Washington Post Sports Columnists Missing in Action

By: Harry Jaffe

On the Wednesday before the start of the NCAA basketball tournament, March madness has overtaken the nation, and the Washington Post has not one column on the front of the Sports section.

Nada. Zip. The biggest sports section in the nation’s capital published no columns.

Dave Sheinin, who should have a sports column, had a good piece about Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis. Beat reporters Ivan Carter and Barry Svrluga gave us the latest on the Wizards and the Nationals. Tony Kornheiser’s smiling face adorned the left rail on page one to tease some excerpts from his video blog.

Kornheiser dished about plastic surgery, suggested his partner, Mike Wilbon, has had some on his eyes, and added: “I would like to get a couple of things done.”

The Post Sports section needs to beef up its roster of columnists. The first team—Kornheiser and Wilbon—shows up less and less in the newspaper. If the backbone of a sports section is great columnists—Shirley Povich in his day at the Post, Dave Anderson at the New York Times, Bob Ryan at the Boston Globe—the Post can barely hold itself up.

The Post has no pro football columnist, no columnist who concentrates on the NBA or hockey or tennis. Or local sports.

Wilbon still can be just about the best in the business. He can range from roundball to hardball to Olympics to golf; he can take on subjects like race and sexuality with wit, wisdom, and reporting experience. He’s writing some for the Post web site and shows up often on TV, but that doesn’t satisfy his fans who read the newspaper.

Kornheiser, spread across TV, radio, and the Internet, has written only a few complete sports columns in the past few years.

Tom Boswell is reliably smart when writing about baseball and golf, and his occasional columns on the Redskins are good.

Mike Wise is the Post’s new voice. His columns on basketball—college or pro—can be very good. He writes well about college football. He’s had the guts to tell the Redskins to ditch the Native American name. He shines in writing long features.

Sally Jenkins can light up the page on any subject when she writes, which is not often. She’s been on book leave. When she writes for the Post, it’s often from her home in New York.

Angus Phillips remains one of the best outdoors writers around; he’s in semi-retirement and shows up on weekends.

Andy Beyer has a wicked pen for the ponies, but he puts it to use only when a famous horse dies or the Triple Crown is in sight.

“We have great columnists,” says one Post staffer, “if they actually write.”

They are writing some for washingtonpost.com. In a sense, the columnists are going to the blogs.

Dan Steinberg is the Post’s first full-time sports blogger. Often fun to read, Steinberg differs from the average blogger because he gets out and reports from the arenas and ballparks. But he’s not headed back to the paper to write a column. Instead, Steinberg is headed to TV. Starting Monday, he and other Post sportswriters will take part in a talk show broadcast by Comcast cable. Expect to see Wise and Boswell in a format similar to ESPN’s sports talk shows.

It’s safe to say the Post sports section is in transition. Two writers are mentioned as potential columnists: Redskins writer Howard Bryant, who came from the Boston Herald and juggles his Post duties with book writing, could write about most sports; and Les Carpenter, who was a columnist at the Seattle Times, could handle pro football.

The art of writing a sports column, in the Red Smith model, seems a dying craft at the Post.

“The advent of the celebrity sports journalist is frightening,” says Mike Wise. “How much time is there for writing columns?

“It’s a tough balancing act.”