The Sports Page
Ask a room of reading-age children if they peruse the newspaper and you might get this response, "Does the sports section count?" Because the world of balls, nets, and grass fields is associated with play, the oceans of ink dedicated to them are often sneered at by those who deem anything but the front page articles unworthy of attention. Yet there is also passion in sport and, along with it, a long-standing love of the stories told about them, be they game summaries or personality profiles.
Starting in the 1910s, American sports journalism became an arena for rich, colorful writing. One of the more famous scribes of that era, Chicago columnist Ring Lardner, often wrote of baseball and earned the respect of a young Ernest Hemingway. Grantland Rice talked about 1920s Notre Dame football with biblical drama, dubbing a fearsome quartet of their players as the "Four Horsemen." From such purple prose-writing forbearers have come frequently read and well-honored writers to scribble sentences about the sporting life's pomp and circumstance.
Notable Sports Writers
Of the reporters and columnists whose style and substance warrant reading, the best include the late greats Jim Murray (a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Los Angeles Times columns), George Plimpton (who wrote of his experience as The Paper Lion), Frank DeFord (the dean of Sports Illustrated writers), and David Halberstam (who commented on both politics and sports). More recent hotshot sports scribblers are Michael Wilbon and John Feinstein (both of The Washington Post), Bill Plaschke (Los Angeles Times), and Mitch Albom (the Detroit sports writer who also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie).
Today's boys and girls consume sports information in massive quantities, from the Internet (SportingNews.com), to the national (ESPN) and specialty print magazines (Bicycling, Surfer), to the old-fashioned newspaper. Aimed at children as young as eight years old, Sports Illustrated for Kids (in print and at www.SIforKids.com) is a place to indulge an interest in college and pro athletics with its feature stories, athlete interviews, and activities from online games to art projects.
Because the most common advice given to parents is to let kids read what they love, this kind of interest in the written word needs to be nurtured, not downplayed. Besides, there are all kinds of verbal benefits to cull from paragraphs about everything from NASCAR to high-school soccer.
Flexing the Muscles of Language
By most English teacher accounts, the verb is king in language, and sports writers dig deep into the well of action words to keep their sentences lively. In a game summary, if a reporter writes that, "Juan Pierre ran home to put the Dodgers ahead," early in her piece, she must use a number of other synonyms for ran (such as jogged, scrambled, or blazed) to keep from sounding monotonous in the story and to insert just the right word to go with the tone (if the player was hurt, he might have hobbled to third).
The need to choose a diverse collection of expressions for frequently referred to details is particularly important when referring to a term such as won. A journalist cannot keep saying the Blackhawks won the match, each time. He needs to vary the vocabulary and use alternatives, including creamed, eeked out a win, and triumphed. Variety is also vital to sports headlines, which are often the most vivid in a newspaper, to pull the attention of readers (i.e., Saints Go Marching Into the Super Bowl).
Among other examples of sports writing diction is the use of figurative language. Metaphors, similes, and hyperboles abound in the tales of everything from high jumpers to backstroke swimmers. Again, the reason for this is to paint a vibrant picture, which easily befits sports given that athletes are involved in activities requiring intensity, focus, and heart. To communicate this, a writer may craft sentences such as, "Maria Sharapova bounded about the tennis court with the agility and ferocity of a leopard, chasing the lime-green ball of prey and tearing into it with the jaws of her racquet." Sure, it's over-the-top, but in sports writing, it's par for the course and instructive for young readers who see the deployment of key language tools.
The Structure of a Sports Story
Sports articles, especially those filed by beat writers, adhere to fundamental journalistic tenets as they efficiently answer the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how. The repeated reading of these game summaries can stealthily embed the organic structure of clear expository writing that can serve students well. Once the "grabber" or attention-getting lead sentence and the "nut" of the article (containing the primary information of which teams played and what the score was) is presented in the first few paragraphs, the articles usually follow the inverted pyramid format of progressing from general details to specific ones, such as what players might be injured or what a coach thinks about the team's playoff chances.
In sports columns, the authors delve into the seldom-seen lives of athletes, advocate for teams to change their attitudes, and spin yarns connecting the past with the present. In perusing these typically first-person narratives, students are treated to well formed storytelling, composed by talented men and women, many of whom carry college English degrees.
Since so much of sport inspires opinion, a lot of kids end up writing their own reports and columns for the school newspaper. It's a terrific outlet for practicing what they learn from reading sports sections as well as a chance to show their teachers that all those grammar lessons can pay off early. There are also opportunities to write on the Internet, as many students do with blogs about sports and even Web sites dedicated to fan-based sports journalism.
Aside from the physical advantages of actually going out and playing one of scores of sports, reading about sports has rewards that know no bounds. If your child loves reading about athletics, encourage his or her interest and watch their vocabulary and verbal skills grow.
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher, and father of three boys. He can be reached at www.familymanonline.com.
Who's on First
Baseball not only entertains, but inspires us as well with stories of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Casey at the Bat among ordinary boys, girls, men and women whose lives were changed by our national pastime. This reading list offers their stories along with an informed look at the fields and stadiums in which these dreams were made.
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