The Sports Gorilla

Ombudsman

November 14, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The Baltimore Sun should do at least two things with its sportssection: 1) Get more results of late-night games in the next morning, a welcome trend this year, and 2) separate it from the business section so couples don't fight so much over breakfast.

OK, let's move to the next sports subject, the Baltimore Bombers. If Baltimore learns at the end of the month that it gets the new National Football League expansion team, that's good. If it doesn't, that's fine, too. Either way, the city and state will survive.

Finally, let's get to the fun behind all this: America's obsession with sports, as seen in a typical big-city newspaper purveyor, The Sun, which gives readers much of what it wants including some saturation tactics.

The Sun has been carpet-bombing Baltimore with news about the Bombers for months now. Anticipating a decision to give Baltimore a team, a squad of five Sun reporters, an editor and a photographer went to an NFL owners meeting in Chicago October 26 to write and shoot three pages. About what? Though not expecting it, they wound up examining a one-month delay before a decision, now planned November 30.

A month earlier, Michael Jordan, the Chicago basketball player said by some to be the best ever, announced he was retiring. The Sun devoted four pages. To what? Partly, to skepticism by Sun writers that Mr. Jordan was gone for good.

Last year before Camden Yards opened, The Sun had a Page 1 countdown and stories for weeks and months. I day-dream that if all The Sun's articles on Camden Yards were laid end to end, they would have reached the moon and halfway back to Oriole Park. Meanwhile, clippings of Sun stories on the Mideast peace treaty, health-care reform and the NAFTA trade plan stretched up and down the Bromo Tower only a couple of times.

Other papers feast on sports, too. The Cleveland Plain Dealer devoted almost the entire front page and seven full pages last Tuesday to the firing of Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar.

One reason The Sun covers the Orioles and professional athletes so closely is that they are important people. Look at their salaries. The third-place Birds had nine millionaire players in 1993. The major leagues had 264 players making over $1 million, some for multi-year contracts. These are no-incentive contracts, or no incentive to improve.

You get my drift. Sports fans, fueled by the eager media, love overkill. Many think of it as minimum coverage. If you detect a flip tone and some hyperbole here, some sports writers write this way.

I started in sports in this business 40 years ago. I was a high school sophomore writing a sports column called, ''Toeing The Rubber,'' for The Spirit in the Massachusetts Berkshires. The column threw fastballs of outrage, curve balls of sarcasm and change-ups of humor. I thought it was good. I thought our adviser agreed when he smiled and said it was ''sophomoric."

Sports is a gorilla that has its way with editors and writers. What makes it hard to control is its keen appetite for different flavors of sports fans. Readers become specialized fodder, wanting more of everything: auto racing, fishing, horse racing, betting odds, hunting, college football-player statistics, triathlons, to name just some recent calls. Cable TV feeds the gorilla.

The Sun devotes a relatively large amount of news space to sports, in baseball season about 50 columns a day. This is 20-plus columns more than it does, for instance, to foreign and national news combined. This is typical of papers. A decade ago Sun sports space was less than that of many metro dailies; now it is more than that of many newspapers, comparable to some and below others.

The Sun has done sharp reporting on the sale of the Orioles, day-to-day Oriole coverage, the search for an NFL team, the most recent Olympics, area high school sports, county recreation. John J. Gibbons Jr., the executive sports editor, says the Orioles will remain The Sun's first priority. He is considering more outdoor and horse-racing coverage and redesigning the second page. Executives are hoping to get more baseball-game results in all editions and are studying ways to separate the sports and business sections.

The sports glare backlights areas needing more newspaper coverage. For example, The Sun's comprehensive high school coverage is admirable, but it points up the meagerness of reporting on academic achievements. The Sun could print Merit Scholarship names, cover academic competitions known as brain bowls, profile more scholars and focus on more good school programs. Those are winners too.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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