Bitter feuds and ancient rivalries are God's gifts to the multitudes who prefer an epic gloss on their diversions. Consider the miasma that envelops each Bears-Packers confrontation. Into this Homeric fog every combatant gladly enters--or so sportswriters tell us, and what reason have they to exaggerate?
Among reporters the quality of today's feuding rarely meets the vaunted traditional standards. The Front Page days when rascals would stop at nothing to foil each other's plots are over. Today's reporter spends too much time wondering when a bravado turn of creative bean counting will pitch him into the street to squander hostility on an opponent in the same pickle. Readers who interpret their favored scriveners in the light of a presumed passion to crush the opposition like bugs are delusional.
Sports reporting, however, remains a sort of battleground. Fraternal (or sororal) though its practitioners may be as they sit haunch to haunch squinting from some press box high above the fray, the pages they write in are the sails that move the ship. The Sun-Times would deep-six anyone and anything before trimming the section it rightly boasts is Chicago's best. "Attitude," the virtue originally ascribed to Jay Mariotti, has been advanced by marketers to become the essence of the entire paper.
So here's some good news. The sports sections of the Sun-Times and Tribune are now entering a still more perfervid era of competition, driven by a force that over time might be more lethal than hatred: friendship.
The new sports editor of the Tribune, John Sherwa, and the assistant managing editor in charge of sports at the Sun-Times, Rick Jaffe, are best friends. They've lived together twice, the first time when they were moonlighting college students with grunt jobs at the Orlando Sentinal. Later they both worked for the Los Angeles Times; Jaffe needed a place while he was going through a divorce, so he moved in with Sherwa and stayed three years.
These are two guys who've always been there for each other. When Sherwa felt edgy about leaving LA, where he was the Times's deputy sports editor, Jaffe told him Chicago was a great sports town; LA didn't compare. Now they can romp around together like Romulus and Remus. Bill Adee, who runs Sun-Times sports day-to-day under Jaffe, told me, "We had a staff meeting last week to explain to everybody how intense this rivalry is going to get. Because it's personal. Rick will be a maniac for the foreseeable future. The rivalry is already intense, and it will get ten notches higher."
Jaffe said, "I'm sure it won't change the friendship, but it'll change a few things about the friendship. We used to share everything, and we won't anymore. I used to share things with him that were going on here, and he used to share things that were going on there."
Was there anything you told him that now you wish you hadn't? I asked Jaffe. No, he said. "There aren't too many secrets in newspapers." (Newspaper R & D, which is where the secrets come from, is a simple place. It's what advises papers that made a habit of short, punchy stories to shift to stories that are longer and more thoughtful. Or vice versa. And papers that favor a gray, inky look to emphasize flashy photos. Or vice versa. And papers committed to an eighth-grade reading level to drop it to fifth grade. Or raise it to high school.)
What does he expect from Sherwa? "I think he's going to bring a different philosophy than the Tribune sports pages are used to. He might give it a harder edge than they're used to. One of the things the Sun-Times sports section has done really well is that we're real aggressive. In general they've done softer feature-type stuff."
What do they need? I asked Jaffe.
"I'm not sure I'd want to get into what I think they need," he said. "I've heard rumblings they've got a couple of hot writing hires. I know one thing he had in LA and would like to start here is an investigative team for sports."
That's right, said Sherwa. "I'd certainly like a more aggressive section than there is right now. I think we are looking to be a little more on the edge." When we spoke Sherwa was midway through his third day on the job; the first day had been orientation and the second, computer class. I wondered if Sherwa's call for more aggression was simply the age-old incantation of the new editor who knows it sounds good or if he actually knew what he wanted.
"Probably a little of both," he said. "I think the Tribune has a reputation for being a kind of sleepy sports section. [True at least in Mariotti's columns.] I don't know if that's true or false, but based on that reputation I'd like to crank it up a little bit."
Investigations? He said he had a three-person team back in Los Angeles, and unfortunately "I had to leave right in the middle of a lot of controversy with the USC football team and sports agents.
"I'd certainly like to heighten awareness of the need for an investigative unit," he went on. "A sports section shouldn't be all fun and games. But there's no timetable. There's always a lot of stuff on a wish list."
