METZINGER: In defense of the Sports section

The Cavalier Daily Sports section fulfills its duties by covering sports that are popular to readers

As a high school athlete, my perusals of the morning newspaper met with perpetual disappointment.

No matter what my teams accomplished in the sports (cross country, track, and swimming) in which I competed, local media outlets website often forwent extensive coverage to focus on the other “mainstream” sports.

So when Caroline Burke — part of a varsity rowing team that has worked far harder and accomplished exponentially more than I ever have — published her column, “A Sport By Any Other Name” for Monday’s edition of The Cavalier Daily, I appreciated her frustration. Her critique of how we assign attention to certain sports holds water; athletes on the women’s rowing team and other “smaller” teams receive inadequate media recognition for their exploits.

Burke’s well-intentioned editorial, however, suffers from several misguided notions. As a former Sports Editor of this paper who cares about its continued improvement, I felt compelled to address some of the issues her criticism raises, as they reflect some of the general misconceptions about the Sports section I have long encountered from other students.

One fallacy of Burke’s argument is that she misconstrues the correlation between a sport’s popularity and its “economic value.” In my experience on the paper, The Cavalier Daily has assigned stories based not on revenue numbers, but on expected reader interest and level of access.

The sports that “rake in the most revenue” do so because the most people want to consume them. In the market for readers’ attention and trust, football’s market share dwarfs that of sports such as volleyball.

And Virginia’s athletic department — like every other responsible department in the nation — obliges people’s preferences. Whereas the school bombards local media with invitations to football and men’s basketball media opportunities, reporters often have to proactively arrange interviews with participants on less discussed teams. The school itself offers no information or media access to club teams, which are normally student-run CIOs.

The reason The Cavalier Daily runs five times the number of basketball stories as it does wrestling stories, then, has nothing to do with some desire to perpetuate some revenue-based hierarchy. Rather, the paper is responding to a hierarchy already in place.

With all that said, the implication that this paper has dismissed less glamorous teams lacks any merit. The Cavalier Daily has long excelled in covering such sports.

The section deploys full-time associates for all varsity teams except rowing and the two golf squads, with many of these diligent writers producing professional-quality work — only to meet with a handful of page-views. In the last year alone, sports such as swimming & diving, men’s tennis and women’s soccer have received front page coverage.

To characterize the failure to include a rowing preview as evidence of The Cavalier Daily’s complicity in some sort of rich-sports oligarchy is to insult the many staff members who have worked their darnedest to write gripping stories about some of our school’s less ballyhooed athletes. These associates and staff writers are students who work their butts off with little hope of widespread acclaim — not unlike the athletes Burke seeks to champion.

Yet the column’s most egregious shortcoming lies in its fundamental confusion concerning the purpose of a student newspaper’s sports section.

Burke spends most of her words targeting not the paper, but society’s general neglect of lower-profile sports participants. “The exclusive recognition of a select few sports teams on campus,” she writes, “serves to prioritize prestige and stigma over achievement and success.” Problematic though that stance is — football, basketball and baseball spotlight achievement and discipline plenty for those paying attention — she’s right in that too many young athletes value social recognition over the intrinsic value of athletic accomplishment.

Where she really errs is in claiming that a student newspaper has a duty to “work to refute” this incongruence.

The sports section does not function primarily to lecture about the meaning of sports. It has no obligation to correct societal ills. And it certainly has no responsibility to affirm athletes’ sense of self-esteem.

A good sports section reports the stories that matter most to its readership with accuracy and honesty. Even our columns — many of which do discuss the meaning of college sports and laud the character and persistence of our student athletes — must serve the broader goal of sharing the stories of greatest public interest.

Burke’s analogy with the English, Sociology and Anthropology departments, while clever, misses the point. That those departments boast brilliant and ambitious students should not compel investment banks to hire as many poets as they do comm schoolers.

With extremely scant financial resources and a staff of full-time students, this paper will inevitably fail to cover every single story it should. Additionally, my tenure as Sports Editor last year featured a litany of missteps for which I claim full responsibility: chief among them an unacceptable lack of attention paid to the rowing, golf and club teams. New editors Zack Bartee and Peter Nance are already toiling to cover those sports more extensively than ever before.

During my stint, nevertheless, we always tried to avoid click-baiting to highlight stories we believed held authentic significance to the student community, as when the women’s soccer team enthralled the school last semester. Moreover, we strove to spotlight athletes’ accomplishments without dabbling in fanaticism.

Above all else, I hope the Sports section continues to aspire to those standards. I hope it continues to tell the stories we need to hear, no matter what sports they involve.

Fritz Metzinger is a former Cavalier Daily Sports Editor.

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