- Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey
In Through My Eyes: A Sports Writer’s 58-Year Journey, sports columnist Jerry Izenberg argues that it is the “responsibility of the print media to be the conscience of the sports world” (p. 206). The book constructs a persuasive case that skilled journalists such as Izenberg filled this role by taking sports seriously as a social force, because “wherever America is going, sports will get there first” (p. 208). Yet whether veteran journalists want to admit it or not, his contention is already outdated. Newspapers are in serious financial straits, and in the shifting landscape of information dissemination the print media will likely soon disappear. However, Izenberg’s review of his journalistic life still serves as a primer for where sports journalism has been and offers some ideas on where it should go, in whatever form this work may take.
Izenberg got his start in the newspaper business in 1951 after a fortuitous fire at a chemical plant he was working at in Newark. He needed another job and stumbled on one as a night copy boy for high school sports at the Newark Star-Ledger. The gig taught [End Page 302] him to seek diligently the details. At a football game played in a “hurricane” in Paterson, a scoreless tie was broken by a touchdown. While the young reporter was only yards away from the players, he could not make out who scored. Izenberg grabbed a soggy towel off the bench, ran to the end zone, and wiped the mud off the player’s jersey. He had found his calling (pp. 17–18).
After a stint at the New York Herald Tribune, Izenberg returned to the Star-Ledger as a columnist, where he became well-known for his blunt style. Izenberg covered the major stories but was also drawn to the seamier side of the sporting life. His trips to Miami during Super Bowl weekends included dropping in at the Chi Chi Lounge, a seedy gambling dive owned by a “blue collar bon vivant” friend. He penned so many columns on compulsive gamblers that readers asked him to stop because they were so depressing. Izenberg also distinguished himself as a constant critic of racism in sports, and his willingness to turn a judicious eye to sport earned him a nationally syndicated audience. In 2000 he capped his career by winning the Associated Press’s Red Smith Award for outstanding contributions to sports journalism.
Izenberg is most famous for his defense of Muhammad Ali’s military draft evasion in 1966. The response was vindictive and vicious. Some newspapers dropped Izenberg’s syndicated column, and angry readers sent bomb threats to his office (Izenberg recalls the Star-Ledger staff standing out in the snow as the bomb squad searched the premises), smashed his car windshield, and wrote over a thousand pieces of hate mail, many of them filled with vile racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Izenberg was friends with Ali but contends that he took his stand because his immigrant father “instilled in me an appreciation and love of this country’s freedom of speech and religion” (pp. 62–65).
Izenberg’s coverage of Ali demonstrates the mainstream print journalist’s power of access. He was there for Ali’s fights in far-flung locations such as Zaire, Malaysia, and the Philippines, what Izenberg calls “that intercontinental treadmill—the road trip Phineas Phogg never took but I did.” Sending columnists to cover these spectacles was expensive, a “mighty gasp for the accounting departments of America’s largest newspapers” (p. 128). Yet print media had the resources to make these forays a priority, and Izenberg’s coverage shows the indispensability of “being there.” His vivid descriptions for readers thousands of miles away included monkey meat in the cafeteria and a lizard discretely nicknamed “Mobuto Sese Seko” in the condominium shower in Zaire; Ali brilliantly recasting his opponent George Foreman as a “white man,” thereby bringing an entire continent into...