Scribes choose tough words carefully
Hockey writers take time to consider the impact of their efforts on players who may be more fragile than anyone knows
Bear in mind, as you read this, that the people quoted herein are on their best behaviour today. Well, most of them.
It is Hockey Talks month for Canadian National Hockey League teams, who are confronting the awful cycle of depression and silence in a manly game that has never dealt very well with perceived frailty.
Tuesday was Bell Let's Talk day - Olympic hero Clara Hughes's passionate cause - and by dinner time in the East, it seemed that about twice the population of Canada had already retweeted the #Bell-LetsTalk hashtag on Twitter, meaning the communications megacorp was about to donate several million dollars (at five cents per tweet) to mental health programs.
So, we proceed on tiptoes. It can't last, but for a day or two, anyway, the professional smart alecks who write sports for a living may holster their weapons of sarcasm, ridicule and scorn and be just a tad more sensitive to the potential demons hiding within the athletes and coaches and general managers whose paths they cross in the course of business. The subjects, it turns out, are people. With feelings, and everything.
Not supermen, not incompetents, not geniuses, not idiots.
Shades of grey. Shades of grey ...
In trying to figure out how (or if) our jobs might change, knowing what we now know about Rick Rypien and Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard and Bob Prob-ert (and many more to come, we suspect), about the depression that haunted them and ended in tragedy, it seemed reasonable to canvass some old friends who have trod this literary ground and walked the fine line - and no doubt crossed it more than a few times - even before they knew how fine it was.
"Honestly, I think many of us in the business have been doing this for decades: trafficking in the human condition," Michael Farber, the brilliant former Montreal Gazette columnist who moved on to Sports Illustrated in 1994, wrote in response to an email query.
"I guess most of us initially were attracted to writing about sports because it afforded the opportunity to witness great things, but the earliest lesson was this didn't mean athletes were great people. But everyone - the paragons and the reprobates - still has a story to tell. Even in the sportswriting age of the decimal point, when seemingly everything can be explained by some metric or other, those stories still intrigue me the most."
Farber is one of the thinkers. Roy MacGregor, the lyrical columnist of the Globe and Mail, who like Farber is in the writers' wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, is another.
"When we are young, the stories are more about 'me' - how I did, what I said, who noticed - and we're often willing to hurt in order to be noticed," MacGregor wrote. "As you grow older you realize being noticed isn't that important and that being tough comes with a responsibility. You're responsible to the subject, so if you're going to be tough you must have reason. You're responsible to the craft, so you need to have balance. It's not all about you, and that's a hard lesson to learn.
"Maybe more succinctly: you're responsible for more than good grammar when you write about someone. Words are entirely different when spoken on air or appearing in print. Print sticks, stays, festers, twists. So be damned careful with them."
Ray Ratto, the savagely funny former San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner columnist, now with Comcast Sports Network in the Bay Area, is much closer to an even deadlier cycle in the U.S.: football's head trauma epidemic that has led to depression and suicide by a different path, and in greater numbers.
His response, accordingly, was uncharacteristically sombre in tone.
"For those among us used to making irrevocable snap judgments about the behaviour of others, the CTE/head injuries discussion has sparked at least this: When in doubt, assume less and listen more," he wrote. "The leading cause of suicide is the feeling that nobody can or wants to understand, followed by the feeling that nobody can or wants to help. We no longer have the right or ability to pretend that CTE/trauma isn't part of the end game for many athletes ..."
"I think this is an extraordinarily complex issue," wrote Steve Simmons, who has been known to swing a heavy bat in the Toronto Sun.
"We write about athletes thinking we know them and often we find out later we really didn't know them at all. We know them as players and performers but not as people.
"I think if you're fair and honest in what you write about a professional athlete, you are not crossing any line. But what's become evident in recent times is how frail the people we write about can be, how flawed or how challenged.
"I've known situations where the environment of criticism terribly upset the athlete and his life, but I believe the responsibility of the journalist is to write for the public, not for the player or team you happen to be covering."
Bruce Arthur of the National Post, last year's Canadian sportswriter of the year, is of the (slightly) younger generation of columnists, and rarely dives into a topic without chewing on its social implications.
"There's a line here, and it moves," he wrote. "Part of professional sports is the fame and scrutiny, no question, but no matter how big and lucrative they get, there are still people in there, at every level. It's not a movie. That's one reason I try like hell to be fair, and to remember that sports aren't war, or even politics. Games are never the end of the world.
"Do Rick Rypien and Wade Belak and others change the way we do our jobs? Well, maybe. But you can't avoid honest evaluation, and you can't avoid hurting feelings, sometimes. All you can do is be as fair as you can, hold on to some empathy, and play it straight. And the fact is, the way sports has gone, the pressure and the consequences are much bigger than we are."
All this touchy-feely stuff. It's just not natural.
MacGregor spoke of balance? Here's the counter-balance. Mark Spector, my successor at the Edmonton Journal and then the National Post, now with Sportsnet.ca:
"Early in my career, a colleague noted in a golf column that Payne Stewart was an unlikable sort for whom he had little time. The next day Stewart died in a plane crash," Spector wrote. (Thanks for not mentioning my name, Spec.) "The lesson? In this business, each day is as unique as each edition of the newspaper. As a columnist, my job is to comment on the hiring of a coach, work with him throughout his tenure as I cover his team, and then recognize when his effectiveness has worn off and fire him before the columnist across the street does.
"The kitchen is hot - on either side of the column. If I can't take criticism, I should find other work. If for some reason a player or coach is fragile, and it is not publicly known as we tender our opinions ... a columnist can't lose his edge when it is required."
He signed his response "Hard Ass."
So only most of us are on our best behaviour. Don't fear. It'll pass.
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