Monday, January 23, 2012

1975: On Assignment

The new Sports Illustrated is here, and Terry Bradshaw is on the cover and Dan Jenkins is inside, carrying the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory in Super Bowl IX. 

Jenkins's "game story" is typically rollicking. It opens with the following fun sentence: "And now, for an encore, the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense will pick up Tulane Stadium and throw it into the middle of Bourbon Street." It goes on to include all kinds of other fun stuff like the following two paragraphs on the pre-game party scene: 

(T)he Super Bowl is more than just a football game, of course. And when you put it in a city like New Orleans it becomes something like the social equivalent of a Middle East war. In a sense, the week was a party-off. The NFL threw one for an intimate gathering of about 5,000 in a place called the Rivergate. The food was so far away from the entrance that John Gilliam would have had to sit down and pant after jogging there. CBS had a room in the Royal Sonesta that showed film loops of such things as the 1958 Colts-Giants game. You got to watch Johnny Unitas watching Johnny Unitas. There was a party in the still-to-be-completed Louisiana Superdome, where an unlikely combination of personalities—Fred MacMurray, Ray Bolger, Reggie Jackson, Vin Scully and the Steelers' Russell—stood around tossing shrimp shells on the stadium floor that one day, the publicists assure us, will be covered with "Mardi grass." 

The French Quarter began to fill up Thursday night, and the whole thing was like one gigantic cocktail party with the edible world of Jacques Cousteau on a plate. The tiny streets were loaded with gangs of people wearing Viking hats with horns sticking out of them, or plastic Steeler hard hats. Someone as recognizable as Howard Cosell or Frank Gifford or Pete Rozelle took chances with his safety if he ventured out of his room. Cosell walked out on a balcony one day and gazed down on Royal Street. "There he is!" somebody shouted. "Get him!"' Cosell disappeared. A writer said, not altogether in jest, "Howard won't come back out. Too many snipers." 

Later, Jenkins lists 10 unattributed, unsubstantiated and very fun sentences he overheard while in New Orleans. 

He does not ignore the football altogether. Jenkins obviously knows and convincingly reports his stuff: "For those who enjoy the mystique of pro football technique, let it now be recorded that the violent Pittsburgh defense was a basic 4-3 with a singular stunt; Greene and Holmes played over the Minnesota center and crushed him, pinching first one way, then another. The result was that Minnesota's guards could not pull, and thus the Vikings had no blocking for their ground game." 

But, for sure, Jenkins has no intention of clinically assessing the whos, whats, whens, whys and hows of the Steelers' league-championship triumph. He's there to capture the happening of Super Sunday for a publication that will be dated eight days after the game is actually played. It's a great and very fun story that makes me want to read more--more Jenkins, more of this issue, more SIs, more fun, fun, fun. 

Anyway, that's all toward the front of the issue. By Page 40, the fun is mostly over, and Sports Illustrated is getting down to business. We find lots of news of record, lots of promotion for ancillary products and lots of ads back here. Even this week's second half of Frank Deford's series on Bill Tilden is pretty dreary stuff, illustrated with serious sketches. Not much fun back here. 

And it is where we find the following two-page advertorial.

I read every word. Heck, I felt like I wrote every word--this week and every week since I left sportswriting and started making my living in PR and marketing. I wonder if even the writer of this piece would recognize his or her own work here. This stuff hardly ever carries a byline, and really there isn't much point. The stories follow a pretty well-defined formula: the problem being faced by the user of a product, followed by why they elected to use this particular product to solve the problem, the benefits the user has realized since adopting the product and the neat, new things the user might do with the product now. The idea is to write it specific enough to this one usage in order to be credible and interesting but also general enough so that other readers/potential users might see their own buying experience reflected in the advertorial. The result is that all of these types of stories are pretty much structured the same and sound the same. 

Which is not to say that writing stuff like this is easy. It's absolutely not. For example, I would defy the great, halls-of-famer Dan Jenkins--and he is really, really great--to slip a draft opening with the word "And" by the waves of editors who would've had to sign off on this IBM deal before it ever showed up at SI's offices. Whoever wrote this thing is a pro in her/his own right, too, and he or she didn't get to have the fun of hanging out in New Orleans all weekend. 

All of this is starting to sound a little bitter, and I don't mean it to be. I'm glad the Dan Jenkinses are out there doing what they do, and I'm glad there are jobs for the folks like me and the "IBM Reports" writer who get too nervous to put their own bylines on stuff or who want to be home enough to serve on church committees or who simply aren't talented enough to pull off 2,600 very fun words on command and deadline. And mostly I'm thankful that God loves us and is trying to use us all, whatever our gifts or limitations. Amen.


  1. God puts just as much pressure on the one-talent people as the five-talent people.

  2. On Saturday, January 18, 1975, UK went to Ole Miss and survived a red-hot Rebel team that made 36-70 shots from the field. The Cats won 85-82.

    Two nights later -- the SEC was playing a lot of Monday games at this time -- the #10 Cats came home to host the #7 Alabama Crimson Tide. Coached by C.M. Newton, and led by Leon Douglas, the 1975 and 1976 Alabama teams were probably the best basketball teams the Tide has ever had. In eight games against the Cats from 1973 to 1976, Douglas won three times and averaged 24.6 points per game. In this game, Douglas had 27 points (on 11-23 shooting) and 25(!) rebounds. Alabama led 30-27 at the half, but UK outscored the Tide 47-39 in the second half for a huge 74-69 win. Kevin Grevey scored 20 points on 8-27 shooting, as he struggled from the field, but Jimmy Dan Conner went 9-16, and his 18 points were huge.

    The win runs UK's record to 12-2 overall, and 5-1 in the SEC. But the AP voters were not impressed by UK's close victories, and they dropped the Cats to number 11 in the polls.