your propensity to dangle participles and to (expletive deleted) split infinitives yet?" The gridiron star, alas, remained Sphinx-like. "I didn't hear your answer," the reporter said after a pause. McMahon then replied, in a fashion; he blew his nose at the reporter's shoulder.

Are you ready for the sequel yet?

For some reason, the author believes that his readers will be astounded at tales of boorish, lewd and menacing conduct by the Jim McMahons of the world. This book is really a spin-off of Art Linkletter's "Kids Say the Darndest Things." Only in this case the kids are full grown (physically, at least), rich and slightly better educated in most cases than Linkletter's subjects.

In fact, after following the puerile antics of George Steinbrenner, Daryl Strawberry, Pete Rose and their ilk, very few Americans will be surprised by Wojciechowski's revelations. Twenty years ago Jim Bouton established in "Ball Four" that our sports heroes, like Mickey Mantle, were not exactly Supreme Court material, much less the sort of people (off the field certainly) whom we would want our children to emulate.

What the author could have addressed if he wanted to write a more thoughtful book about his profession is what exactly is the role of sports chroniclers. Are they, in truth, journalists? Or are most of them simply publicists for big time sports? For example, the American press covers games like the Super Bowl far more comprehensively than it does more weighty matters, like the savings and loan scandal.

Even a mid-season professional hockey game between two also-rans can attract dozens of reporters. It would be interesting to compare how much money a paper such as this one spends on its sports department versus what it budgets for state capital coverage.

Forgiving the fact that the author has taken the easy, anecdotal route to royalties, "Pond Scum" is different for its obvious bias against jocks. Many athletes are polite beyond imagining to the right-to-know possees which shadow them for half the year. For every jerky Jim McMahon, there are probably a dozen athletes with the patience of Job, accommodating types who answer questions like, "How does it feel fumbling away the Super Bowl like you did?"

How many of us would repeatedly answer such queries with equanimity after a rough day on the job? And could it be possible that sports writers are on occasion (if not on most occasions) prone to jerkiness themselves? Such a notion doesn't seem to have occurred to Wojciechowski. He backs his fellow chroniclers 110 percent. Their tales are "totally true" apparently because they say so.

Here's an example of the author's myopia. He recounts that in 1986 two Washington Post reporters wrote a story in which Soviet pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, who had just set a world record, was accused by two American vaulters of using performance-enhancing drugs.

"I'm telling you there is no way that guy can be that good," opined one sore loser. The Soviets predictably went ballistic, acting like total totalitarians toward the two scribes. The account, however, fails to indicate whether the Post had any corroborative evidences to back up the charges. At this writing Bubka remains an athlete in good standing, holder of both the Olympic and world records in his event.

"Pond scum" may not be a fair epithet for the majority of sports writers but it sums this opus up fairly well.

David Holahan writes from East Haddam, Conn.

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