There's Still a Lot of Heart in the Sports World

After a grim summer of news about dogfighting, game fixing and doping, the temptation is to give in to cynicism about sports. But some people who cover sports are rediscovering what makes them so appealing. And it's happening in some unexpected places.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's been a tough summer for sports fans. For sports journalists, maybe even tougher. Fans could pick and choose how much they paid attention to the Michael Vick dogfighting case, or the NBA and its betting scandal, or the ongoing saga of Barry Bonds and his alleged doping.

Reporters had to stare into the abyss on a daily basis. That often made them cranky, cynical and, as NPR's Tom Goldman found out, hungry to rediscover the good side of sports.

TOM GOLDMAN: The dogfighting story hit David Fleming hard.

Mr. DAVID FLEMING (Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine): I actually spent a lot of time with Michael Vick. I've written three cover stories on him. I spent the entire summer with him in 2003.

GOLDMAN: Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Mr. FLEMING: And it's a gut punch, you know, at some point, that a guy who you think is a pretty decent person ends up having this entire sort of monstrous side to him. And so yeah, I mean, it puts your guard up.

GOLDMAN: Which is why Fleming laughed at former NFL quarterback Archie Manning. Fleming was doing a story recently about Manning's football camp for kids, located in Louisiana. Manning explained that his star quarterback sons, Eli of the New York Giants and Peyton of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, were completely involved in the camp. And Fleming, the growing cynic, battered by a summer of scandal, laughed.

Surely, Peyton and Eli would do the usual drive-by-in-a-limo-and-wave-at-the-campers routine, he thought. But Archie Manning said, you don't believe me?

Mr. FLEMING: They're over there. Go over there right now. And, you know, I walked across five fields and sure enough, I mean, it's a hundred degrees at 9 o'clock in the morning and there they are, you know, giving tips and running through drills and throwing out routes to eighth graders. I mean, it was an amazing sight.

GOLDMAN: And a rejuvenating experience - the kind veteran sports columnist Ann Killion had in Sweden. Killion writes for the San Jose Mercury News. Being in the Bay Area, she says she's been fascinated and a bit battered by constantly covering San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

Ms. ANN KILLION (Sports Columnist, San Jose Mercury News): You know, I remember the little kids, like getting goose bumps or tears in my eyes watching certain things in sports. And that's one of the things - the fact that watching sports could provoke such strong emotional response in me is something that drew me to this profession. And yes, sometimes, when you sit in the press box with a lot of sports reporters and you're analyzing how many people are booing in the crowd when the home run champion steps to the plate, you can feel a little cynical about that.

GOLDMAN: Killion's summer included a trip to Gothenburg, Sweden, with her 12-year-old daughter Caitlyn(ph). Caitlyn and her soccer team played in the biggest youth tournament in the world, the Gothia Cup. Killion watched the girls experience sports as a common language.

Ms. KILLION: Playing pickup soccer on the playground with, you know, a U14 Swedish boys' team or trying out their Spanish on a team from Guadalajara, where few of the kids spoke English, or, you know, getting some pointers from some girls from Norway. I mean, it was just a real experience.

Unidentified Child: Hey, daddy.

GOLDMAN: I, too, found myself pacified this summer by watching my soccer-playing daughter and the lessons she learned on green fields about competition and teamwork. Children remain our sports refuge, not tainted by drugs and money. Yes, there are many professional athletes who still embody the good and yes, as Ann Killion notes, there can be a hard edge in youth sports.

Ms. KILLION: The day my story on our experience in Sweden ran, my daughter's team was in a championship game of a tournament. You know, just a youth soccer tournament. And the parents on the other team were harassing our girls and two of them had to get ejected from the sideline.

GOLDMAN: But at least, she'll always have Sweden, at least until the next scandal.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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