What Journalists Can Learn from Sports

By Jack Limpert

This is a wonderful time of year for sports fans—college basketball is at its best, the NBA and NHL are heading to the playoffs, the baseball season is about to begin, Masters golf at Augusta. The competition is fun to watch, and I’ve always thought sports can give kids some good life lessons—especially the importance of teamwork and how to deal with winning and losing.

Sports also may have some insights useful for journalists. I was mostly a basketball player in school, and while editing a magazine I always thought my role was being the point guard, focusing on running things and keeping things organized but mostly trying to help others on the team to do well. The writers were the scorers, and deserved the attention they got, and the editors were there to help. Together, we’d come out ahead.

I continued playing basketball, going from competing in high school and college to playing pickup basketball at YMCAs in Minneapolis and Washington. What I learned playing pickup basketball: Players at each YMCA had their own informal  rules. Anyone can play, there are no referees, and almost no fouls are called. You learn the hard way that there’s no such thing as a charging foul—you get run over it’s your problem. You don’t worry much about the rules of the game, you just play. Sort of like going from print journalism to web journalism.

In my 40s I switched to tennis and golf. Tennis is good exercise but I’m not sure what a journalist learns from it. But golf—some good life lessons there. Maybe the most important is that when you get into trouble, take your medicine and solve the problem as quickly as possible.

Ben Bradlee learned that in the Navy. In the book, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman, Bradlee talks about trouble:

Ben often says that the main thing he learned from his time in the Navy was damage control. In a speech in Prague in 1990, he talked about how serving as the assistant damage control officer on the USS Philip during World War II had shaped him as a newspaperman. “In that job, one is charged with thinking about trouble and how to handle trouble before it handles you. I’ve often thought that ability to control damage is one of the essential skills of an editor.”

Editing at the Washingtonian, I found good damage control important if the job isn’t going to drive you crazy. From the outside, it may look like an editor spends most of his time talking with writers and helping them come up with good ideas and great stories. There is a lot of that, and it’s the most important thing an editor does, but some days it seemed like most of what an editor does is a kind of damage control—watching out for trouble and getting out of trouble as quickly as possible. It’s also what good golfers do.

P.S. One of the important and underappreciated changes in American life has been the impact of Title IX, the 1972 law that requires gender equity for boys and girls in schools. When I was in school in the 1950s, the only place a girl could compete was to try out for the cheerleading team. Now girls can play all sports and learn the importance of teamwork and how to handle winning and losing. I’d love to read a good piece on how Title IX opened up all kinds of opportunities for women to do well in sports and in life.

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