I started reading newspapers from back to front pretty much when I started reading newspapers regularly. Eleven. Twelve. Little League age. I should back up a bit here and explain that in our house having a half dozen or so daily papers stacked on a chair at the end of the kitchen table was routine. My mother was an avid reader of newspapers, a fact which baffles me to this day because she virtually never discussed current events. She had to be the best-informed, least-opinionated person I’ve ever known. Kind of the opposite of what we have today.
At any rate, among those daily papers were two New York City tabloids, The New York Daily News and The New York Daily Mirror. For a boy whose life revolved around sports, they were required reading and sports, of course, was the back of the paper, starting with the back page. The papers had great reporters, columnists, photos, everything necessary to keep a blossoming Yankee fan from noticing that other Yankees -- American GIs -- were fighting in a war in Korea. An uncle among them.
As I grew older, my interests broadened, as did my appreciation of good writing. The pile of papers at the end of the table grew taller proportionally. What once consisted of The Bayonne Times, The Jersey Journal, The Newark Star-Ledger, The News and The MIrror, gradually expanded to at varying times include The Herald Tribune (my favorite), the Journal-American, The New York Post and occasionally even the World Telegram & Sun. If there was a sports section, I found it. If it wasn’t the back page, it was still the back of the paper. Fun and games. Batting averages and touchdown passes.
No war. No politics. No crime. No scandal. Plenty of time to read about that other stuff later in the day. It helped me ease into my day even as I began to realize there were other supposedly more important topics to read about. Sports was always an escape valve from the petty annoyances and major disappointments of the rest of life.
Maybe that’s why sports reporters always seemed to be so content, regardless of what was happening in the world. They got to go to a sporting event free, write a story about and do it over again the next day. And get paid for it. Sweet. I had a brief taste of this in my journalism career as a sports editor in upstate New York for a year or so. The heaviest weight the world put on my shoulders was how to play Mark Spitz’s record haul of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. As fate would have it, I worked for a tabloid, so I splashed a big picture of Spitz, his medals and the headline’ “The Magnificent Seven.” I thought it was as good as any of the New York City tabs could do.
Later, as editorial page editor at a different upstate paper for 23 years, I wound up writing about all the other stuff. Stuff I still write about today when I feel the inspiration, which of late has been difficult to come by. All of which is a long way of saying that, while I still turn to sports to start my day today, it’s not nearly the same. First of all, on the Internet there is no back page. More to the point, the sports pages are no longer a sanctuary from the social problems of the day.
One of the biggest sports stories recently was the “retirement” of Alex Rodriguez from the New York Yankees. A-Rod got $27 million to go away. You don’t have to honor your contract for next year, Alex; take the money with our blessings. Rodriguez, of course, was a central figure in baseball’s steroids scandal. He was suspended for a year for cheating. Why he felt the need to cheat is beyond me since he was regarded as one of the best players in baseball without enhancing his performance with drugs. Instead of marveling at his skills, which is, after all, what sports is all about, fans are left to wonder how much his statistics were inflated by steroids.
I watched a movie recently, “The Program,” which details the lengths to which Lance Armstrong (If ever there was a name for a sports hero, that was it) went to win the Tour de France -- seven times. Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer, apparently knew he was good, but not good enough, to win the legendary cycling race, so he signed on for a regimented doping program from the outset, recruiting teammates for the lying and cheating that brought him fame and fortune and ultimate disgrace. He made the front page.
It’s not just drugs. Last week, a kicker for the New York Giants was suspended for one game because of an old domestic violence complaint by his ex-wife. One game. The National Football League has been plagued with domestic violence complaints for several years and has yet to figure out a consistent policy on dealing with them. Then again, the NFL also had trouble figuring out how to penalize teams that deflate the footballs.
Of course, the biggest sporting event of the year has been the Olympics in beautiful Brazil, with its polluted waters, corrupt government, and economic problems. The event began with the Russian track team being banned because of a government-sponsored doping program. It featured a medal-winning American swimmer, Ryan Lochte, claiming he and some teammates were robbed at gunpoint in Rio, when they actually had gotten drunk and trashed a service station bathroom.
This was all back page stuff, but hardly a diversion from the travails of the day. Hardly uplifting of the human spirit, as the Olympics likes to present itself.
But then … there was also Michael Phelps, still swimming despite two DUI arrests, and his record haul of medals. Also, the other USA swimmers, male and female, the women gymnasts, the basketball team, the Syrian refugee swimmer winning the gold, the female runners who collided, fell down, helped each other up and finished the race. Literally uplifting.
Finally, there is the face of this Olympics, at least for me: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt blurring to victory for the third time in the 100-meter dash, permanently retiring the title of “Fastest Human Alive.” Bolt actually took the time in a qualifying race for the 100-meters to glance back to see if anyone was gaining on him. No one was. He smiled. Wow! Now that’s a back page.
Bolt won three golds. Of course, the Twitterverse could not avoid the question of the day: What drugs do you think he’s on?
Dedicated to: Jimmy Breslin, Jimmy Cannon and Jim Murray.