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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Robert Smith to co-host "Sports and Society"



Schaap: Sports provide window into society

By Nate Peterson
July 6, 2007

ASPEN — Jeremy Schaap's two books individually examine the lives of two seminal sports figures of the 1930s, an era when sportswriters wrote about athletes' exploits on the field, not off it.

By contrast, Schaap's work as a writer and television reporter focuses primarily on sporting issues that exist outside the lines - complex topics that often reflect societal trends.

While he has never been one to shy away from reporting on controversial athletes and subjects, Schaap believes there are some boundaries that sports journalists shouldn't cross. He questions the integrity of reporters who stalk star athletes such as Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez with the sole intention of tarnishing a reputation just to sell newspapers.

"It's unfortunate, the kind of journalism that puts A-Rod on the front page of the [New York] Post when he's with another woman," said Schaap, who will co-host an Aspen Ideas Festival discussion titled "Sports and Society" on Saturday with HBO sports reporter and filmmaker Jon Frankel and former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith. "Between journalists and athletes, it has become much more adversarial over the years. There's something sad about that, but it's kind of the way journalism has gone as a whole. Forty years ago, the same people who covered the White House wouldn't write the same thing about the Lyndon Johnson administration that they write today about the Bush administration."

Schaap said he certainly understands the factors that have led to the current intrusive state of sports reporting. Scribes in New York certainly knew about some of Babe Ruth's off-the-field indiscretions when he was swatting home runs for the Yankees in the '20s and '30s, but they respectfully turned the other cheek. That's not the case with someone like Rodriguez, the modern day equivalent of the Great Bambino who, because of his mammoth $252 million contract, is constantly scrutinized by fans and members of the media.

"It's so much bigger now and the athletes are compensated so well, and are making so much more money than the people watching them," Schaap said. "A-Rod may be the best of all time, but nothing he does satisfies anybody because he's making $25 million. If he was making $150,000 a year, like Mickey Mantle, I think it would be different."

The son of an award-winning sports writer and TV journalist, Schaap said the best advice his father, Dick, imparted to him was to report fairly and evenly and to never make oneself the focus of the story.

"You have to approach your subjects with a bit of skepticism, but also respect," Schaap said. "I think he taught me that cheap shots, at the end of the day, there's really no point for them. You have to be fair, even when you're charged with going after somebody. From their perspective, even if they view it as negative, I think you have try to maintain a level of fairness."

The discussion with Smith and Frankel will likely focus on a number of recent sports stories that have had a broad cultural impact, Schaap said. As his body of work shows, Schaap is intrigued with the role sport plays in society at large.

"There are so many stories that have a wider cultural meaning," he said. "Sports provide a real window into so many cultural cross currents. I think we're going to discuss how sports is both a reflection of society and how issues that are important in sports somehow cross into other things. The discussion was partly inspired by some of the big stories - stuff like the Don Imus and Rutgers controversy, and the steroids controversy."

Schaap also mentioned the topics of race and racism, both at the heart of his newest book, "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics." Schaap will lead a discussion about the new book earlier in the day Saturday.

The panel discussion about sports and society presents "an opportunity to talk about race issues and how they are perceived differently by people of different races," Schaap said.

One such example is Barry Bonds' chase of Hank Aaron's home run record which, surveys show, draws decidedly different opinions from whites and blacks across the country.

"Seventy-five percent of blacks are excited for Bonds to break the record, while only 25 percent of whites want him to do so," Schaap said. "That's an interesting study of America."

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