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Published on May 30th, 2012 | by DerbyLife

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On Sportswriting

By Thomas Gerbasi

Red Smith once called the sports section of a newspaper “the toy department,” and considering that he was one the greatest sportswriters of all time, I am proud to say that I am still toiling in that department after 16 years. But I understand what Smith meant with that comment. What happens on the field, court, track, or ring doesn’t directly touch on war, politics, or the economy. But there is something to be said for the human drama sports captures so perfectly, and when I discovered roller derby in 2010, it was another positive addition to a schedule that includes writing about mixed martial arts and boxing.

So how does derby writing differ from writing about other sports? It doesn’t really. Writing is writing, no matter what the topic is. I know that sounds simple, but as you read on, you’ll see what I mean. The beautiful thing about writing is that there are no secrets and no boundaries to entrance, and while Norman Mailer called writing “the spooky art,” I don’t find it as mysterious as some do. I’ve always been of the mindset that if you can express yourself verbally, you can do so in writing. But after doing this for so long, I’d like to think I’ve picked up a few things that can hopefully speed up the process for aspiring derby writers…

YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING – This may be the most important aspect of writing derby, or anything for that matter, and if you keep this in mind, you will save yourself many sleepless nights of trying to fake something you really have no clue about. And believe me, there are diehard fans out there that can sniff out a pretender within the first two paragraphs. My first exposure to derby, like many others’, was through the Drew Barrymore film “Whip It”, and that obviously didn’t tell the whole story.

Intrigued by the sport, I found the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league and went to my first bout in 2010. I was lost. I read the rules in the program, listened to the commentators, but it just didn’t start clicking until late in the second half. Even then, I was far from fluent in the rules, penalties, and small details of the sport.

A lot of YouTube watching followed, but what allowed me to get a grasp on things little by little was talking to the skaters, and especially by working with GGRD referee Hambone, who was (and still is) an invaluable source of information on the sport. What I may see one way, he can give a completely different slant on, and he can explain the rules and strategies of the game in English, which can sometimes make all the difference.

Bottom line, don’t act like you know it all because you don’t. No one does. But if you do your research, ask people with greater knowledge of your topic, and are open to other opinions, you will have the tools to write about the sport legitimately and authentically.

EVERY BOUT TELLS A STORY – This is self-explanatory. Your job is to find the story. And don’t get intimidated, because it’s there. Whether it’s the scrappy performance of a team that just got blown out by 400 points, the dominance of the team on the winning side of that blowout, or the little dramas that play out on the track (or sometimes off it), there is a story in every bout that goes beyond the final score. Was there a skater returning from injury to make a key contribution? An off-season loss that is affecting the fortunes of the team? A new jammer rotation that is shaking things up? A historic rivalry continuing to simmer? There are dozens of possibilities with every bout, and to find them, you have to look at the history of both teams, any lineup changes, and seek out any little thing you can that will keep your readers engaged.

In last season’s GGRD home bout between Brooklyn and Queens, the fact that the bout went into overtime and sent the Bombshells to their first championship game was enough material right there. But with less than two and half minutes remaining, a time out produced writing gold, as Brooklyn captain OMG WTF rallied her troops with a series of arm punches that captured the intensity and importance of that moment completely. There was the lead for the story – the underdogs finally biting back, led by a captain who refused to let her team lose.

Even this past weekend, the Bronx vs. Queens bout had a couple different angles to take as the bout went down to the wire. If Queens won, it was a triumphant return for Suzy Hotrod as they defeated their most heated rivals, and it was also a new position for the Gridlock, as they would have been out of the playoff race, something the three-time champions had never experienced. Bronx pulled the win out though, and the story was clear: a team that had been like the Darth Vader of the league – clinical, precise, and devastating – was now a scrappy team of talented upstarts and a veteran core that didn’t mind getting their hands dirty to pull out come-from-behind wins.

So to repeat – the story’s there – find it.

SHOW UP – Don’t be one of those folks showing up ten minutes into the bout, expecting on the kindness of others to get you up to speed. In my boxing life, this is always an annoyance, as there are only maybe three or four of us who actually show up for the first preliminary fight. The majority of reporters show up for the televised portion of the card, and some only for the main event. This isn’t the glamorous part of the job, but you never know who you might be seeing fighting in a four round fight. That could be the next great champion, and you can say you saw him in his formative days. Same thing for derby. Show up early enough to a) get a good seat, and b) take in the atmosphere and watch warm-ups. Maybe a key player is limping or getting attended to by the trainers, or you can see a skater working on particular moves that they will implement in the bout later. Or if someone is getting extra attention from her teammates, that could be a sign that she will be seeing more substantial playing time. This could play into the storyline of the bout you will be writing later, or it could just be an excuse to settle into your seat and get ready for the night ahead. Either way, remember that one of the great stories in sports history was the New York Knicks’ Willis Reed limping out for Game Seven of the NBA championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970. Reed, expected to be scratched from the game due to injury, walked out of the tunnel during warm-ups. Would you want to miss something like that because you showed up late?

TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE STORY – The favorite story of my formative writing years (and one my friends and colleagues have heard so many times that they can skip to the next section now) came when I had my first full-time gig with the now-defunct HouseofBoxing.com. Created during the dot.com boom, this site had the money to hire some of the best talent in the business, including Muhammad Ali biographer Thomas Hauser and the former boxing beat writer for the New York Times and New York Daily News, Michael Katz.

