What’s lost when the New York Times sports section goes away

If it seems odd for a sports columnist at one major metropolitan newspaper to lament the shuttering of the sports section at another major metropolitan newspaper, that’s because it is. But as the New York Times sports page and sports staff enter their final days as we knew them, it feels right to acknowledge what is lost for all of us. The great American newspaper sports section might not be dead. But it’s unhealthy, and who knows the cure?

Sports journalism has changed because all journalism has changed, and there are advantages for the consumer and fan. Results and stats are available in real time. Waiting for box scores and standings to appear the following morning is an idea best presented in sepia. Miss the game? Why read about it? Here are the highlights, whenever you want them. There. You’re caught up.

In that environment, there is no need for an all-encompassing clearinghouse that folds together what happened in sports the day before and what will happen in the days ahead and delves into the characters that push those narratives. In the same way ESPN’s “SportsCenter” once was a necessary gathering place to digest the day’s events, the newspaper sports section was a town square at which a city’s teams and stars could be evaluated, analyzed and discussed.

The Times was never close to a traditional sports section, nor was it particularly a sports section for sports fans, certainly not red-blooded American sports fans who are caught up in who won and who lost, who was the hero and who was the goat. That’s a choice, and a defensible one.

Its stars were its writers, a history and present too broad, deep and talented to list here. (Though hello, Dave Anderson.) Its topics were eccentric more often that not, its audience global. Hardcore New York Knicks fans didn’t turn to the Times for the latest on injuries or lineup changes. No one would say otherwise.

But anyone who read it knew what it was, which was a place for deep reporting and superior writing, for stories you found few other places. It had its identity, just as — pick one — the Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe or the Chicago Tribune had distinct identities. Their readers knew what to expect when they picked up those sections, back when you actually picked up the sections.

Forget print vs. online for a minute, because that war has been over for a long time. The stories and the analysis, the commentary and the accountability journalism — broadly holding the powers that be responsible for how they treated people, narrowly holding teams responsible for the moves they made — were all housed in one place.

Which is not to say the Times won’t still make an impact in sports journalism. The Athletic, the subscription-based website the Times bought for $550 million that it will use to replace its sports content, has many capable and talented reporters and editors, and it has produced good work. It’s just hard to imagine, going forward, that it will have 400 of them. And if the reporters go away, so does their ability to dissect the moves of specific franchises for the fans who care so deeply about them. Pro teams have been in the business of generating their own content for more than a decade now, and some of it — behind the scenes videos in particular — can be moving. But it’s not critical — ever. That’s a loss.

If I sound like I have a romantic, even outdated notion about all this, it’s because I have a romantic, even outdated notion about all this. Growing up, I both delivered and devoured the Boston Globe, which in the 1980s had what I — and others — considered an unrivaled Sports section. The Sunday paper in those days weighed so much that I couldn’t possibly deliver 80-something papers in a bag by bike, so my stepdad would drive, and we’d fill the trunk.

Returning from the route meant inhaling the Sports section. It was a master class in how to cover athletes and coaches, how to recreate games that ended past bedtime, how to tell stories big and small, how to do the job. Bob Ryan, Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville, Dan Shaughnessy, Jackie MacMullan, Larry Whiteside, Kevin Paul Dupont. The athletes weren’t my heroes. The writers who covered the athletes were my heroes.

There are still great sports writing and sportswriters out there. Where it and they are found is changing. ESPN no longer has a magazine. Sports Illustrated is no longer owned by a journalism company. The New York Times is closing its sports section. The craft is undergoing an overhaul, produced by nontraditional outlets seeking different audiences.

Maybe that’s just fine, a natural and necessary evolution. But I can’t help but think that something is being lost — something has been lost — in all of this. The idea that sports are a valuable and vital part of culture, worthy of being packaged with international and national news, alongside coverage of the theater and art and style. The idea that deep reporting and elegant writing can elevate the understanding of sports, that the stories a publication’s best writers produce can enhance the experience of watching a competition, not just reproduce what everyone saw.

There is, of course, a navel-gazing element to all this, because while the sports sections at The Post and the Times probably had more differences than similarities, one survives for another day and one doesn’t. This is not at all to say that we here at The Post have the future of sports coverage figured out. Far from it. We’re working on it.

But I know, for instance, that at all the Olympics I have covered here — dating back to 2004 in Athens, and every one since — the standard to beat was most often the Times and its army of reporters who could write and writers who could report. Next summer, the Olympics will be in Paris. The Post will send a robust crew, ready to take on the Games and whatever surrounds them. The Times will be … well, I guess we don’t know.

Maybe the idea of a newspaper sports staff providing definitive coverage about teams in a town — and beyond — has long been antiquated. Fine. The future is more important than the past. But forgive me a bit of mourning. A pillar of a publication with a deep history of telling the best stories sports have to offer — traditional and out-of-nowhere — is opting not to pursue those stories. In that sense, writers, fans and readers all lose.

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