Media Types: Forever boys in the gang

Real writing, after all, is something much more complicated and enigmatic than anything usually having to do with sports, though that's not to say a word against sportswriting, which I'd rather do than anything.

RICHARD FORD's 1986 American novel, from which these words come, is entitled The Sportswriter. Thus it comes as no surprise that it was hailed on publication as 'a most human illumination of domestic and sexual anguish'.

Walter Matthau's poker-playing divorcee in The Odd Couple was a sports journalist. But one would have guessed that when he hurled a plate of pasta against his apartment wall and lovingly admired the result.

How do a band of exuberant, highly companionable men, whose lives revolve around pleasurable activities, become models of existentialist alienation? Why do they feel it incumbent upon them to develop northern accents and grow moustaches? And why, when they study the damn sport every day, do they predict to a man that Arsenal will finish near the top of the league and Norwich nowhere, when the reverse turns out to be the case?

Perhaps the last question partly answers the first. How long can the psyche bear being an expert in one small corner of life, pronouncing on it every day and finding oneself usually wrong? Yet this is the lot of a racing tipster. Find yourself infected with his enthusiasm, mesmerised by his detailed knowledge of an animal's family tree, and bet on the tip; when it loses, ask him what went wrong, expecting lurid tales of doping and bribery.

But that is to forget this man is a sportswriter. 'It's better over seven furlongs,' comes the open, honest and irrelevant reply.

There is no side to the sportswriter. He shares neither the pretensions nor the self-consciousness of colleagues in other departments. Walk into the sports department and hear them rehearsing their stories out loud, playing to the gallery with jokes and especially puns; and contrast this with the newsroom, where journalists work alone, every neighbour a potential

plagiarist.

Richard Ford's hero remarks that athletes 'are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them . . . His is a rare selfishness that means he isn't looking around the sides of his emotions to wonder about alternatives for what he's saying or thinking about.'

The sportswriter emulates this single- minded assuredness. What he does not understand does not exist. And so one of the most popular, frenzied and eagerly anticipated events in the sporting calendar - the women's hockey at Wembley Stadium - is quietly ignored.

Perhaps some of the alienation is caused by spending a career following the pursuits of one's heroes. Political writers never actually want to be politicians, nor education correspondents teachers. But a sportswriter dreams of playing for England. That's why he went into the job; and the growing realisation that he never will, and, moreover, will at some stage be abused by those who do, damages his self-esteem.

Sportswriting is the media's last bastion of male bonding. Men without women, they regress to the gang ethos of youth; it is a pleasure to partake in, both in travels around the country and in the repartee of their department. But perhaps it is also a factor in the broken marriages. Girls never liked gangs, after all.

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