“Interviewing and meeting some of the writers and reporters I spent growing up reading was a privilege. I had to be critical but fair; opinionated but balanced.”

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In a small town just north of Toronto, I would sit at my kitchen table patiently waiting my turn to have the last pick of the Toronto Star. My father read his sections first, mostly business and sports, and then my two older brothers would follow suit. If I was lucky, they would throw me my section. Mine, exploding with colour was the easiest section for a six-year-old to read. I started with the cartoons and then, as soon as I could stop pretending and actually read, I’d gravitate to sports. I would sit there scanning the stories, reading column by column for hours. These stories, written years ago, were by the very people featured in this story for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. 

The tradition of reading the morning paper stayed with me long after leaving my hometown. Interviewing and meeting some of the writers and reporters I spent growing up reading was a privilege. I had to be critical but fair; opinionated but balanced. When eating meatloaf and scalloped potatoes in the media room of the Air Canada Centre I remember listening to Bruce Arthur talk about his children and building a basketball net. It was easy to sit back and enjoy their company. But I constantly reminded myself ‘I am here reporting on them. Just like in sports, I may be a fan but I need to remain critical of my subjects.’ 

The writing process was enjoyable as I tried to position two very different characters around a question that no one seemed to have an answer for. “What can save sports sections?” I asked every single person I interviewed, over 50, but no one had an answer. Many, if they tried, ended up flustered for words. Both Kelly and Arthur got tongue-tied trying to help me get to the answer of this, often saying they weren’t sure. It seemed that they focused on their stories, writing something compelling, instead of spending time trying to fix newspapers. 

Prize Fighters

Dressed in a navy blue suit, Cathal Kelly sits on the edge of his seat hunched over his MacBook Air. Other writers in Toronto’s Rogers Centre press box sit back in their chairs, some chatting, others racing to finish their first stories of the day. Many are dressed in T-shirts and shorts to stay cool in the heat. It’s 1:07 p.m. and R.A. Dickey has just thrown the first pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays, but Kelly keeps his head down as a grin forms at the corners of his mouth. After years of covering baseball he relies on the crack of the bat to get his attention—even the screaming fans can’t break his focus when he is writing. Now he’s the only one whose eyes aren’t on the diamond. The sports columnist for The Globe and Mail writes quickly without stopping, mumbling quietly to himself. The only reason he stays in the press box is to avoid missing anything, but his column is unlikely to change unless “someone throws a grenade on the field.” He finishes his 800-word column just after the seventh-inning stretch. “I am not a nuts-and-bolts guy,” he says. “I want people to read it and have a laugh, think that five minutes was worth it.”

A couple of weeks later, Bruce Arthur is in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, eating ham and scalloped potatoes in the media room before he heads up to the narrow press box in the rafters. The Toronto Star sports columnist slides in his earbuds to drown out the noise of the hockey pre-game show and writes his lede before checking Twitter, which he says helps him think. Beside him, Star beat reporter Kevin McGran has already started to write his story. After Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel scores in overtime, all the other reporters run to the locker room, but Arthur heads for the eerily quiet media room.

Later, McGran rushes in. “I wish I had more time,” he says. Arthur’s column is almost finished and he hurries to the locker room so he doesn’t miss the players. He talks to a few, then joins the rest of the reporters listening to then-head coach Randy Carlyle. Arthur stands off to the side intently focusing on his notebook. But instead of writing notes, he’s doodling a cartoon face with beady eyes—the same face he often draws to help him process information.

As two of Canada’s best sports columnists, Kelly and Arthur rarely have to worry about writing game recap stories. Their ability to blend culture and sport in their writing is a far more valuable offering. In 2014, crosstown papers scooped up both Arthur and Kelly. First, the Globe snatched Kelly from the Star, and then the Star raided the National Post for Arthur.

Sports sections are struggling to bring in new readers and keep existing ones in the face of increasing competition. But they still have their ringers: columnists with distinctive voices who cut through the clutter and keep readers coming back.

To read the rest of “Prize Fighters,” please go to the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s website, where it was originally published.

Photo by Laura Arsie.