By Leonard Shapiro
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 4:26 PM
After 41 years and more than 7,400 bylines, it's time to blow a farewell smooch to the newspaper and its Web site that kept me gainfully and so happily employed since the day in 1969 I walked in the door as a part-timer and began taking high school football scores over the telephone on Friday nights.
Not long after his smart and sassy non-sports talk show began airing on the then-fledgling WTEM radio, my friend and longtime sports department colleague Tony Kornheiser branded me "Lenny The Assassin" for a now long-forgotten column I'd written under the "Sports Waves" banner.
Maybe it was a shot I'd taken that morning at Chris Berman or Dick Vitale or George Michael or Ken Beatrice, all frequent targets over the years. But on this day, we'll set aside an assassin's verbal daggers and try to accentuate the positive.
This wouldn't be a fitting farewell column without mentioning some of the more important people in my life at The Washington Post, starting with Martie Zad, the lovingly combustible and multitasking sports editor who took a chance on a 22-year-old kid fresh out of Missouri's graduate school of journalism. He also assigned me a desk not far from Bill Gildea and Ken Denlinger, the best possible writing and reporting role models for all my working life and more important, still treasured friends.
Of course, the hire had to be approved by Ben Bradlee, the greatest editor of his generation, and, I eventually discovered, among the most ardent followers of the Washington Redskins, my first big-time beat when I covered the George Allen teams of the 1970s. Bradlee's unwavering support when Allen occasionally threatened to throw me out of Redskins Park, even as Watergate was consuming his own life, will never be forgotten.
Nor will Shirley Povich, The Post's legendary sports columnist all those mornings who also had to sign off on my employment. A man who had been a Washington must-read institution since the 1920s nevertheless always had the time to offer a word of encouragement, a bit of advice, a better way to say it. The greatest honor and one of the proudest accomplishments of my career was writing Shirley's obituary in advance of his death in 1998 at the age of 92. It was a piece I never, ever wanted to see in print.
The man who assigned me that task was George Solomon, the paper's longtime sports editor and my immediate superior when I left the full-time writing life myself in 1979 to join the paper's editing ranks for a dozen years. In addition to having a great eye for talent and producing the finest sports section in America, George eventually allowed me to go back to my first love, writing and reporting, in 1991, and offered me three of the best assignments sportswriter could ever ask for - covering the national NFL beat and professional golf and the weekly Sports Waves column for most of the past 20 years. Many thanks George, for your passion, your guidance and your friendship.
There are far too many more to acknowledge and to thank in this modest space, from so many friends inside and outside the newsroom, coaches and athletes, team owners and league officials, network executives and all the people in front of and behind the cameras. And of course, a special thanks as well, to my wife and children, for putting up with the all-consuming deadlines and far too many days on the road, in press boxes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, in media tents on birthdays and anniversaries.
And now, back to the sports media business.
I first started occasionally covering it back in the early 1980s, at about the same time ESPN had roughly 16 viewers, most of them Chris Berman's relatives. The Big Three networks (NBC, ABC and CBS) , not cable television, ruled the sports television business. Obviously, that's no longer the case, though we are still fortunate that many of the mega-events on the crammed sports calendar - Super Bowls, Olympics and the major championships in golf - are still available on free, over-the-air television, including another relatively new network player, Fox. How long that will last is anyone's guess, though I suspect by the end of the decade, watching some or all of the above will also include a price tag.
Over the years, I've also written about some memorable broadcasting moments.
I was prepared to do a TV column for the Wednesday paper on the opening Monday night game of the 1983 NFL season between the Redskins and Cowboys, at least until Howard Cosell described elusive Washington wide receiver Alvin Garrett, an African American, as "that little monkey" after a particularly splendid catch and run. Within minutes, the office called to say it had been deluged with angry telephone calls from irate viewers and that I needed to get a comment from Cosell, usually not a problem.
I planted myself outside the ABC booth at RFK Stadium that evening and, as he came out the door at the end of the broadcast, I asked Cosell about what he'd said. At first, he actually denied using the term, at least until I pointed out that millions of viewers nationwide had heard it. He clearly was not happy with the question, but said if he had indeed uttered those words, he surely had only meant it as a term of endearment toward Garrett. It was an expression he often used to describe his own grandchildren, he said that night.
Fair enough. I wrote the story, quoting Cosell and Garrett, and it was buried on an inside page the next day. After all, anyone familiar with Cosell's history in championing the cause of Jackie Robinson as the first African American to break baseball's color line, or his long-standing relationship with Muhammad Ali, also knew that Cosell was no racist. I wrote that in a follow-up column, but Cosell was furious with me over that piece because I also quoted Garrett as saying he'd been the butt of all manner of locker room jokes in the days following the game, including finding bananas in his dressing stall at Redskins Park. Cosell, who had always answered my telephone calls pre-Garrett and affectionately called me "that Trotsky-ite from Wisconsin" (my alma mater), never spoke to me again.
Five years later, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, the man who made gambling synonymous with the NFL during a controversial 12-year stint on the CBS pregame show, came to Washington for a lunch at the old Duke Zeibert's restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. A local television reporter pointed a camera at Snyder and got far more than he bargained for when the wine-fueled Greek offered a racially inappropriate lecture on the so-called "superiority" of the black athlete. Two days later, he was properly fired by CBS and never returned to national TV.
There were countless other broadcasting controversies over the years that made it so easy for a media critic to earn his keep. Remember Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" induced by Justin Timberlake at halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004? I was in the press box that night, writing for the front page, and certainly will never forget some slightly frantic scrambling to report on the bizarre incident. Football was definitely not the only focus of my story that night.