If the Bulls this winter are as good, or even as strange, as they're shaping up to be, that story will be Jaffe and Sherwa's first major battleground. The first time Pippen talks to Rodman, expect special sections. In the meantime Sherwa's looking for a place to live. You could move in with Jaffe, I suggested. "No," Sherwa said. "I don't think that would work."
Homophobes in the News
I don't know where the city gets off telling an organization they must hire an individual because he has a particular sexual orientation," Arnie Metanky told me. I was startled by this rare lapse in Metanky's normally deep and subtle powers of reasoning, but I said nothing. He'd arrived at his convictions, and he could have them.
Even so, antidiscrimination law--as I understand its letter and its spirit--simply holds that an organization can't refuse to hire an individual solely because of his sexual orientation. The Boy Scouts, to take the case at hand, can't refuse to hire former volunteer G. Keith Richardson for a staff position solely because Richardson is gay. So says Chicago's Commission on Human Relations. But the Near North News, where Matanky is editor and publisher and empties the spittoons, takes a contrary view.
"Remember John Wayne Gacy? How about Larry Eyler? Does the name Edward Pence mean anything to you?" began the lead editorial of October 7. "The Gacys and the Eylers killed some of the young men they lured and fondled. So have other homosexual killers."
The incredulous editorial continued: "This city agency apparently believes that homosexuals have a legal right to be placed in a position where they can molest numerous young people.
"What's next? Will the health department insist that restaurants cannot refuse to hire people who have tuberculosis?"
Knowing how predictably some people react when confronted with raving homophobia, I guessed that Matanky's forthright declaration had not gone unnoticed. For sure, he said. "There's always a reaction when you criticize homosexuals. There's a very well organized phone bank that makes nuisance calls." A lot of the callers demanded that their subscriptions be canceled, Matanky said. This was strictly harassment, he deduced, because (1) they wouldn't give their names, and (2) he didn't have any homosexual subscribers to begin with. He'd lost any he had a couple of years ago when the Near North News questioned the need to place quite so much stress on AIDS research.
Matanky mentioned a letter that came in from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "I never heard of them before."
How much mail in all? I asked.
"We got about five or six letters, more or less evenly divided," he said. "Maybe one more against than for." I was astounded. I had no idea the Near North News editorial page enjoyed such widespread readership in Chicago.
Like the 1934 rally in Nuremberg, this week's Million Man March in Washington wasn't all hope and joy. Two nights before the rally the Tribune's David Jackson ventured into a conference on "The Black Holocaust" at a local high school. Jackson wrote that Nation of Islam national youth minister Quanell X told the crowd, "All you Jews can go straight to hell," and Chicago's Steve Cokely offered a lecture on "The Jewish Conspiracy."
Jackson didn't stay around long enough to hear Cokely speak. The only white person in an audience of a thousand, he was singled out by Quanell X from the podium, "We ought to just turn the lights out and boot your ass out," said Quanell X, and Jackson was then given the bum's rush. But earlier in the evening, Jackson would report, Quanell X "had sought out the Tribune to express his views on the Million Man March."
According to Jackson, Quanell X's views were these: "Black youth do not want a relationship with the Jewish community or the mainstream white community or the foot-shuffling, head-bowing, knee-bobbing black community.
"I say to Jewish America: Get ready...knuckle up, put your boots on, because we're ready and the war is going down."
The Tribune, clearly reluctant to rain too hard on Louis Farrakhan's parade, carried Jackson's fine, exclusive account of the "Black Holocaust" conference last Monday on page 12.
From earlier, page-one Tribune coverage of the Million Man March: "A 22-page pamphlet, released by march organizers Friday, calls for the U.S. government to pay reparations to the ancestors of slaves, 'publicly apologize' for slavery, and create museums and curriculum that teach its horrors."
A crazy idea, but Jesse Helms might love it. The government could pay billions of dollars in reparations to those ancestors, then immediately take it all back in inheritance taxes.
The Sun-Times is looking outside as well as in for a rock writer to replace Jim DeRogatis, who recently quit to join Rolling Stone. "I'm furiously looking through resumes," said entertainment editor Cristi Kempf. "I hope to have it narrowed down in the next couple of weeks."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.