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NMSU professor identifies top three sources of controversial sports columnists

As more Americans put their newspapers aside and turn to television for sports games and highlights, today's syndicated and metropolitan sports columnists find it more difficult to grab their readers' attention.

New Mexico State University journalism professor J. Sean McCleneghan identified the top three source variables used by controversial sports columnists in his article "Metro Sports Columnists' Sources for Writing Controversy," published in the spring 2006

Columnists must produce something different to keep people talking about sports and reading their newspapers, says J. Sean McCleneghan, a 24-year journalism professor at New Mexico State University.

In his article "Metro Sports Columnists' Sources for Writing Controversy," appearing in the upcoming 2006 spring edition of The Social Science Journal, McCleneghan observed sports columnists who might write controversial opinion pieces to enhance newspaper readership.

"Because television has changed sports column writing forever, more controversy is being called for to be different and entertaining from television," McCleneghan said. "In the locker room, TV shows the smile of the winner, but ink-people ask embarrassing questions."

In his study of 105 syndicated and metropolitan sports columnists writing for newspapers with a circulation of at least 100,000, McCleneghan identified what sources are most valued by columnists when they write controversy.

Fifty-three columnists identified their sources for writing columns two to three times a week and rank-ordered 14 source variables. Through discriminant statistical analysis, McCleneghan found the top three source variables for writing a hard-edge opinion piece were intuitive feelings, sporting events and current events.

"Sports columnists have developed the ability to sort out good ideas from poor ones," McCleneghan said. "They have self-confidence in trusting their intuitive feeling about the 'big idea' when penning a column."

Sports columnists also are trained to analyze and critique what went right for the winner or wrong for the loser when they cover a sporting event, McCleneghan said.

And when a sports icon retires, dies or gets in trouble with the law, sports columnists are writing about it. "Kobe Bryant's alleged sexual assault of a 19-year-old female in Colorado was a 'current event' that had sports columnists from coast to coast writing controversy in cauldrons of ink and cyberspace megabytes," he said.

Other source variables used by controversial sports columnists included fellow newspaper colleagues, coaches, sports information directors, sports management, outside readings, athletes and strangers with tips. Columnists were least likely to use the Internet, sports agents, television all-sports talk shows, and radio all-sports talk shows when writing controversial columns.

Because television has produced "millionaire athletes who no longer need print," McCleneghan said sports columnists have drawn the battle lines, becoming "the myth makers and wreckers on today's metro dailies" when they write controversy. And now that the sports columnist's job is harder to perform, McCleneghan thinks controversial sports columnists deserve a "most valuable player award" for helping to hold the circulation line at their respective newspapers.

McCleneghan served as the NMSU department head of journalism and mass communications from 1982 to 1994. He is the author of more than 80 scholarly publications and was awarded the William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexcio Foundation for Open Government during the 2004-2005 academic year. He developed and teaches Journalism 460, "Sports and Media in Contemporary Society," offered each fall semester at NMSU.