Readers of this space also may recall a wide variety of issues national and local that became frequent fodder for this column.
For years, I've ranted about so-called sports journalists becoming paid pitchmen for products; about the hypocrisy of college athletic programs and the networks who televise their games accepting advertising revenue from beer companies, even as binge drinking has become rampant on campuses across America; about women being pigeonholed as sideline reporters, with only a handful of African American network play-by-play broadcasters and not a single woman calling games in all the major professional sports. In 2011, in the ongoing era of Tiger Woods, how does CBS possibly justify not adding a black or female analyst to its golf coverage, for example?
Maybe it's the old editor in me, but I've also railed for years about the constant mangling of the language on sportscasts, with ESPN clearly leading the way. A catchphrase now and then-"en fuego," for example, or "as cool as the other side of the pillow" - were fun for a while, until beaten to death and often copied by wannabe pretenders. I absolutely hate it when a home run is described as "going yard," when an interception return for a touchdown is a "pick six," when a "hammy" is not a sandwich but a hamstring injury.
Cliches abound, with one Booyah!!! per decade more than enough for me. And I'm begging you Chris Berman, cease and desist with "Rai-duhs," with "back, back, back" and "he . . . could . . . go . . . all . . . the . . . way." They weren't yours to begin with, and enough is really enough. Dick Vitale? Oh please. Lou Holtz? Take Vitale with you and don't let the door smack you in the back.
But enough assassin talk. There has also been plenty to like, as well. Technology has made it far more enjoyable to stay home and watch a game on television, particularly in high-def, rather than deal with traffic jams, outrageous ticket prices and $8 beers at the stadium. When I recently asked long time CBS Sports executive producer Lance Barrow what he thought the greatest technological advance of his lifetime had been, No. 1 on his list was color television and that he couldn't even imagine producing the Masters in black and white.
Instant replay, minicams, blimp shots, that super-imposed yellow first-down marker in football, super slo-mo on golf swings and slap shots, telestrators, microphones in the huddle and on the helmet have all added to the enjoyment of watching games.
So, too, have so many skilled broadcasters. Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, Red Barber, Howard Cosell, Al Michaels, Al Maguire, Bob Costas, John Madden, Dick Enberg, Brent Musburger, Pat Summerall, Jim McKay, Jon Miller, Marv Albert, Jim Nantz, David Feherty, Johnny Miller, Keith Jackson, Curt Gowdy, Tony Roberts, Phil Simms, Cris Collinsworth and James Brown, to name just a few, clearly set the gold standard. The late Roone Arledge at ABC was the smartest executive in the history of sports television. NBC's Dick Ebersol, one of his protÃ©gÃ©s, is the current titleholder.
On the local front, how fortunate have we all been to have the likes of pioneering Warner "Let's Go To The Videotape" Wolf and the late Glenn Brenner and George Michael in our midst for so many years when sports at 6 and 11 actually was must-see TV. Frank, Sonny and Sam on Redskins radio, Ron Weber, Joe Beninati and Craig "Biscuit in the Basket" Laughlin on the Capitals, Johnny Holliday on all things Maryland and long suffering Steve Buckhantz on the Wizards were also must-listen, have-to-watch. And behind the scenes producing and directing countless televised events, sportscasts and sports specials was Ernie Baur, a pioneering local production whiz himself.
Sports talk in Washington? Warner Wolf did it first on WTOP Radio in the '60s, and Ken "yaw next" Beatrice came along in the '70s to host the most popular sports talk show in local radio history, even if some of his sources and resources were a tad specious. And sorry Junks, Kornheiser still has the most entertaining radio show in town.
These days, we've got two all-sports radio stations yakking 24/7 and two all sports regional cable outlets providing games and more games. They also give cable viewers slickly produced nightly sports news and highlight programs that provide far more information on our local teams than the two to three minutes allotted on the traditional local news operations at 6 and 11 p.m.
We're in an era of all sports, all the time, with every major pro league, a number of college conferences and the golf, tennis and speed channels providing sport-specific programming around the clock. And if you live in the nation's capital and root for the Vancouver Canucks, for a price you can see your favorite team play every game on its schedule, courtesy of that other great television development - satellite service around the globe.
ESPN has grown exponentially from its humble beginnings into a sports juggernaut with multiple channels and an Internet presence that often dominates the sports conversation nationally, and in local markets where its bureaus give hometown newspapers formidable daily competition. The Worldwide Leader was rightfully slammed in all corners, including by its own ombudsman, for its far over-the-top and terribly clumsy handling of the LeBron James free agent signing, but would anyone be surprised if it happened again?
I always tell young journalists that nothing should ever surprise them, and there is no such thing as a dumb question, especially if you don't know the answer. I'll be saying it again in a few weeks when I head out to the University of Wisconsin to teach a course in sports journalism. That will truly be another labor of love, and so too has been the one and only full-time job I've ever held in my adult life. For that, many thanks to Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham, once a brilliant sports editor himself.
It's mostly been a magical ride, providing me a catbird's seat to every Super Bowl since 1972, all of Tiger Woods's major championship victories, the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Winter Olympics and countless other events, large and small. And now, it's time to keep moving in a slightly different direction, maybe write another book or two and finally watch a sporting event without ever having to take a note on what I just saw or heard.
It's been a delight sharing some of those notes, gooey good and assassin bad, with so many readers for so many years, even the occasional hate mailers. To steal an old catchphrase, courtesy of the Beach Boys, from my annual end-of-the-year columns, wouldn't it be nice now to take the opportunity to wish one and all a very happy new year. And, as always, stay tuned.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.