WSJ Drops Honorifics For Sports Pages

The Wall Street Journal is joining the modern era and dropping the practice of referring to people as "Mr." and "Ms." But only on the sports pages.

The Wall Street Journal is joining the modern era and dropping the practice of referring to people as “Mr.” and “Ms.” But only on the sports pages.

WSJ (“No More Mr. (Or Ms.) Nice Guy – As The Journal Drops ‘Courtesy Titles’ From the Sports Pages, It’s Modernity Over Gentility“):

[S]tarting this week in The Journal, you will no longer see athletes called “Mr.” or “Ms.” The paper is reversing its stately, conspicuous tradition of using “honorific” courtesy titles in its sports coverage, entering a dizzy modern age of forward passes, shot clocks, Colin Cowherd sitcoms and jocks being referred to solely by their last name.

That means that from now on, after the first reference in articles, Derek Jeter will be Jeter, Lindsey Vonn will be Vonn and Carmelo Anthony will be Anthony. Chad Ochocinco will mercifully be Ochocinco but will still drive everybody nuts.

(Soccer fans: For you, things are largely unchanged. Kaká is still Kaká, Nani is still Nani, and France still can’t explain its 2010 World Cup.)

The new policy won’t affect other sections of The Journal. Mark Zuckerberg remains Mr. Zuckerberg in subsequent references; Oprah Winfrey stays Ms. Winfrey. If there’s a sports-business story elsewhere in the paper—say you want to buy the Vikings and move them to the Bahamas—you’d still be a Mr. or a Ms., and players would get titles, too. But The Journal’s editors believe that readers of the paper’s sports pages will appreciate the last-names-only update.

Honorifics can be tricky in sportswriting. Nearly everyone who covers the subject here can remember a sentence made funky by the inclusion of Mr. or Ms. A simple play could wind up resembling the minutes of the world’s craziest deposition, like this description of a game-sealing touchdown in the New York Jets’ playoff upset of the New England Patriots: “Mr. Ryan…lumbered down the sideline to hug Mr. Greene, at which point Mr. Sanchez jumped on Mr. Ryan’s back.”

[…]

Personally, I have defended honorifics in the past and am mixed about the move. Some other Journal sportswriters say they will miss them, too. It’s true they can seem formal and stiff—not the best thing if you’re writing every day about the Yankees or the Knicks for the Journal’s Greater New York section. We have all heard from readers who find them an outdated, fussy distraction. This is an era in which ESPN is so familiar with the athletes it covers, it hires them for commercials.

But a little something will be lost. Sports can be a messy, crude business—and the courtesy conferred by a “Mr.” or “Ms.” signaled a baseline of respect that has almost vanished. Calling a chill guy like Tim Lincecum “Mr. Lincecum” was pretty funny, but it also was decent. Remember how everyone used to love how Derek Jeter called then-manager Joe Torre “Mr. Torre” even as he aged from a rookie into a veteran superstar? People loved it because it was gentlemanly.

The use of honorifics in journalistic writing is dated. Of the major dailies, the Journal and the New York Times are the only ones who’ve retained the practice. And, while I’m sympathetic to the respectfulness argument, it simply seems stilted in today’s age.

Indeed, it’s odd that WSJ is doing this only on the sports pages. While it’s true that the vagaries of writing up play-by-plays makes it somewhat more awkward than the average story in the politics or business pages, it seems strange to declare that athletes aren’t worthy of honorifics while, for example, accused felons are.

Aside from last name on subsequent mention being a cleaner writing style and improving flow, it removes petty disputes over which honorific should be used. The NYT, for example, refers to medical doctors as “Dr.”  on subsequent mentions but refers to PhDs as “Mr.” or “Ms.” unless specifically requested to do otherwise. Similarly, there seems to be mixed practice with respect to military and government titles:  Should generals be referred to as “General So-and-So” or “Mr. So-and-So”?  How about ambassadors and cabinet secretaries? Much less the passel of people who are entitled to use “The Honorable”?

In my teaching days, I insisted that students call me “Dr. Joyner” and experimented with referring to them as “Mr.” and “Ms.”  The latter practice died out because, while I actually like it, it just seemed odd because no one else was doing it.

FILED UNDER: Media, Quick Takes, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mark says:

    I always thought that Mr. was only used if one had earned a bachelors degree, otherwise one was referred to by his surname. This is the usage in The Crucible, for instance.