Many daily-newspaper sports columns read as if their authors injected adrenaline directly into their hearts before sitting down at the keyboard. They often vacillate between zeal and hysteria, tending to stake out extreme positions on any given issue. One day a guy's a genius, the next he's a bum, and never the twain shall meet.
Consider the recent track record of Woody Paige, who continues to write a Sunday column for the Denver Post despite spending most of his week on ESPN2's Cold Pizza, bantering with Skip Bayless and demonstrating how unwise it can be to overuse hair mousse. As Paige noted in a January 2 recap of his Post musings, in 2004 alone he called for the canning of Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik ("for the umpteenth time"), Colorado Avs overseer Tony Granato ("when the Avalanche struggled early in the season"), the University of Colorado's Gary Barnett and Dick Tharp ("after their role in and handling of the scandal in Boulder"), Colorado Rockies manager Clint Hurdle ("because he would be more effective as the Rockies' radio-TV analyst") and Denver Broncos icon Mike Shanahan ("if he didn't go to the Super Bowl this season"). Had he been able to go back in time, he probably would have demanded that Vince Lombardi and Knute Rockne be terminated, too.
In comparison, Thomas George, who joined the Post's roster of sports columnists earlier this month, is as cool and unexcitable as Mr. Spock. "I think not to get caught up in the heat of the moment is not only a good way to write a sports column," he says, "but a good way to live one's life."
This attitude was nurtured in, of all places, New York City. Sports reporting and opining in the Apple is notoriously splenetic, characterized by oversized declarations such as "BIG JERK," the headline with which the New York Post greeted incoming Yankees hurler Randy Johnson after he'd stiff-armed a TV cameraman a few weeks earlier. Yet the sports coverage in the New York Times is an exception to this rule; the paper typically deals with the subject in a considerably more genteel manner than its tabloid competition. George, a Kentucky native who spent seventeen years chronicling the National Football League for the Times following a five-year stint at the Detroit Free Press, sings the praises of this methodology. "There is real journalism practiced in the sports section in the Times that you will only find in the Times," he says. "The quality of its reporting and news, the penchant to dig beneath the surface, the commitment to take on a big story and truly tackle it -- those are things that the Times sports section does very well."
At the same time, he acknowledges, "a large number of sports fans are not interested in reading an approach that is more intellectual and in-depth. A lot of sports fans want meat and potatoes -- so there's always going to be the challenge" of appealing to them with headier stuff. Perhaps that's why the emphasis on sports shifted a couple of times during George's extended stint at the Times. "When I first arrived, in 1988, sports took a back seat to many other concerns, but there was a strong commitment to increase sports coverage," he says. "That was the case over the next fifteen years or so, but in the last year or two, there's been sort of a turn back toward the original assessment -- that the emphasis should be on national, international and local news, and that those areas were the most critical elements of the paper."
Nevertheless, George stresses that such issues played no role in his relocation to Colorado. As he puts it, "I have nothing but the greatest respect for the fine-quality journalists in that building. I've had many opportunities in the past to do a variety of different things in a variety of different cities, and I haven't taken them." He reacted differently in this instance because of "the timing, the place, the people and the opportunity. My kids are two and five, and my wife and I felt that this would be a wonderful place to raise them, as opposed to the concrete jungle of New York City. Denver really fit for me."
While he feels the same about the Denver Post sports section, his sensibility is quite different from that of his highest-profile colleagues, Paige and Mark Kiszla. They love to stir things up and provoke reactions from their audience via boisterous proclamations, whereas George prefers even-keeled commentary that he backs up with shoe-leather reporting and a tone that's more contemplative than incendiary. In the wake of the brutal spanking given the Broncos by the Indianapolis Colts during a January 9 playoff game, many locals bayed for the breakup of the team and the summary execution of quarterback Jake Plummer. But in George's January 11 column, he advised the Broncos to stand by Jake with this calming line: "Get him more help and watch him grow."
The reactions to George's work to date in the Post have "run the gamut," he notes. "You have the screamers, you have the ones who simply follow along, and then you have the thoughtful people." He clearly feels a kinship with this last group and wouldn't mind seeing their numbers expand, but he says he also values "just how involved the readers are here, and how much they care about sports in general and their teams in particular. That's one of the reasons I came here, and why it was attractive to me -- the passion."
To date, however, George hasn't recommended anyone be fired. Where's that hypodermic? Column-go-round: Shortly after taking over as editor of the Post in 2002, Greg Moore said in these pages that a surplus of columnists "gives the paper a decided lack of urgency. An opinion is never urgent." This remark suggested that Moore would begin cutting back on such scribes throughout the Post's pages -- but in the two-years-plus since then, the opposite has happened. There's currently something of a columnist glut at the Post, requiring periodic juggling and the permanent placement of Cindy Rodriguez's twice-weekly offerings in a curious location.
George's presence certainly advances another of Moore's early goals: greater staff diversity. He's one of four African-Americans whose columns get prominent play in the Post's sports section, joining Anthony Cotton, Chris Dempsey and Marc J. Spears. But on Sundays, especially, there's a considerable space crunch. On January 2, George's debut column didn't even make the section front in many editions, because Paige took center stage. As Post sports editor Kevin Dale concedes, "There's only so much room on the front page."
Likewise, news columnist David Harsanyi, a conservative hired to shake up the paper's ideological uniformity, pushes his more senior colleagues, Jim Spencer and Diane Carman, off the cover of the Denver & the West section on a semi-regular basis. As for Rodriguez, her column was switched to the Scene section last year, and those who assumed the move would cause her to pick different topics were quickly disabused of the notion. Indeed, her mix is pretty much the same as it was when her work could be found in Denver & the West, making for frequently awkward juxtapositions. Not only was her January 20 column, "Orphanages Best Hope for Tsunami Kids," tepid from its icky first line ("The ocean stole their mommies and daddies") to its keen-grasp-of-the-obvious conclusion (although putting orphans in institutions is "sad," some alternatives are worse), but it also had little in common with the feature- and entertainment-oriented fare that otherwise filled the issue's Scene.
Inquiries about this seeming contradiction were e-mailed to Rodriguez and assistant managing editor/features Ray Mark Rinaldi on several occasions starting way back in September. Neither answered any of them -- not exactly a display of intestinal fortitude on their part. Fortunately, Moore wasn't so shy. "I think it's okay that her column has a different tone and subject matter," he says, pointing out that columns by Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner from the Miami Herald, have run in his papers' features section. He adds that he gets the same kind of mail in response to Rodriguez's scribblings as he did when her columns ran alongside news: "Some people say 'Thank God she's there,' and others say 'What in tarnation are you doing?'"