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'Operation Sports Page' Teams Up to Tackle Teen Illiteracy

September 27, 1993|JACK SMITH

As every parent knows, most children aren't interested in reading anymore. After all, they have television and video games. What more do they need?

Alas, the same goes for millions of adults. Adult Literacy in America, a 150-page report of a survey conducted by the Princeton-based Educational Training Service, says roughly 90 million Americans over age 16 are, as far as most workplaces are concerned, unfit for employment, lacking language and mathematical skills.

As Maury Green points out in "The New Literacy" (in The Overset Society Chronicle, a report put out by a local group of over-the-hill newsmen), "What has happened is the oft-proclaimed shift from a print-oriented society to a picture-oriented society has finally happened. The movies began it, TV finished the job, and it's now irreversible."

Green notes that when he was born in 1916, the whole civilized world was print-oriented.

"The rest of the world didn't matter very much because people who couldn't read didn't know what was going on and thus had no clout. As a nation we have shifted from word to picture as our main source of information."

This is even more true of children and young people. They never lived in the print world.

For six years, my Hollywood friend Duke Russell has been trying to do something about this disastrous state of affairs. He had an idea he called Operation Sports Page. It called for newspapers to furnish local high schools with their sports sections, so that students might be induced to read them.

It was Russell's idea that most children are interested in sports and reading the sports pages would be better than reading nothing. He told me, "When I was a kid I read nothing but the sports pages. I rarely read a book."

I got my early literary education by reading fairy tales, pulp magazines and the Police Gazette, which was available in every barber shop. Don't laugh. Some of our best novelists got their start in pulp magazines, including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain.

I can say that Russell is a very literate man. (On behalf of another Russell cause--overcoming the public apathy over Abraham Lincoln's birthday--he recited the Gettysburg Address to an empty Hollywood Bowl on Lincoln's birthday earlier this year, hoping to interest TV.)

I feel a bond with sports writers since I began my career as a sports writer at the Bakersfield Californian. I covered every kind of sports, including professional wrestling (an amiable fraud) and golf, though I didn't know a birdie from an eagle.

I naturally deplore the idea that sports writers are illiterate and that their work is composed mostly of slang and hyperbole. As Stanley Walker notes in his book "City Editor," some critics, perhaps overzealous, hold that "sports writers have produced the only genuinely original American literature of the 20th Century--earthy, salty and indigenous to the United States."

That may be hyperbole, as Walker suggests, but one need only look at The Times sports section to find examples of sophisticated prose--for example, the tennis comments of Bill Dwyre, the columns of Mike Downey and the reasoned analyses of pro football by Bob Oates, which disabuse us of the notion that the game is played by Neanderthals bumping each other about.

If it's literature you want, read Jim Murray. His essays are full of humor, irony, compassion, satire, poetry and a rich understanding of sports and its personalities, its triumphs and its follies.

In his campaign for Operation Sports Page, Russell has written to educators, coaches, foundations, corporations, newspapers and anyone else who might be interested, including the White House. He even received a polite note from Barbara Bush.

Everyone praised his idea but found one reason or another for not helping.

Finally Russell phoned The Times in Education, a Los Angeles Times agency that provides teachers with newspapers for classroom work. The Times readily agreed to help Operation Sports Page get started by sending 30 copies of the daily Times to Russell's alma mater, Hollywood High School, at 20 cents a copy for 10 weeks. The school will pay the costs.

"It took a great act of self-control to not sort of scream happily into the phone," Russell told me.

The tryout began on the first day of school. The papers are delivered to Bob O'Connor, coach of the school's football team. They are given to his players. Because Saturday's paper contains high school football results and the players meet on Saturdays, the Saturday paper will also be delivered.

It's a great idea. Let's hope it spreads. But what will the kids do with the rest of the paper? They can always read the comics, and who knows? They might even begin to read Robin Abcarian and Al Martinez. Or maybe even me.

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