A girl died in southeastern Pennsylvania. A mere 16 years of age, she was driving a 2004 Honda Civic on Bethel Church Road. She lost control of the vehicle, skittering across the median into the southbound lane before striking a tree, slamming metal and plastic and bark and bone. Rescued from the crash, she was driven to the hospital, where she would pass away shortly after the accident.
The typical types of descriptors were bandied about; bright, music loving and much missed by family and friends. A varsity soccer player at one of the high schools on my beat, her team was to take the field for the first time without her on my assignment. Purple headbands and wristbands were there–purple had been her favorite color–and the emotion was palpable. I made the requisite mention of her in the piece, then moved on to the game. The local paper’s coverage was different.
Buried in a long piece was the score, the actual acts of her teammates as they attempted to move on; instead was a focus on the loss, the grief, the quotes that get stay-at-home-mom’s eyes to water as they read the paper to see what was said about their child. Nearly a thousand words on her loss, what she meant to her teammates, the purple memorials and endless harping on a tragedy that was being put behind by a game, a return to life. It took seven paragraphs for the score to even be mentioned, and there were at least two articles about the team’s moving on alone.
My piece made mention of the girl for the introduction, a nod to the remembrance, then moved on to the action. Her name was not in the original headline, as I made a concerted effort to make the story what it was: a piece of simple sports writing. As I do not doubt the sometimes transcendental power of sport, I wished to turn my spotlight on to the game, the very healing act that the girls themselves were participating in. The point was not who was missing; the point was that the young women on the field were still there, still standing and living and wanting to heal. I asked nothing about the deceased in my interview with the coach, the girl’s mention in the quotes came organically. The picking and prying questions–digging into the freshest of graves–reeked of cheap journalism, of a desire to make something moving at the expense of telling the true story.
The resulting piece was simple sports writing, a slim 646 words a lean retelling of a lopsided, emotional game. But the headline was re-worked, to “In Memory of ****** ******”, the exact kind of overbearing sentiment I wished to avoid. It was perhaps unavoidable, and demur in comparison to the glut of coverage the local daily would milk from the tragedy, but it cut me none the less.
The girl had become a hook, a mere thread to help me tell the tale of a blowout soccer game in a small exurb of Philadelphia that no one outside of the town would ever care about. I did not want her to be the focus, but I used her as the focus, for my own needs and for the sake of the story. But as deplorable as the act was, I found some semblance of solace in my attempt to focus on life. To tell the tale of the girls who were bravely facing their teammate’s loss, so that their healing process would be forever documented not just more morbid ink-wringing blood articles about a girl who died too soon. She was a hook, but an organic one.
In the current journalism-under-siege atmosphere that seems prevalent amongst media types, few journalists are so perplexingly placed to both suffer immensely and weather the storm like sportswriters. In theory, the ready availability of sports scores renders the sportswriter useless; the fan need not dig any deeper to fulfill their ultimate desire, finding out whether their team won or lost that day. Where the sportswriter fights back and gains ground on their more hard news oriented peers, is in the freedoms they enjoy on the sports page.
In the sports section, the sportswriter is granted latitude a city side or municipal reporter could only dream of, enough to make even entertainment and political writers jealous. Healthy sprinklings of obscure verbs and literary flourishes are not only more common in the sports pages, they should be encouraged by editors and publishers, because it is the sportswriter’s ability to vividly bring a game back to life, and to accent it with the ever important hook, that makes them an irreplaceable vanguard in the battle to keep true journalism relevant.
But that position also leaves sportswriters at the mercy of the hooks they find to hang their stories on, for better or for worse. Take Chicago Tribune Cubs reporter Paul Sullivan. Rather than the typical game recap, Sullivan’s stories often use the games as framing devices for larger parts of the Cub’s narrative; who might be getting traded, how player development is coming along, dugout drama and other, insider-only perspectives are spelled out with the games as the backdrop. Indeed, aside from the score along the top of his pieces, one may be forgiven for assuming they were news pieces, not game coverages. Which, in many cases, they may well be. He turns the daily grind of a 162 game season–and let us face it, more often than not it is a brutal grind indeed for the north siders–and instead creates a journal of vignettes backed up by the experience, accuracy and access only a professional journalist can be in a position to supply.
Sullivan is a fine example of a sportswriter finding, and utilizing, well chosen hooks to maintain relevance in a world where the nuts and bolts are easily ascertained. More journalists and editors would be keen to follow his example; anyone can regurgitate scores, but only professional journalists can provide well written, interesting pieces, and there will always be a market for talented writers. Unfortunately, this new direction’s dependence on juice and drama to enliven articles lives and dies by the quality of the narratives it finds. And when that drama is the untimely death of a young woman, it feels far more like dying.
Naturally, the tragic accident involving the young soccer player could not have gone unreported. It was news, cut and dry, especially with her being an athlete in an area where high school sports carries great weight, and no apologies should be made for pieces like the reports on the accident, the death and the team’s handling of it. But to glean more starts to tread a delicate line, between reporting news and creating news. A dramatic narrative is a necessary evil, particularly in sporting events where the outcome and the action on the field cannot serve the purpose. But when does the ceaseless mentioning of a fallen teammate push beyond pragmatic and into tasteless?
The answer to this question is the same as it is for any vice or crutch: moderation. After the initial reporting and covering any legitimate advances in the story, references to the deceased should be relegated to organic occurrences, like unprompted references in quotes, anniversary pieces or a thoughtful, thorough feature (more than one veers dangerously close to the exploitive).
We write too much of the dead, and the dawning of digital content and the 24-hour news cycle only serves to exacerbate the issue. Obituaries, epitaphs, reactions, memorials and the constant check ins besieged not only the soccer players and family but the community as well. Videos were recorded. She was mentioned in boys soccer articles, in articles on kids visiting the tree her vehicle struck, in articles about the new teen driving legislation. It seemed odd to spend so much time on a girl who was gone, and to not instead be telling the stories of those struggling to pick up the pieces and move on, pieces the local media were deliberately shattering on the ground so they could gleefully report back of their assembly. We should not forget or ignore a death. We simply should not chronicle the departed at the expense of the living. That is a job for historians and scholars.
B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based on the north side of Chicago. A graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia, his work on culture, music, sport and politics has been seen in VICE, Newcity, Verbicide Magazine and The Chautauqua Star, among numerous other publications. You can follow him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.