George Solomon’s “Spring Things”

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George Solomon’s “Spring Things”
May 16, 2016

Christine Brennan recalled in her USA Today column of April 27 the written abuse (before social media) sent her way by readers when she was covering the Washington Redskins and National Football League for The Washington Post in the 1980s.

“Go back to the kitchen where you belong,” recalled Brennan in her column, adding she also on many occasions received threats and was the object of vile obscenities.

All because she was a woman.

Brennan’s recollections were written in response to a public service announcement widely circulated   that showed three men reading vulgar and obscene messages to sports journalists Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro. The men, who did not send the messages and were just reading them, were as shocked as many of us.

For years, almost from the first woman ever to write sports (was it Dorothy Green, as “The Sportswoman” in the 1920′s for The Washington Post?), too many men have showered abuse on women sportswriters for one reason: They are women. Many men still believe women lack the background, knowledge and experience to write intelligently about sports. And for decades women have proven their naysayers wrong. The hostility today is additionally fueled by male-dominated sports talk radio, as well as the open-ended invitation on social media to be as nasty as possible.

Spain, who works for ESPN, told Brennan: “I’m not crying about this. I’m not saying this is stopping me from doing anything. It’s not. But we decided that we shouldn’t just throw up our hands and accept this,  we should try to do something about it.”

Brennan’s published response:  “Women in sports media are not the only people dealing with a barrage of online hatred. Many others in the media, in politics, in public life and even in private life are belittled and bullied based on their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, you name it.”

Vile and thuggish behavior, I’m afraid, has become the norm in public discussion, thanks in part to social media, as evidenced by the current political discourse. As someone who grew up listening to civil political discussion from such figures as Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who took his two (1952, 1956) presidential defeats to Dwight Eisenhower with grace and dignity, today’s mud-slinging is beyond shocking.

But, as Brennan wrote about the obscene attacks on women sportswriters, “There are more than 1,000 of us working in sports media, with hundreds more waiting to get into the business annually.  This year, 145 female college students applied for eight scholarships (three won by Merrill College students) offered by the Women in Sports Media (AWSM).   A few angry people on social media won’t stop any of them.”

More than 20 years ago, before social media existed, some of the letters written to Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser were as nasty and crass as those sent today on social media.  Some were even written in crayon. And some letters were anti-Semitic. Occasionally the angry writer would even post a return address that would lead Kornheiser to dial information, get the writer’s phone number, call and say: “Hi, this is Tony Kornheiser. What’s your problem?”

A subsequent discussion often led to a Kornheiser-fan-for-life on the other end of the conversation.  But that was another time.

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Sportswriting lost three major players recently with the passing of Bud Collins, Hubert Mizell and Blackie Sherrod.

Collins, who died March 4 at the age of 86, was a gifted and clever writer who was among the first print journalists to transfer his wit to television when he teamed with Dick Enberg to anchor NBC’s coverage of the major tennis tournaments in the sport’s Golden Age. Even before that combination exploded nationally (Breakfast at Wimbledon was a staple), Collins did commentary for public television’s coverage of tennis in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Still, no matter how large his fame because of television, Collins remained a newspaper guy all his life. He was a Boston Globe general sports columnist, then the paper’s tennis writer, covering the four major tournaments and many other lesser events.

When the Globe decided it could not afford to send Collins on a regular basis to Australia, France and England to report on a declining sport, Collins found enough clients at other newspapers to cover his expenses (I was one, at The Washington Post). He had been too kind to our parade of tennis writers over the years, showing them all the ropes in foreign countries. So he knew we couldn’t say no to him; and while his stories were much too long, crafted in such a way that cutting them to fit the desired length was impossible.  He knew that – wrote long anyway, knowing you treat a mensch like a mensch.

Mizell died on March 3 at the age of 76, a sportswriter for more than 50 years, starting when he was 14 as a copy boy for his hometown Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. We were classmates at the University of Florida starting in 1958 and I marveled at his career as a columnist and reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Associated Press and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covered all the major sports events, wrote about the key figures in every sport and waded into the issues of the day. He spent the final years of his life in Gainesville, Fl., watching Gator football (we sat next to each other in the press box for at least one game for most of 57 years). He ended his career doing commentaries for a Gainesville television station; the commentaries were called “The Mizell Minute” and usually lasted three minutes.

Sherrod died on May 5 at the age of 96. He was truly one of the great sportswriters and editors in Texas newspaper history. A giant in the business, he was a legend, winning Texas sportswriter of the year a record 16 times. Not only was he a great columnist, he was equally skilled as an editor and when he ran the Fort Worth Press, he hired such great sportswriters as Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright, as reported in a wonderfully crafted obit by Kevin Sherrington in the Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News hired Sherrod away from the now defunct Dallas Times Herald in 1985.  “His Sunday Scattershooting column was the hottest thing going,” retired Morning News sports editor Dave Smith told Sherrington.   Blackie was not the easiest person to get along with, but Smith understood Sherrod’s value and made the relationship work.

Kevin Blackistone, a colleague in the Merrill College and former Dallas columnist, remembers being asked one day by Sherrod to join him for a drink. “It was the moment of being accepted,” Blackistone said. “I liked him.”

Sherrod was still writing into his nineties, saying the readers “seem to want it.” He added, according to   Sherrington,  “writing is the joy of the business. There’s a good feeling of getting the right word. It’s always like a rhythm when it’s right.”

At the end of Sherrington’s obit, a reader, Charles Lynn Brooks, on Facebook, wrote: “The Best. Period. The Vin Scully of sports writers.”

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