What Made Sports Section Distinctive Shouldn't Be Abandoned
The New York Times brass has shown themselves indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the sports column. Maybe it's because the stars who pen the column cost too much. Maybe it's easy to discard when the news hole shrinks. Maybe it's just plain dumb.
George Vecsey penned his final regular column on Saturday (that the Times would not showcase such a lamentable occasion in the Sunday paper tells you a lot). That means only Bill Rhoden is the only regular "Sports of the Times" columnist left.
Yes, there is pointed analysis about a particular sport without it verging into a full-fledged column, e.g. Tyler Kepner "On Baseball," etc. And this is not to say the section, for whatever its flaws on coverage of local teams, is not well-written.
With the likes of Ben Shpigel, Mike Tanier, Jere Longman and Bill Pennington, among others, cranking out copy, writing is the least of the Times' problems.
But a column is destination reading in a sports section. If you operate on the premise, as the Times does more aggressively than any other major paper, that many readers need less game-day coverage, then a column provides those points of differentiation that may be the only thing saving the section from irrelevance (that massive takeout by John Branch on the death of hockey goon Derek Boogaard is another way).
It was bad enough that the Times booted Harvey Araton from his column in 2009 after 15 years, briefly reassigned him to do features elsewhere in the paper, then brought him back to write for the sports pages. He's done a lot of extended enterprise pieces, and a lot of those On (fill in the sport), er, columns. But the lack of hubris is apparently too much to overcome for the Times to put him back as a columnist. Sports editor Joe Sexton would do well by taking this step, and finding a brash third voice as well (Wallace Matthews, anybody?).
As for Vecsey, it was a great ride. That he will still be writing for the Times on occasion is cause for comfort. But I'm sure that he is the last person who views himself as irreplaceable. The Times needs to prove him right.