The Philosophy Behind Sports Journalism


The Vivint Smart Home Arena (1991) in Salt Lake City, also known as Delta Center and as Energy Solutions Arena, is a sports and entertainment venue. (Image via WikiMedia Commons)

By Eric Jensen, Sports Writer


Recently a friend of mine passed away. His name was Chris Wesseling, a noted NFL writer and podcaster. Chris and I got to know each other over the past four years or so, through Twitter and some letters back and forth, as people do these days. Since I learned of his passing a few weeks ago, it’s been tough. I want to be the type of sports writer Chris was to me, and he meant a lot. His work is some of the best I’ve ever read. He worked off a central question: what do sports mean to humanity, and why exactly should we cover them?

This is a question I take to mean, why exactly do sports matter to us? Any armchair psychologist will tell you that human beings evolved and developed for one simple reason, and that was to survive. Early humans didn’t have time to cover sports because they were dealing with things like hunger and the plague. 

When did this seismic shift in our culture happen? When did we start covering sports? Let’s stick to the United States and keep this simple, shall we?

According to a novelty magazine blog I found hidden deep somewhere on the internet, The Sporting News was one of the first sports magazines in the United States. It was founded around 1885, with circulation beginning widely around 1887. The editor Al Spink’s first writer was his brother Charles Spink.

The magazine wasn’t much at first, mainly advertising with the occasional sports story mixed in with it. According to the article, the first images in the publication were crude images of baseball players. The magazine looked like something out of a scout’s notebook at first. Al Spink got his start in baseball and first worked as an executive for the Saint Louis Browns — now the Baltimore Orioles. 

So there is one clue — the people who started covering sports were involved in it. It makes sense, some of the best advice I have ever gotten while chasing this fever dream is that you must love what you do in order to chase it. This isn’t a lucrative profession. The hours are bad, you work most weekends and holidays and it’s mainly a thankless job that makes you the villain more times than not. It also turns people cynical, something a young, bright-eyed college student obviously doesn’t like to hear.

Chris also asked the question, why do we cover sports? His answer was because it’s art. In its purest form, sports is “look at that, look at what humans can do.” For Spink, the reason he covered sports was to make money. The early editions of The Sporting News are so valuable now because of the myriad of antique advertisements held within them. Still, though, Spink probably had to love sports; his circulation within the first few years was between 40 and 50 thousand subscriptions, according to the website. But printing costs money, lots of it. And that’s part of the reason why print journalism is largely dying — because it never has been cost effective. 

The magazine boomed in the 1960s under Al’s grandson Charles. They had a willingness to get themselves into controversies with the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. And with that, one of the first bastions of American sports journalism publications began, followed shortly by giants like Sports Illustrated

What happened in the 1880s that allowed humans all that free time? This is where I turn to my source, Wikipedia: good for brief facts and points of context. 

During the Gilded age, skyscrapers began to rise, as did the beginnings of major corporations. Mass electric lighting became more readily available, the first submarines were being built, and the electric fan was developed. Life for the white middle-class American became more modern. People no longer had to brave the elements, and darkness was no longer a constraint.

Toward the end of the century, humans could begin to focus on things that do not concern life or death.

Over the past few years, society has both lost and regained the knowledge of how sports can connect people.  

Look no further than what the Utah Jazz is currently doing. The state’s collective heartbeat runs through Salt Lake City’s premier basketball operation. That’s the great part about pro sports: you can live in the heart of one of the most heated local rivalries in the nation, the Holy War, and yet be united by the pro basketball team. 

If you live in Utah right now, you are first and foremost a Jazz fan. Part of the allure of the team is the lack of national respect. If you tell someone outside of the state that you are from Utah, they look at you funny; they make assumptions and they brush it off as that state in the desert that all those Mormon people are from.

The Jazz gives the Utah native or transplant something to point at and say, look, here is our identity.

The fact that they more often bring people together than drive them apart is why sports are so important to us. We live in some of the most divisive times in American history. It seems the only thing remaining that keeps us together is in part sports, and even that now seems to divide. 

There it is, the cynic, deep at the heart of every sportswriter. The moment that damns us all too jaded world views. Why strive for that, though? Why not look at a different answer?

We cover sports, and we watch sports to live. To live vicariously through others, to understand the greatness that can be found within every one of us. We chase stories like the 2020 Miami Heat, an underdog team that showed us how the little guy can make a run with enough grit and determination. We follow Tom Brady because he has proven father time is no longer an element to conquer but one to embrace and use to our advantage. 

We root for the Utah Jazz because they are overlooked. Seen as the little fish in a big pond, we root for them because they break that mold. They have become giants and we are now collected to their collective glory.

And that’s why we cover sports; because at the end of the day, sports is a celebration of life. They’re why it’s worth living.


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