This is going to read like a commercial, and in a way that’s what it is. But I’m OK with that considering the real and perceived state of the journalism industry.
I spent Saturday-Tuesday in Salisbury, N.C., home to Cheerwine, Apple Ugly and the NSSA. What’s Cheerwine? A red soda that’s big in the South. It’s quite pleasant, although I was mocked summarily for ordering the diet kind. What’s an Apple Ugly? A prepackaged apple fritter, the caloric contents of which I won’t reveal. And what’s the NSSA? Good question. In fact, I was at best vaguely aware of it until a few months ago. In plain speak, it’s the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, an organization that looks to further and honor sports journalism.
The annual awards weekend is a major part of that. I was invited to attend by virtue of being named South Dakota sportswriter of the year. However, and this is where you come in, it turns out that the event is not exclusive to the state winners – it’s fairly accessible to working journalists and college kids, the cost reasonable. I had no idea. Neither did some of the fellow first-time visitors I met.
Now, you won’t have the same excuse.
Some excerpts from this year’s event:
A good chunk of the state winners are real-deal stars, writers like Dan Shaughnessy (Boston) and Bob Glauber (New York) and play-by-play men like Bob Harris (Duke) and Wes Durham (Georgia Tech; Atlanta Falcons). Bob Ryan was there as a returning Hall of Famer. Not everyone showed up (Vin Scully, for example, was working), but most of them did, if only for a night. In other words, they see it as being worth their time.
This year’s national winners: Dan Schulman of ESPN and Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated (and The Fury Files). This year’s Hall of Fame inductees: author John Feinstein and Bob Costas. Not only did all of them show up, Schulman was moved to tears, breaking down when mentioning the role his wife has played in his success. Costas brought in Dick Ebersol to give his introduction. Dick Ebersol. Jeff Zucker was there, too. And Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas and 100 other brilliant and wildly successful people with which I would never otherwise share air. It bordered on ridiculous.
Their acceptance speeches were earnest and pointed and heartfelt and funny. Posnanski, in particular, killed with a tale of meeting Costas as a young writer and of stumbling upon the Rulon Gardner story at the 2000 Summer Olympics. It’s hardly surprising that he can spin a story, but his humility was a breath of fresh air. He readily admitted to having zero knowledge of Greco-Roman wrestling and recalled with pure delight the excitement he felt in uncovering the unbelievable story being Gardner. Ebersol predicted aloud afterward that Posnanski is destined to become a TV star.
Later, Costas railed against snarky comments and attention-grabbing tactics. Feinstein spoke of the number of times he had been temporarily fired at the Washington Post. They were talking about the same things that all of us in this business do these days … and they were talking directly to us.
And that was my favorite part. You might have a different experience.
For some, the NSSA awards weekend is a sports journalism fantasy camp, an opportunity to rub elbows with the best in the biz, maybe get a picture or try to land a job. For others, it was a workshop, an opportunity to hear the titans of this industry share stories and opinions, offer advice at a time when we all have more questions than answers. It was reassuring and motivating.
When I walked across the stage to get my award from Feinstein, he shook my hand and said, “Keep going.” Two words. Keep. Going. He might not have meant anything by that. But I took it as encouragement, that he noticed I was comparatively young, dedicated to this profession and had more to give. Even in passing, he looked at me like a peer.
There were also seminars – I went to an all-day talk in sportscasting, even though I don’t really do that, and it turned out to be another highlight – plus more Southern food (pecan pie, fried catfish, BBQ, biscuits) and hospitality than you can shake a stick at. (Do they say that in the South?) I can’t imagine there’s a better way to spend a few summer days if you’re serious about sports journalism.
I hope to win my way back at some point. And if that doesn’t happen, I’ll pay my own way because it’s well worth it.