Somehow I stumbled into an editor’s job there, which soon led to a writing gig as well. Now mind you, I was coming into the writing end of things there with about three years of experience, but not exactly a strong editorial hand guiding me. Basically, I was winging it. So when I wrote my first piece, it was supposed to be a straight news report, but I injected my own two cents, including the phrase “I think.” Well, about five minutes after the piece went live, I got a call from Katz, who told me “no one gives a $%$% what you think.” That was it, but it was a lesson learned. From then, the letter “I” barely, if ever, made an appearance.

And while Katz, one of my mentors, took more of the tough love approach to things, his point was clear: if you’re writing an editorial or commentary piece, it’s okay to insert yourself in the story. If not, keep it to the facts and tell the story without including yourself.

Columns should be built on strong reporting and experience, not a bunch of “I think, I think, I think.” The internet’s a great thing, but it has also produced an unwieldy bunch of “writers” who are eager to give you their opinion, but who have no experience, significant knowledge, or reporting of their own to back it up. In my day job, I can be a columnist and editorialize because I’ve spent years interviewing people in the sport, reporting, researching, and going to gyms and going to fights. I’ve paid my dues and I know the business from all angles. In derby, if you’re a skater, a referee, a volunteer, or a long-time reporter and you have a unique point of view on the sport, I want to hear it. If not, give me good reporting and a well-written story based on solid research. Yeah, it takes more time than the “I think” piece, but it’s worth it.

BE RESPECTFUL – I’ve always had an issue with reporters that are condescending to the athletes they cover, as if they’re more knowledgeable or important because they wield a pen instead of a bat. And believe me, I’ve seen more of my share over the years. Maybe it’s just bad parenting. So rule number one, even though it’s fifth here on this list, is to be respectful. I may even want to double the importance of that rule for derby because these athletes are not only entertaining you and putting their bodies through unbelievable amounts of hell to do so, but they’re doing it for FREE. There are no million-dollar paydays waiting for them, no team of doctors attending to every need. These skaters are balancing jobs, families, real lives, and several days a week of practice for the love of the game. If that’s not worthy of respect, then what is? So when you interview a skater, don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, but don’t center your interview on their derby name or cool outfits. It’s insulting, and while some of the extraneous stuff makes for good color material for your story, these are athletes, and they should be treated as such. From the first bout I saw, I had respect for the skaters, but that respect increased a hundredfold when I heard some of their stories and what they either juggled in order to get to the track or what they overcame to get here. I was – and still am – humbled by these athletes.

WRITE FOR THE MASSES – Derby isn’t easy to play and it’s certainly not easy to write about, and one glance at the WFTDA rulebook will make that abundantly clear. So when you write, assume that the people reading it know nothing about the sport. That’s easier said than done, and I still struggle with it, but I always try to make things accessible. Sure, you can get technical and show off your knowledge of the game, but it’s important to write things in a way that your mom or dad can read and understand it. With the sport still in the growing stages, the more people that can read your piece, enjoy it, and want to find out more, the better it is for everyone involved.

BE CURIOUS, BUT LISTEN – Did you ever watch, hear, or read an interview and the question is longer than the answer? Yeah, me too, and yes Gotham Girls, I know I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, but bear with me. Point is, and this goes back to the ‘taking yourself out of the story’ section, no one wants to hear your question; they want to hear the answer. So let your subject speak, and let him or her tell their story to you. One of the things that has always fascinated me about writing is how eager people are to tell you their story. That’s a perk of the job for me, to be entrusted with someone’s story and then having the responsibility to tell it to the world. I take that responsibility seriously, and so should you. That means being a good listener and also being curious. Don’t be generic, don’t go with the usual ‘worker by day, derby by night’ storyline, and don’t be afraid to ask follow-ups and ask about things that go beyond the track in terms of back story, motivations, inspiration, influences, etc. Once you do that, get out of the way. What’s that old phrase? Shut up and listen. Yeah, that’s about right.

THE WRITER’S BLOCK MYTH – Yes, it’s a myth, so all of you who claim to be ‘blocked’ can release yourself and get writing. Any of you who are along for the ride with me on Facebook have seen your newsfeeds clogged with any number of stories from me on derby, boxing, mixed martial arts, and even music. For that, I apologize, but what I’m trying to say is, writers write. No excuses. A buddy of mine once told me (and I know it’s not his line, but I’ll give him credit anyway), “Everybody wants to be a writer, but nobody wants to write.” And it’s so true. We’ve all seen the Barnes and Noble café filled with laptops belonging to ‘writers’ sipping their drinks and waiting for inspiration. Not happening. If you want to write, sit down at your keyboard and write. If you think you have nothing to write about, pick up the phone or send an email and set up an interview. If you want to be a roller derby writer and you say there’s nothing to write about it, you’re either crazy or lazy. When I started writing for GGRD in 2010, the big selling point for me was that now I had a whole new league of stories to tell. That’s gold for a writer. And everybody has a story. They’re just waiting for you to tell it.

Now stop reading and get writing…

Thomas Gerbasi will answer your questions in a future piece–ask them in the comments below!

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