Matt Calkins: Sports reporter job isn’t all bad

Commentary: Matt Calkins

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 

So there’s Matt Damon’s character in “Rounders,” who by this point in the film had blown his entire savings at the poker table and was forced to drive a truck to make rent.

And while talking to his friend, played by Edward Norton, Damon begins defending one of his fellow card sharks, saying “Hey, that guy hasn’t had to work in years.”

But Norton isn’t buying it, and argues that grinding through hours of flops, turns and river cards each night is no different than punching a clock.

“I thought so too,” responded Damon. “Now I know what real work is.”

I’m not a card player, but I’ve never had to do real work, either.

I’ve done stressful work. I’ve done social-life-demolishing work. I’ve definitely done low-paying work.

But in this context, I struggle to call it real.

Careercast doesn’t, though. Last week, the job search portal rated 200 professions and ranked newspaper reporter No. 196 — just south of dishwasher and four spots above lumberjack. I can only conclude that cutting down trees so that newspapers can print makes a career particularly unsatisfying.

The problem is that a key factor the survey based its rating on was stress, which, when applied to journalism, is like ranking a camping trip based on the caviar. Remove the pressure and you remove the joy.

Heck, most the athletes I cover can relate to that.

Yes, there are times when being a sports reporter makes you wish Jamba Juice offered a Xanax boost. Well, at least it does until you realize that boosts typically cost an extra 50 cents.

But I’ll still take this job over anything short of massage critic, because how many other members of the workforce can say ...

They want time to slow down?

When sitting in the office, do you ever look up at the clock and think that its hands are forged in a game of freeze tag? Well, we sports journos look at the clock and wonder who gave the hands a quadruple espresso.

Forget about time flying when you’re having fun — time flies when you’re 34 minutes from deadline and the best lead you’ve come up with is “The Blazers beat the Hornets Friday night.”

Most folks would kill for a fast-forward button on the job. We’re futilely hoping someone will hit pause. But it’s not like we should ever be in a bad mood, because ...

We spend our days surrounded by joy.

The Orange County Register’s Mark Whicker once wrote, “sports is life with the volume turned up.” Beautiful line, but you could also say that sports is life with the sorrow cut out.

Oh, sure, there are emotional free falls that come with close losses, and skyrocketing blood-pressure levels that go with bad calls — but those aren’t real problems. Those are scabs crossing the picket line when real problems are on strike.

I don’t think it’s inherently cool to get paid to do what other people pay to do, but I think it’s rock-star cool to get paid to do what people spend the whole day, week or month looking forward to doing.

Whether it’s the World Series or a high school water polo match, it’s awfully tough to find a better grin-per-capita ratio than what you’ll see at a sporting event. And afterward, when talking to the athletes, or clacking away on our laptops ...

We get to be real.

Actually, we have to be real.

Ad agencies don’t always believe in their products, lawyers don’t always believe in their clients, and PR folks don’t always believe in their events. But if checks are to be cashed, sales pitches are to be made.

In journalism, however, authenticity is the selling point. It is a source of great catharsis and pride to never have to mumble “If only I could say what I really think.”

You know what’s worse than 10 straight emails telling you your mother is a farm animal? A hundred straight emails that agree with every word of your story.

Making observations and asking questions people don’t like is healthy — especially with the guys you cover. And since honesty is an endangered trait, they’ll respect you for it, open up, and sometimes ...

You get to know people better than their closest friends.

Being a journalist is like having level-5 security clearance to someone’s mind. Most athletes or coaches don’t unload their innermost thoughts or emotions to loved ones — usually just because nobody asks.

But those questions are built into our job descriptions, and trust me, everyone has a story, and more often than not, they want it told.

I’ve referenced this quote before, but Mark Twain once said that a man’s real life is lived in his head, and that biography “is but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man cannot be written.”

Well, we have the platform to shed some of those layers ... and the physiques are usually fascinating.

I’ve never argued with metro reporters who say that sports is the newspaper’s toy box, but when subjects are detailing their traumatic pasts, mental-health issues, physical disabilities, paralyzing addictions, boundless determination, unwavering altruism, and everything in between — it transcends first downs and double plays.

Suddenly, these stories are reaching people. And yes, your article can make a difference -- assuming you don’t screw it up, because ...

You have to start from scratch every day.

Which is wonderful. And, of course, horrible.

I’ve never been in a fight, cursed out a co-worker, or even gotten a technical foul. But I have punched a hole in a door when, after nine hours of monitor-staring, I’d composed three words: “By Matt Calkins.”

There is nothing more aggravating in this profession than giving A+ material a B- write-up, because while your entire audience has access to the English language, you’re supposed to know how to best curate its words.

When Tiger Woods has an off day, he still shoots better than 99.9999999 percent of the golfers in the world would have. When I have an off story, some mechanic in Washougal is going “I could have done that!” — and he’s right.

But isn’t that the beauty of all this? Having to conquer a blank screen that’s taunting you with its blinking cursor?

I remember watching a “Twilight Zone” episode once, in which a bank-robber was killed and ended up in an afterlife where he got everything he wanted without ever having to try. It wasn’t Heaven.

OK, it should be mentioned that hiring outlook was another variable factoring into the survey’s ratings, and news reporter is only slightly more in-demand than beeper salesman. But that doesn’t make this a forsaken job. It makes it the career equivalent of a limited-edition hot rod whose owner should enjoy every mile the engine will provide.

Look, everybody has a role in this world. Some are glamorous, some are arduous, some are plain tedious.

But the guy with his ear on the earth’s chest, listening to the heart beat? That’s the journalist. And when that heart rate is a 150 beats per minute — that’s the sports writer.

No survey can dissuade me from knowing how lucky I am, and I plan on capitalizing on this fortune until I’m old, gray and borderline senile.

Unless, you know, a dish-washing job opens up first.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or email matt.calkins@columbian.com