This one needs some explanation. The week before this column ran, I wrote a piece where I pretended some high school athletes had make disparaging remarks to me. I thought it was obvious that the kids had not said those things, but I was simply imagining how awful my job would be were I to be treated that way. Some parents were offended that these young people spoke to me that way, and the parents of the kids were upset people were coming to that conclusion (in, retrospect, while I did point out on two separate occasions that the comments were fictional, I could have done a better job of conveying that). Feeling bad that these young athletes were being blamed for something they hadn’t done (they had agreed to let me concoct the fictional scenario when I explained what I was doing), I wanted to correct that mistaken interpretation. My editors didn’t feel like I needed to, arguing the proper conclusion was obvious from my original column. I came up with this solution, which my editor-in-chief grudgingly allowed.
A helpful visit from a legend
Column for The Republic, Columbus 1993
It had all the makings of a perfect evening.
I was sitting at home with the couch to myself. To my left was a six-pack of Jolt Cola. On my right, a full box of Crunch Berries, ready to be eaten dry. And on the tube was my favorite show, “American Gladiators.”
A knock on the door momentarily interrupted my tranquility. Until I answered it. For standing on the other side was legendary dead sportswriter Red Smith.
“Hey Red, how are you? Glad you could drop by.”
“My pleasure, Sparky.” (Red, for some reason, always calls me Sparky.)
“Come on in. Make yourself at home.”
“Hey, ‘Gladiators,’ cool. I love Nitro,” Red exclaimed.
“Me too. Care for a Jolt?”
“No, I’m already wired. Thanks for the offer, though,” Red said, removing his new Nikes as he settled beside me on the couch.
“Red, I’m glad you came by. I have a question about sports writing you might be able to help me with.”
“I already said all there is to know about sports writing,” he said. “You know, ‘sit down at a typewriter, open a vein and bleed.’”
“I tried that. But we don’t use typewriters any more. And all that blood seeped into my computer terminal and short-circuited the system.”
“That could be a problem.”
“No, my question concerns a hypothetical situation,” I told him. “Have you ever written a story or column that you thought was a little clever, a little bit funny, but still got your point across?”
“No, I got to be legendary by just writing garbage.”
“Sorry, stupid question. What I really want to know is: When you wrote such a piece, did any subscribers ever read it differently than the way you wrote it? And by reading it differently, draw conclusions that put the story’s subjects in a questionable light?”
“Why don’t you cut out the hypothetical stuff and tell me the details?” Red said.
“Well, I recently wrote a column that I thought was clear, but was interpreted differently by a large number of readers. I attempted to use a fictional setting to illustrate the absurdity of a situation developing in the professional sports world. But some folks took the fictional comments I attributed to local athletes as genuine.”
“Ah, a fictional setting, fictional comments. Always a gamble,” he said.
“I realize that now. So how do you incorporate them into a story without running the risk of upsetting some readers?”
“As I see it,” he began. “If you plan to use a fictional setting, you must make absolutely certain that setting can’t possibly be mistaken for the truth.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Although I can’t think of a setting that unbelievable offhand.”
“You work on it, Sparky. Well, I guess I’d better be leaving. I’m supposed to go inline skating tomorrow with Grantland Rice,” Red said, timing his exit with Mike Adamle’s closing remarks on Gladiators.