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News & Events • May 2005

Sports columnist reveals inside scoop

By Kelley McLandress
J-School Web reporter

photo by David Erickson
Ron Rapoport, a sports columnist who has been to nine Superbowls and six Olympics, speaks to UM students on April 20

Some people call the newspaper’s sports section the “toy department,” but it’s truly hard work, says Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport, who visited the School of Journalism last month.

Through his experience and style, Rapoport proved sports writing an art during his three-day visit to Montana. In his second-ever trip to the state (his first was a long-ago visit to Glacier), Rapoport addressed aspiring sportswriters in professor Michael Downs’ class.

Sports writing has three parts, he said: game stories, features and columns.

“I have to put in a lonely plug for the game story,” he said. Remembering the 1,500-word stories that include what he called “play-by-play action, strategically-placed quotes and special sports language,” he acknowledged that these stories have been mostly sidelined by competing ESPN television coverage.

But while he still holds out hope for the game story, feature writing is Rapoport’s strength.

“This is where I think writers prove themselves,” he said. But not all good feature writers become good columnists. 

“The big problem is the everydayness of column writing,” said Rapoport, citing Rick Reilly as one columnist who overcomes this. Reilly, who writes one column a week for Sports Illustrated, is what Rapoport calls “head and shoulders above the rest.”

“There are two kinds of column writing,” he said: the “gee-whiz” columns that cover the extraordinary and the “aw-nuts” columns that show the disappointing.

Rapoport proposed a third kind: the “isn’t it interesting” column.This vast middle ground includes everything from humor to feature stories, he said.

Laughing at his witty, yet blunt, humor, students in Downs’ class were eager for more.

What is the most important factor in a column writer’s success?

“Is it how good they are at their best?” Rapoport asked. “Is it how often, how consistent, their approach is at its very best?  Or, is it what columnists write when they have nothing to write about?”

One student guessed the latter, which brought a howl from Rapoport.

“I believe consistency is most important,” he replied. “I’m not saying columnists need a home-run all the time.”  But a consistent approach to finding and telling the stories  is integral, he said.

Many columnists are opinionated exhibitionists, said Rapoport.

“I call it ‘taking your pants down in public to see if anyone will notice,’” he said.

The most difficult part of learning to write sports columns, Rapoport said, was including the personal pronoun. But once he got used to it, he joked, he was able to use “I” three times per sentence.

Some students wanted tips on interviewing athletes. 

“The best way to approach an interview is to try to make it a conversation,” Rapoport said. Some situations call for quick-fired questions, others for the casual conversation-style interview.

Rapoport studied at Stanford and then at Columbia in New York City before going on to work for the Associated Press. He later worked for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Los Angeles Times. In Chicago, he covered heavyweight championship fights, Super Bowls, World Series, professional and college basketball championships, winter and summer Olympics, major golf championships and much more. 

Now Rapoport writes four columns a week, Monday through Thursday, for the Chicago Sun-Times. His conversations about sports with Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” are noted for their relevance, their light-hearted approach, and their often hilariously wrong predictions.

Rapoport has written three books, the most recent about famous 1930s golfer Bobby Jones. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Jones’ winning of the Grand Slam of golf: winning the four major tournaments in a single season, a feat that has not been repeated. The book is called “The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf.”  An interview with Rapoport can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered."

While at UM, Rapoport also discussed “The Immortal Bobby” in a reading and book signing at the University Center Theater, met with local sports reporters, visited with students from the Kaimin and UM’s student-run radio station KBGA and met with Downs’ class a second time to critique student-written columns. 

 

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updated
1/3/07 10:24 AM
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