Thursday, March 1, 2007

Go long in sports feature leads

Writing a sports feature is like writing a short story – except we do not make up any of the facts. Story, not news, drives these features. That means you need to grab readers quickly in a lead that tells a compelling story or introduces an interesting character. Too often, reporters go short in leads.

Yes, lengthy, rambling leads can be a problem, but not if reported and written properly. From time to time, consider going long.

The writer of the following story focused on an interesting topic – how hairstyles affect athletes’ performances on the field and in pools. This writer lead with a single person’s story. Again, a solid job.


This writer could have developed the lead in more detail, allowing the reader to see and feel the worries this athlete had. Do not be afraid to go deeper in leads -- if the story or scene is compelling. Leads can certainly get out of control, wandering and wandering while the reader also wanders and wonders: What the heck is this story about? But you’ll never know if you do not try.

Here is the original lead.

Eastern sophomore running back Norris Smith has dreadlocks to worry about. Defenders could pull his hair in trying for a tackle and it is legal.

But, he said it has never happened.

To get the dreadlocks Smith said he threads them up and lets them grow out.

Smith said to get them to stay that way, he has to wash his hair and do the normal things when it comes to hair care.

Norris said his dreadlocks are all natural and sometimes it takes one to two years to grow out.

He said this process is called the ‘lock and twist.’

There is another way for dreads to grow.

Smith said he can put weave in his hair and it will only take four to five months to grow out, but it’s not natural.

Dreads are not the concern for rugby player and track athlete Samantha Manto.

“In one of the (rugby) games last year, a girl was trying to pull me back by my jersey; she got my hair,” Manto said.

Most of Eastern’s rugby players don’t have to worry about hair, since most of their hair is short. They have to pull their hair through helmets, though.

Here is a possible revision, one that remains focused on the athlete's concerns about dreadlocks. I have also added a nut graph.

Norris Smith worries about his dreadlocks.

They flow out from under his helmet, scraping against his neck and bouncing off his shoulder pads.

They are a great target.

Smith, a sophomore running back at Eastern, has already had his head yanked back a few times when defensive tackles and linebackers had grabbed his face mask. Smith knows defenders grab anything they can hold onto.

The face mask yanks cost teams fifteen yards in penalties. But pulling his dreads won’t cost a team a single yard.

It hasn’t happened yet, but he is still concerned. But not enough to cut them.

Hair is a concern in many sports. Swimmers shave their heads (and other body parts) before big meets. Wrestlers and rugby players keep their hair cropped so it does not get pulled. And baseball coaches believe sloppy hair and wild beards can lead to equally wild, erratic play on the field.

Smith, though, is willing to face his fears on the field in order to keep his dreadlocks.

Make sure you drop in a nut graph on sports feature stories like this. The nut graph serves as both a thesis statement and a reminder, telling readers the reasons a reporter is writing this particular story. Essentially, the nut graph says, “The point of this story is …” In the story above, the thesis begins: “Hair is a concern in many sports.”

On your next feature, do the extra reporting and go long. But don’t forget the nut graph.



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