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The Long Goodbye

JV Sports

By Jay K. Varma

Jack O'Leary, a sports-writer for the Boston Herald, stopped typing away on the small keyboard of his standard-issue Radio Shack laptop and looked up at me from across the fold-up table. "You're not going into this business, are you?" he asked gruffly.

I finished pecking away at my Powerbook and responded somberly, "No, this is it. This is actually the last game story I'm ever going to write."

"Good. Because if you ever get the crazy idea to go into this profession, talk to us. We'll change your mind."

I laughed. He didn't.

Jack looked tired and worn out. His hair and walrus-style mustache were completely gray, his mouth turned down sourly, his eyes squinted at the screen.

At that one moment in late March, nestled in the Worcester Centrum, we were both sportswriters, telling the story of Harvard's shocking loss in the first round of the NCAA men's hockey tournament.

I wasn't surprised with what he said. I've always suspected that being a sportswriter was a sure-fire way to sap the spirit of a young sports fan.

He hated his job. But, after three years at it, I didn't. I actually enjoyed the grim hours and thanklessness of being a sports editor. And to this day, that's what surprises me.

There's a certain notoriety that comes with being the sports editor of The Crimson. You write for the most widely read section of the newspaper, and, on a day-to-day basis, deal with more undergraduates over the phone and in person than in any other extracurricular.

But writing sports also brings with it profound infamy. I've received dirty looks walking down the street. I've been screamed at by coaches, athletes and readers. I've been cursed at parties and physically threatened in bars.

After I switched from news to sports my sophomore year, I learned pretty quickly that honesty and good wit may win you the respect of other journalists, but they bring you the ire of just about everyone else. And at a school with such a tightly knit (some would say incestuous) athletic program, that's a lot of enemies who know you by name and nothing else.

So you strive to be well-respected, if not well-liked, and that too can be a battle of its own. You become one with The Crimson, and what goes wrong on the news page, the editorial page or the sports page, ultimately, reflects back on your reputation, like it or not.

But my time in "The Cube" (the name for the cubbyhole we occupy in 14 Plympton) has not been all fear and loathing. I'll eternally be grateful to The Crimson, because through this job I've met more people, made more friends, experienced more emotions, done more things, seen more places, written more text and eaten more free Munchkins and turkey sand-wiches than I could have doing any other activity.

These three years have been a healthy mixture of hard work, hard times and, yes, fun. It's simply the nature of sportswriting and The Crimson in general, and my personal attitude in particular, that made my three years here so grueling and difficult. Then again, it's also what made the years so special.

As journalism, sportswriting falls somewhere in between news and art criticism. It requires both the reporting skills of a newshound and the analytical and stylistic skills of an essayist.

Read George Plimpton '48 and David Halberstam '55, and you begin to understand why sportswriting is more than just boxscores and statsheets.

Good sportswriting is an art, the art of making the unimportant, inconsequential and temporal, seem profound, meaningful and eternal. One moment of pain becomes every person's moment of pain; one moment of glory, a symbol for the ages.

Given that task, sportswriters must necessarily probe into the intricacies of their subjects, scrutinizing every athlete's action and emotion.

And that means writing about losses and mistakes with as much energy and gusto as victories or clutch plays. When the athlete errs, it's the sportswriter's responsibility to explain the "what" and "why," to dissect the moment and explain its significance. To do otherwise, to let an important--albeit unpleasant--moment pass without articulating its meaning, would deny the essence and demean the importance of the entire endeavor.

Sportswriters have a responsibility to tell the story. Then again, is there an equally strong responsibility to tone a story down for the sake of personal feelings or the sake of student-athletes?

Yes, but, in practice, sportswriters who want to keep their readers coming back rarely pull any punches. The problem is that no one can settle on an answer, myself included. There will always be an underlying tension in college sports coverage between a reporter's need to do the job and the need to be considerate and fair to the subject matter.

Here on campus, The Crimson is persistently harangued for being too critical, too negative and too insensitive to the trials of the Ivy student-athlete. But there are two issues here: the perception of Ivy League athletics compared to "big-time" athletics, and the role of The Crimson as a college newspaper.

Many argue that "big-time" players like, say, Michigan sophomore Chris Webber--virtual semi-pros, preparing for a lucrative NBA career--deserve to be scrutinized and their play criticized. By the same token, outgoing men's basketball captain Tyler Rullman, as an Ivy League student-athlete (and more the former than the latter), doesn't deserve as much scrutiny because he's playing at a different level.

This is part of the prevailing logic around Harvard's athletic headquarters in the red brick building at 60 JFK Street. Administrators there contend, moreover, that the only ones worthy of criticism at Harvard are the coaches, because they are the paid professionals.

