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Features Posted September 28, 1998
Sports For Smart People
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version
Royce Webb and his friends, like many literate sports fans, have long complained about the quality of sports journalism in America.
 
"The writing is dreadful. Dreadful. Bereft of ideas. Often incompetent at the sentence level," Webb said. "All sorts of factual assumptions and claims are made without a shred of evidence, or even a notion of what would constitute evidence. These are repeated by 'expert' after 'expert,' night after night."
 
The 33-year-old Nashville-based editor and publisher of SportsJones, a new online magazine for smart sports fans, has been a competitive basketball player and racquetballer for much of his life. He has also been an academic and writer, currently finishing off a doctorate in Communications Studies at the University of Iowa.
 
Webb's competing passions merged into a dissertation topic -- examining the CBS telecast of the 1992 college basketball championship game between Duke and the "Fab Five" freshmen of Michigan.
 
"Duke represented (and continues to represent) whiteness, and the Fab Five represented blackness. So, I am looking at how race played a role in the commentary. This is tangled up with the fact that Duke was the older team and expected to win," Webb explained, giving a "rather simplistic" version of his unfinished work. "Michigan was clearly portrayed as the other team, the outsiders, the pretenders, even though the game was very close until about the six-minute point."
 
For much of this decade, Webb has fantasized on and off about starting a sports magazine where he and his friends, many of them fellow postgraduate students at Iowa, could throw darts at sports journalism's sacred cows (such as every sport's "good old days") and tackle traditionally uncomfortable sports issues like race, gender and the human reaction to sudden stardom.
 
"But who can afford to start a magazine from scratch?" he said. "In the last three years or so, I realized that the Web was the medium I needed."
 
"We're tired of letting the media tell the same stories they've told 6,000 times before, give meaningless stats, and offer flash over substance." -- SportsJones
The big break came this March, when a Vanderbilt professor for whom Webb was writing a grant proposal told him he had a business that hosted Web sites and offered to host the magazine.
 
Webb immediately rounded up his Iowa friends, located some other talent, and "started reading everything I could about design." By April he was working full-time on the project, and on June 3, the first issue went up.
 
"We want you to join us as we take sports back from the loudmouthed, cynical, corporate sports media," reads SportsJones' spirited manifesto. "We're tired of letting the media tell the same stories they've told 6,000 times before, give meaningless stats, and offer flash over substance. We're sick of letting the media giants hound and tear down athletes and sports in general. We deserve better."
 
In 15 weeks of steady improvement, SportsJones has posted more than two dozen lengthy articles, first-person essays, interviews and number-crunching exercises written by self-described amateurs. "Eighteen were written by academics," Webb said.
 
In one memorable (and very long) interview, Webb coaxes Atlanta Braves AA phenom George Lombard into refreshingly frank discussion about, among other things, the temptations of college recruiting.
 
"You have hostesses, you know. They take you around, show you the school. The hostesses are always good-looking. They'll know everyone, all the places to go out at night to enjoy yourself and meet the rest of the guys. And you usually go out and hit a few bars with the players... I don't think they'll ever stop illegal recruiting because it's not the coaches, it's the alumni, and you can't do anything about them," Lombard said.
 
Webb's clearly in his element when riffing about the class questions surrounding the Latrell Sprewell choking case and the false nostalgia for basketball's supposed Golden Age.
 
"Let's not forget: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan got coaches fired," he wrote. "Hakeem Olajuwon faked an injury and demanded a trade. Julius Erving refused to play for his own team. Bill Walton grew a ponytail, smoked whatever with the Grateful Dead, signed a huge free agent contract, and sued his own team. Now he makes a living criticizing 'the young players of today.' Funny guy."
 
SportsJones' most quoted article... came from Iowa associate economics professor Scott Page, who used standard deviations and central limit theorems to predict, in early June, that Mark McGwire would end up with a record 65 home runs this year.
SportsJones' topics range breezily from neighborhood softball leagues, to high school basketball players' reaction to "He Got Game," to Webb's own recent surrealist exercise in implicating N.Y. Yankee coach Don "Gerbil" Zimmer in Kenneth Starr's investigation.
 
The writing, too, veers from chatty and informed banter to careful societal analysis. Betty Moffett and Judy Hunter bring off some nice descriptions in their breakdown of the budding tennis rivalry between Martina Hingis and Venus Williams.
 
"Hingis's efficient power comes from the circles of her haunches and upper arms; Williams moves on the extravagant springs formed by long calves and thighs," the pair wrote.
 
SportsJones' most quoted article, however, came from Iowa associate economics professor Scott Page, who used standard deviations and central limit theorems to predict, in early June, that Mark McGwire would end up with a record 65 home runs this year. Page's work was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Des Moines Register.
 
McGwire ended the season with 70 home runs.
 
Webb doesn't pay himself, nor any of his writers, and his professor friend hosts the site for free. For now, traffic -- with "hundreds" of visitors each week making "thousands" of page views -- is too low to attract advertising. Webb's wife Patsy has helped put food on the table.
 
"Without her good will and support, I couldn't do this," he said.
 
Like many startups, SportsJones is a labor of love.
 
"We love to write about sports. We are not professional cynics, as so many sportswriters are," Webb said. "I think the most important lesson I've learned is that one should muster all of the initiative one can, and do something good. I have created the opportunity to interact with dozens, and eventually hundreds, of talented people, and to bring a little pleasure to the lives of our staff and readers, as well as to provoke thought."
 
If the letters posted on the site are any indication, some thought has indeed been provoked. "Whereas I understand your point of emotional memory," wrote one, "I still feel it is within the scope of reasonable expectation for a player not to choke his coach."
 
Another, written by a fellow academic, would be hard to imagine in the Sporting News: "I believe the topic of general class values should normally supercede general racial (denotative rather than connotative) issues. So much of current social politics demands that the issue of racism (conceived as white over black) must dominate all cultural discourse."
 
For the near future, Webb has plans to offer chat features, a newsletter and some indices. He would like to post one new feature a day, add links to other smart sports sites and eventually become "the brand name for intelligent sports coverage."
 
"We want to try to lead, or be a major voice in, a paradigm shift in sports and the sports media -- a shift toward a more sensitive, progressive, humane perspective. I know we won't be as big as ESPN or SI, but we can provide a real alternative. In the long run, sports culture will get smarter, and we want to lead the way."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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