Point of order as Edwin Pope departs

popeRightly, there were fulsome tributes aplenty as former Miami Herald sportswriter Edwin Pope took his leave last week, at the age of 88.

Made sports editor at Georgia’s Athens Banner-Herald in his mid-teens, Pope vindicated his precocious beginnings with a distinguished career that saw him cover 47 Super Bowls and be honoured by both the professional and collegiate football Halls of Fame.

“Edwin could write funny or angry or wistful or worshipful. He respected people and their stories, even if he judged them harshly. He didn’t pound that typewriter because he thought it was the road to TV. He might have been wrong at times, but he never wrote anything he didn’t believe.” – Mark Whicker, Orange County Register

One tribute, however, ironically from the paper where it all began for him, threw out this jarring note.

“Coaches and players unfailingly hold the notion that media types are not qualified to write about sports because they never experienced actual “combat.” Does this mean that theatre critics must be performers before they can evaluate a stage production?

“When Dan Jenkins, one of the giants of our time in sports journalism, asked Frank Broyles, then the coach at Arkansas, a question about his counterpart at Texas, Darrell Royal, Broyles said: “He (Darrell) has done more for the wide tackle six defense that anybody in coaching.” Jenkins, who happened to be a good friend of Royal’s said, “Frank who gives a (expletive) about that?”

“The truth is that sportswriters don’t know X’s and O’s, but who said they have to in order to write insightfully about the glory and beauty of the games we love? Edwin Pope belongs in the pantheon of those writers who were truthful with their readers…”

Hopeless at every sport to which I ever turned my hand, no-one relies more than me on the analogy of the effective theatre critic who never trod a board in anger, but it’s not a hand I overplay. Who says sportswriters have to know their X’s and O’s to write insightfully? I’d say the law of averages does. You try and get a handle on as many technical nuances of your sport as you can and even if most of them are indeed too mundane ever to see the printed page, somewhere down the line there will be one nugget you’ve filed away that helps you do your job as a writer – to see, where most of your audience merely look.

While a huge name himself in this business, Dan Jenkins’ dismissive sneer in the above extract hints at one of the worst traps that I think sportswriters can fall into: imagining that breathless prose gives you a free pass where learning a game’s nuts and bolts are concerned.

But then this is the same Dan Jenkins who got into an unnecessary spat with Tiger Woods in 2014, over a tongue-in-cheek article he’d written that wasn’t remotely worth the hassle: a lightweight piece so glib, I wondered where it had come from.

I’m a little clearer on that score now.

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