Breaking barriers, sportswriters edition

a footbal on a fieldI’m not a big fan of most sports, but I am a fan of sportswriters. They have to turn out crisp, interesting prose while paying attention to a game that, in some cases, will render all their crisp, interesting prose unusable if that hail Mary pass connects at the last second.

I recently found a new name to add to my pantheon of sportswriters: Elinor Kaine. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a Smithie, like yours truly. Natalie Weiner wrote a long pre-Super Bowl piece about her this week; it’s worth a read.

Elinor was the first writer to follow the football beat. Here’s what one of her competitors had to say:

“There is something basically discomforting about a gal sportswriter…Too many times it’s just a gimmick; in Elinor Kaine’s case, though, it’s downright embarrassing. She’s good.”

Here’s some of her embarrassingly good prose:

“If it is taken two at a time, football can be broken down for spectating purposes into 11 individual duels. Watching one duel at a time is absorbing. Superb athletes, football players use finesse, quickness and cunning as much as size and strength. The mini-wars are violently sophisticated and highly unpredictable.”

She broke into sportswriting by founding her own football newsletter, the first publication of its kind to aggregate news about every football team in the country. Eventually, as the newsletter’s circulation grew—and her reputation along with it—bigger players in the media invited her to write regular columns. She even got a book deal. But one thing she couldn’t get was a fair shake.

When the Jets and the Giants played each other for the first time, at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Kaine had to sue for access to the press box. She won—but they shunted her into an area with a few folding chairs and nothing on which to set her typewriter, and thus no way to make her deadline.

“Elinor laughed at the pretensions of men who patronized women with their pseudo-expertise,” [Larry] Merchant [a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia] wrote on the occasion of Penna’s retirement from sportswriting. “She poked fun at the juvenile antics of grown men who played, coached and owned. She fleshed out the people hidden under all that armor and money.”

“She would come up with these anecdotes that ordinary sportswriters at the time wouldn’t care about, would never find out about,” he says now.

That, my friends, is good writing. And something all of us should be doing—find the anecdotes that others overlook and your work will always be surprising and memorable.