The Sports Fable Press
It all began innocently enough. Vince Pratt, the editor and owner of a small sports-only newspaper in Detroit, decided on opening day of 2000 that he would call the new stadium for the Detroit Tigers, “New Tiger Stadium,” instead of the official, “Comerica Park.” In his editorial that week he wrote, “This will be my one small strike against the corporate monster that is taking over our beloved sports.” No one in the small group of local readers protested or even seemed to notice.
Vince employed two other writers to help him cover all the local sports; both agreed to join him in this first rebellion.
The second act of rebellion followed soon after. The idea came from Chris, the youngest of the three reporters. He was an unpredictable writer, often beginning his stories much like the straightforward reports found in the Detroit Free Press and other large newspapers. But after a few paragraphs he would set off on a fanciful stream-of-consciousness run that was equally likely to end up commenting on United States-Canada relations as to bring in references to recent movies and local folk artists.
His idea was to award fake sponsorships of sporting events to local and global non-profits.
“If they had the money of the corporate monsters, they’d be doing it, right?” he argued while they were sitting in the small office where they wrote their stories and designed the layout. “We’ll just add a line, ‘This game was brought to you by the Detroit Institute of Arts,’ or something like that.”
“I’m sure the DIA would appreciate it,” Max said, bringing his coffee to his lips then pulling it away without drinking, “but it seems too dishonest to me.”
Max was a retired senior sports writer from Cleveland. He described every sporting event in the most flowery prose he could manage, always cynically sarcastic. Clichés became weapons to attack the sports-writing world he had left behind. Every game, especially his granddaughter’s Little League games, became ultimate showdowns between good and evil.
Vince twirled a pencil while he debated. “It could go either way. Why don’t you try it in your articles, Chris, and we’ll see what reactions we get.”
The first week, Chris attributed the game sponsorships to the DIA and the Detroit Zoological Society.
The paper had a small but fiercely loyal following of subscribers, most of whom were not avid sports fans. Many had closer ties to the arts: those who didn’t care much for sports but wanted to be able to understand friends and colleagues, and those who did care deeply about sports but didn’t want their more artsy friends to realize how much. Detroit’s art community, while not exceptionally large, could be fiercely loyal and proud.
These subscribers loved the fake attributions, and calls came in from the organizations thanking them. Soon Max and Vince were also including them in their stories. They kept it subtle, and no one complained about the dishonesty.
Vince himself never went so far overboard with his writing as the other two, but he had a skill for writing honest, accurate stories without resorting to cliché. This set his stories apart from most sports writing more than his colleagues’ antics ever did.
The following summer, Vince took his rebellion one step further. Largely because of the need to fill space, Motor City Sports had always had many pictures of the games covered. A printing press just across the river in Canada was able to print the paper with a good image quality without charging Vince too much. Tired of the company names that littered every Little League uniform and which were spreading into the higher levels of sports, Vince decided that all pictures in his paper would have such logos and slogans digitally erased. Even the swooshes on athletes’ shoes disappeared.
That week he wrote, “I realize the danger of doing this. Most newspaper editors across the country will refuse any kind of digital alteration as dishonest. At least publicly they do. And there is something dishonest about the idea of changing a photo and then showing it as a representation of what happened. But the dishonesty of pretending some random company cares at all for the outcome of any of the games we cover is the greater dishonesty.”
For those small local companies that truly did care about the outcome of Little League games, Vince offered a discount on advertising in the paper.
The three writers laughed at the irony that they were only able to publish the paper because they sold advertising to many companies that cared nothing for the results of the games. Chris wrote an editorial the following week defending the use of advertising as something wholly different from the slogans on uniforms, but by the time he started quoting an Italian writer (in Italian) most readers had given up trying to follow his argument.
But when they stopped laughing, they realized that this was an issue that should concern them. The ads paid for their paper far more than the cost of subscriptions. What if that was affecting the way they wrote and the things they covered? So Max’s girlfriend, Lisa, designed spoof ads that Vince inserted right next to the real ads.
Vince was shocked when readers realized the nature of these ads and began sending in hundreds of their own quality spoof ads. Rather than turning readers off by another apparent act of dishonesty, the readership of Motor City Sports grew as readers took up the challenge to distinguish the true ads from the fake ones and to design their own. Local radio stations began discussing the paper on air.
Perhaps as the subscription list grew so did Vince’s courage. Or maybe he would have done what he did even with fewer readers, but no one would have known or cared. It does not matter now. Vince’s next act of rebellion gave his paper dangerous attention.
