For the Old-Fashioned Sports Columnist, It’s Game Over

Sports columnist Harvey Araton packed his pens and notebooks and moved from the sports desk to a features desk, a once proud species ambled closer to extinction.

Two years ago, The Times had five sports columnists. With Mr. Araton gone, there are two. One of them is 70. 

There will be no replacements.

The Times’ sports editor, Tom Jolly, explained to The Observer that in many ways, the general-interest sports columnist—at The Times, the Sports of the Times columnist, a designation that has existed since the 1930s—is part of a bygone era.

“The Sports of the Times is a great brand, and I hate to see that brand disappear, but it clearly is changing,” Mr. Jolly said.

He explained that The Times’ sports page will use fewer general-interest writers to generate columns, and will instead rely more on beat writers to provide expertise. He wants them to blog, he wants them to use Twitter and he wants them to write analysis pieces.

“In a world filled with blogs and opinion on talk radio and on cable television, there does seem to be a pretty good craving for expert analysis—the real insight of someone who is there,” he said.

This may not sound like a radical departure, but it is.

Sports desks have traditionally been defined by their big-foot generalists: Mike Lupica at the Daily News, Mitch Albom at the Detroit Free Press, Bill Plaschke at the L.A. Times, Johnette Howard at Newsday, Red Smith at The Times.

While The Times is proposing to do without all that, the alumni are not at all convinced that it’s a good idea.

“That thoughtful, reflective, reported opinion that we used to see has basically vanished,” said Selena Roberts, a writer with Sports Illustrated and a Times columnist from 2002 to 2007. “This leaves the reader, especially since the reader is going to the Web for the analysts’ point of view, with a shallower perspective of what’s going on.”

Ms. Roberts foresaw another, more practical problem with The Times’ plan to ask their access-dependent beat writers to be more authoritative and opinionated.

“Here they are covering a team on a daily basis,” said Ms. Roberts. “What if they blog something or tweet something that comes off as an opinion and it’s very much taken as an opinion by that organization? Do they run into problems because they make a joke about the GM?”

Either way, it’s clear that The Times has rendered its verdict. Now it’s just a matter of time until the end.

“Since they haven’t promoted any new columnists, it seems to me The Times doesn’t care if it’s one or two or five columnists,” said Dave Anderson, a columnist from 1971 to 2007 who is semi-retired and still contributes 18 columns a year. “But to me, this is a sad thing. We all grew up reading sports columnists. Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon. When you’re a sports reporter, people think you want to be an athlete. I didn’t want to be Joe DiMaggio. I wanted to be Red Smith.”

George Vecsey, one of two columnists left at The Times (along with William Rhoden), said that at age 70, he’s about ready to retire.

“I wouldn’t want to get really old in this business,” he said. “It’s a young person’s business.”

“People younger than me should be in their prime and doing this,” said Mr. Vecsey. “When I go to a sports arena and I don’t see [Newsday’s] Shaun [Powell] and Johnette? Who’s going to be the next Selena Roberts? The next Bob Lipsyte? The next Dave Anderson?”

  For the Old-Fashioned Sports Columnist, It’s Game Over