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What remains after the boxed suppers are gone?

Decatur, Georgia | Reporters occasionally return from covering a big event and, in time-honored fashion, write a column that purports to "clear out a dog-eared notebook."


Many of the press-area seats stayed empty for Wednesday's fixtures at RFK.

This will not be my approach, mainly because my notebook has already been cleared out. Instead I return to Atlanta with two primary reflections on sports journalism as a trade: first, for the most part, these women and men (the writers) display great skill in piecing together a cohesive narrative from an event—a 90-minute football match—lacking in cohesion. Consider the opening to Brian Straus's account of Brazil's victory over Norway Wednesday night at RFK ("No Way, Norway: Brazil Powers to a 4-1 Win," The Washington Post, 25 September 2003, p. D10):

"Vai ser um rala," was Brazilian forward Katia's response last weekend when asked how she felt about the upcoming Women's World Cup game against Norway. Loosely translated from the Portuguese, the statement means "It's going to be a grind," and it echoed the sentiments of Katia's coach and teammates. So imagine Brazil's amazement last night before 16,316 fans at RFK Stadium, where it cut through a seasoned Norwegian team at will on the way to a 4-1 triumph.

In three sentences Straus establishes a pretext—cleverly using the original Portuguese words for a dash of the exotic—creates the foundation story (the reversal of these expectations), and deftly fells journalism's foundational 5 "W"s (who, what, where, when, why) like milk bottles in a carnival game. As you may have realized by now, one of the strengths of these diaries has not been in establishing a coherent narrative. And, watching the same game as Straus did from virtually the same position, I could not have constructed his seamless and informative version of events. For one, I found it hard to concentrate with all the stimuli: "Jumbotron" replays, laptop computer and the movements and non sequiturs of those in the press box (see day 4).

Yet such praise leads to the second observation about daily sports journalism, that it must be difficult, on reflection, to create a narrative so fundamentally false. The human instinct, perhaps, is to try to make a random series of events, such as those in football, understandable. But, in reality, there is no total knowledge or perfect explanation of what occurs. In fairness to Straus, his article does not claim to explain Brazil's favorable result. But that the Brazilians were surprised is a notion hatched from the outside. A reporter asks at the postgame press conference, "Were you surprised?" "Well, yes we were," comes the reply. The reporter writes, "The Brazilians were surprised." But the prevailing emotion might have been weariness, or relief that the anxiety related to performance had passed for another day; these Brazilian players might have been bewildered by their presence in this theater of the surreal, in which one television producer literally begged Daniela, hands pleading, for a two-minute postgame interview, until she conceded and the TV light flared. The point is, "surprise" might have been the least significant aspect of the 90-minute ordeal, but, since it was proffered as a possible story line and tentatively endorsed, the narrative takes shape.

A less trivial aspect, though, of journalism's deceit (too strong a word?) is the false intimacy between participant and watcher. As a journalist, I narrate others' experiences as a detached entity, yet I depend on the subject to disclose personal details I would not dream of uttering to a stranger. Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, in his profile of Mia Hamm on 22 September ("The Secret Life of Mia Hamm," pp. 58–73), has wrung almost every confession possible out of the Hamm family, enough so that he can enter Hamm's mind at will, as when she is being tugged by competing demands on her time:

So she can't say no. But she's determined to have boundaries. No matter how much she loves her mother, she's not going to be her, she's not going to live her life by other people's expectations. (69)

So, combining self-help psychology and interviews and his own projections, Smith sketches the life of one person, Stephanie Hamm, in seven words. She "live[s] her life by other people's expectations." But the journalist leaves, keeps his distance, and maintains a difficult life as a conjurer of truths that no one in relation to fellow human beings could see as truthful.