With the arrival of December came the college bowl games. Initially, Vince planned to simply eliminate the corporate names from the bowl games in the articles, but then he looked at the logos for the games. Each one, he realized, had the corporate name screaming for attention within the logo. If he skipped the name in writing but included them in the logos, he would undermine his own rebellion. Instead he and Lisa worked together to design new logos for each bowl game.
The next time the paper came out, these logos jumped in full-color from the front page; no pictures or text cluttered the rest of the page.
The stories moved then from radio stations to the local ABC news and from there to the national news. Subscription numbers shot up and not only in Metro Detroit. And suddenly lawyers joined the fight, calling Vince and threatening lawsuit. The fight escalated in a matter of days, with the lawyers threatening to keep the writers away from the bowl games and the writers loudly asserting the freedom of the press.
Amazingly, the lawyers for the corporations were able to find a judge willing to issue an order against Vince and the Motor City Sports. Commentators across the country were stunned. While the ACLU filed an appeal, the writers could only report on the remaining bowl games if they gave credit to the companies making those games possible.
The next week, the first week of the new year, Motor City Sports did not appear on subscribers’ front porches or in newspaper stands around the city. Instead what appeared was a strange little paper, completely free of advertisements, entitled The Sports Fable Press. The lead story was unlike anything anyone had read in a sports page before:
The tiger and the wolverine went down to the beach one day to play. The tiger said, “I’ll race you to that rock.” And so they raced. They played back and forth across the sands, each winning several races. At times they seemed to fly; and the wolverine flew and the tiger ran back; and the tiger flew and the wolverine ran back. And just kept running.
In the end, when the sand had settled, the tiger had flown farther. But the wolverine, who had been disgraced by another wildcat earlier, simply ran too fast, leaving the tiger behind at the last.
The moral: The race goes to the leader who can’t be stopped.
Above this strange story was no headline, but only the image of an orange tree—large and cartoony. Most readers had no problem recognizing at least that the University of Michigan had won the Citrus Bowl, beating the Auburn Tigers. Those who had watched the game noticed other details, but to most readers those details were unimportant.
Other fables filled the rest of the pages, fables of the other bowl games next to fables of local high school basketball and volleyball, each one ending in a cryptic moral.
Longtime readers could still pick out which fables came from which writer. Even in the new form, Chris’s writing was full of obfuscation. Unfamiliar animals, or animals identified by their scientific names, interacted in strange locales. Max set his fables in a post-apocalyptic future of mutated animals and the crumbling remains of human civilization. Vince kept his as true as he could to Aesop’s models, even lifting fables wholesale from the classics and only modifying a few words.
To complement the stories, Lisa created her digital graphics to resemble the wood-engravings of William Blake.
Over the next weeks while the court battle raged on, The Sports Fable Press continued to publish its idiosyncratic tales, and a strange thing happened. Professional sports fables appeared alongside middle-school sports fables, high school next to college with no distinction and often few clues as to which was which. Yet this did not turn people away. Instead, readers began to care even about the smallest games of the youngest children. For a brief utopic time, every game mattered. Contests, first appearing in the downtown housing for Wayne State students and then spreading, were held to see who could guess the most fables correctly, and students clipped and framed the odd faux engravings to celebrate their favorite teams.
And Vince’s little paper remained in the national media spotlight, and the corporations’ lawyers continued their fight.
It could not last.
The appeal lasted only minutes before the judges struck down the earlier decision to bar the reporters from reporting on games. The staff briefly celebrated, but the fight had tired them out, and the struggle to create the fables and to endure all the publicity had taken its toll.
Max was the first to suggest they take a break. He and Lisa wanted to escape for a while someplace warm and relaxing. They talked about their plans to revive the paper in six months, or perhaps to publish it at a smaller scale while Max and Lisa were gone. But finally Vince said what they were all thinking, that the time had come to end it for good. They all needed something new. After one last issue of sports fables, they went their separate ways.
The Sports Fable Press faded quickly from public consciousness. But now and then, in Metro Detroit and beyond, some former readers are struck with a sudden loathing for any and all corporate labels coupled with a strange desire to watch whatever random youth sporting event they might be passing by. And the spirit of The Sports Fable Press lives on.
Originally from Michigan, Daniel Ausema grew up watching the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium but has never been to Comerica Park. He has a background in experiential education and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of publications, including Fictitious Force, Reflection's Edge, OG's Speculative Fiction, The Sword Review, and All Possible Worlds. He now lives in Colorado.
Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Daniel Ausema. All rights reserved.