Barrows on Sports: Tom Sorensen and Us

As Charlotte has grown up as a sports city, Tom Sorensen has been there for the sports fan, chronicling, interpreting, and making us laugh


Mitchell MacNaughton

(page 1 of 2)

Tom Sorensen fell into my lap. In 1980, I was employed in the sports department of The Charlotte Observer and I spent an autumn afternoon screening inquiries from job seekers. Most writers, when sending off applications, carefully photocopy examples of their best stuff, then arrange them chronologically in a binder or staple them together neatly. But as I sliced my letter opener into an envelope with a Minnesota postmark, a jumble of newspaper stories cascaded out. Many were irregular sizes, some had uneven edges. A few were not so much folded as crumpled. They slid everywhere. The top of my desk. The floor. My lap.

I picked that one up. It was a feature about an old-fashioned pool hall that had evolved into a neighborhood gathering spot. The prose was lean, the sentences taut. I recall thinking they had the engaging terseness of classic detective fiction, and I knew after seven or eight paragraphs that Thomas Robert Sorensen—the name on the accompanying résumé—was who we should hire.

Today, he is a prominent part of the sports landscape in the Carolinas. In his twenty-eighth year as a sports columnist for the Observer, he has held that position longer than anyone else in the century-plus history of North Carolina’s largest newspaper. Among his peer group, columnists in cities with major league sports, his writing style and point of view are distinctive, if not unique. Plus: his time in Charlotte has coincided with the most transformative period in the city’s sports zeitgeist.

When he started, stock car racing was still several laps outside the mainstream, the Hornets were remembered only as the city’s defunct minor league baseball club, and our pro football team of choice was the Washington Redskins or the Atlanta Falcons. Now, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is smack-dab in the midst of uptown Charlotte, and the dates of the NBA and NFL drafts are more boldly inked on many calendars around town than the birthdays of spouses or progeny.

No other journalist has chronicled as much of that upheaval as Sorensen, and he has done it in a manner as devoid of pretense and artifice as that untidy package he shipped to me three decades ago. Essentially, its message was this: “I hope you like how I think and how I choose my words, but I won’t try to impress you with a color-coded portfolio.”

Before going further, I need to clarify for you my relationship with Sorensen. I’m a fan. I admire his work. While I was the Observer’s sports editor, I promoted him to columnist in 1985. Later, I was the newspaper’s managing editor, so all told, I was his boss for the greater portion of twenty years. As writers and editors will, the two of us have wrangled now and again; for instance, when George Shinn, then owner of Charlotte’s NBA team, was embroiled in a nationally televised civil-court case charging him with sexual assault, Sorensen skewered him in a brilliant column (“Dating Tips”) that I refused to publish because it was as beyond the pale as it was hilarious. On the other hand, we’ve watched basketball games together at my house. Upshot number one: I know a lot about him. Upshot number two: I’m not fully objective.

Here’s what I mean when I say he is without affectation. Unlike many sports columnists, he does not fortify his ego by focusing exclusively on big-time events and celebrity personalities. Yes, he has covered the Olympics, and he’s on a first-name basis with everybody in the Carolina Panthers’ hierarchy, but he will travel anywhere he believes he will unearth a good story, which gives him a broader range than most columnists; this basketball season you were as likely to spot him at Johnson & Wales’s gym as at a high-profile college game.

Similarly, he’s not compelled to regularly concoct wild opinions to drive increases in his readership or show up in trending topics on Twitter; he can deliver forceful insights (on Roy Williams: “The problem with major-college coaches is that they have too many people telling them how special they are [and] the lesser among them believe it …”), yet more often he has a forgiving eye for human foible. And what columnist who gives even passing thought to how his audience perceives him would so frequently write about boxing? It’s a brutal sport, an anachronism that has been plunging in popularity since the 1950s. Sorensen revels in it.


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