While I agree that we should never pick on students, we cannot say that coaches or "big-time" athletes are the only ones worthy of scrutiny. Just as Webber must take the heat, so too must Rullman and every Harvard varsity athlete. They're all Division I athletes, representing their school. They choose to play, and by extension accept the pressure that comes with that decision.

At The Crimson, we do avoid blaming students, and we never accuse them of not working hard enough. We do, however, scrutinize performance, because that is what athletics is about. Treating Ivy athletes different than, say, Big 10 athletes demeans the sport, the NCAA and the Ivy League.

But who should do the examining? While not everybody at 60 JFK agrees on the question of special treatment for Ivy athletes, they do seem to agree on the role of The Crimson: a student newspaper, they contend, should seek more to promote school spirit and interest than division and debate.

If a team isn't winning, say it's still trying hard. If a successful team hits a slump, well, it's still trying hard. It's the role of the professional papers, such as The Boston Globe, to scrutinize and attack when necessary. We are students, and these are our fellow students. So we should lay off.

This we cannot accept. We may be students, but we are also journalists, working for an independent corporation, training to do just what The Globe does: Always question, always analyze and never accept anything less than the truth.

So if a team loses, we're damn well going to say why. We are not going to settle for bland, vapid stories that say" at least they gave it the old Crimson try."

As journalists-in-training, we have to be honest about what we are doing and honest about what we are striving for. That means being critical. No one should expect any less from us.

NCAA athletes should accept the same responsibility we do. We make mistakes and write bad stories, because we're students and we're learning. So when we screw up (which certainly isn't rare) we take the requisite, justified complaints and abuse from readers, coaches and athletes.

Athletes and administrators shouldn't expect any less from us when they similarly err.

Because I care so passionately about journalism, I worried about these issues of responsibility throughout my tenure here. But they also troubled me for personal reasons as well.

While writing about athletes, I also lived with and socialized with athletes as well. My roommates played varsity lacrosse, and a solid percentage of my Mather housemates and friends played varsity sports.

So I had to live two lives: my life as a journalist and reporter, and my life as a friend and fellow student. My roommates and friends still think Crimson sports coverage is poor, even though they know I killed myself working here. But they accepted the fine line that exists between my lives: they respected my discipline, work ethic and writing ability, while not agreeing with everything I wrote.

Others, perhaps with good reason, were not so accepting. I had to put up with the insults and the threats from those who didn't understand that being "Jay K. Varma" (the job) is different from being Jay (the person).

Men's Lacrosse Coach Scott Anderson once told my current roommate, "That Jay's a nice guy, but some of the stuff he writes..." And he proceeded to tear into a recent piece I'd written in the paper.

I'm still not sure how I feel about that remark. I think it's good to know someone still believes I'm a solid individual, despite my critical sportswriting. But, in the end, I'd rather they said. "That Jay's a real jerk, and I don't agree with anything he says. But some of the stuff he writes...I respect that he speaks his mind and says his opinions well."

Respect for hard work, not popularity, is, in the end, the only reward a student journalist wants. We do try hard to walk the line between student and reporter, between fairness to our friends and honesty to our trade. We just want others to know--and appreciate--how hard we try.

I could have written this column several ways.

I could have reminisced about The Moments I Will Always Remember: sitting alone and awe-struck in Detroit's famous Joe Louis Arena watching the zamboni prepare the ice, or almost falling over the dangerously designed Boston Garden Press Box as I sweated out in glee Harvard's upset of Boston University in the 1993 Beanpot final.

I could have offered my personal analysis of college sports, why I love Ivy League athletics and why I believe the NCAA should took to the Ancient Eight as a model of reform.

I could have talked about how I became a sportswriter, how I abandoned the vulture-like newsroom for the more relaxed, more exciting, more creative sports beat.

I could have said my goodbye to the Harvard athletic administration. Thank Yous to Joe Restic, Ronn Tomassoni, Scott Anderson, Bill Cleary, John Veneziano and all the others for putting up with my sarcasm, cynicism and badgering. Your Welcomes to all the same for enduring your cliches and unfailing evasiveness.

I could have been mushy about the bonding spirit of being a Crimson sports writer, of working yourself senseless and coming back for more. My fellow sports editors through the years--Peter, Gary, Dan, Ted, John and Tarek--shared the same perverse masochism and the same hope that we could be respected for all we gave (our hearts, our minds, our GPAs) to The Crimson and, we trust, to Harvard.

However many ways there are to write such a column though, there's only one way to end. Yes, I leave both jaded and content, but I have one last message.

To those who've given the time to read to the bottom of this column, I thank you and wish you all the best. You gave me the notoriety and the infamy.

But most of all, whether Jack O'Leary realizes it or not, you gave me the most incredible educational experience I have ever had.

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