David McCollum Looks Back on 50 Years of Sports, and the Wider World

David McCollum Looks Back on 50 Years of Sports, and the Wider World
David McCollum accepts his Golden 50 Award from the Arkansas Press Association. (APA)

David McCollum will probably see “Battle of the Sexes” when the movie premieres next month, but the plot won’t surprise him.

He was in the Astrodome press box when Billie Jean King confronted an aging former Wimbledon champ and hustler named Bobby Riggs in a televised tennis match in September 1973. Spoiler alert: King, who was 29, beat the 55-year-old Riggs in straight sets.

“Back then it was considered an overhyped celebrity TV event, but it turned out to be a gender watershed and a bridge to Title IX,” the federal law against sex discrimination that energized women’s sports in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I remember sitting in on meetings where high schools debated whether girls could play five-on-five basketball.”

Memories came rushing back last week as McCollum reviewed a half-century of writing sports, including a stint at the Arkansas Democrat and then 35 years at the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway. An old colleague talked with him not long after he received the Golden 50 Award from the Arkansas Press Association, recognition for 50 years in newspapering.

“How many people after me will be in the newspaper business, or just media in general, for 50 years?” he asked. “How many businesses are even open for 50 years?”

From his start as a teenage paperboy for the Commercial Appeal through summers working for the Memphis Press-Scimitar during college, McCollum was drawn to writing. But a story about a young boy swept into a sewer drain led him to stick with sports. “The boy drowned, and I realized writing about that kind of stuff was too heavy for me.”

Now 67 but with no plans to retire, McCollum reflected on the kaleidoscope of games, players and issues he covered, but also on business revolutions in sports and newspapers. He’s been giving his readers regular reminiscences, as well as reprinting vintage columns, in honor of the 50th anniversary.

His highlights include the University of Arkansas’ “Triplets” making the NCAA Final Four in 1978, the Hogs crushing Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl and the revival of football at Hendrix College. But he also spoke thoughtfully on changes in the press box and newsroom, no longer the mostly male bastions he once knew, and the plight of print journalism, which was dominant when he started.

“The consolation for print is that after getting the scores and highlights and quick takes, sports readers appreciate someone with experience to analyze and put things into context and perspective.”

McCollum’s Column, his hallmark since college, has appeared more than 11,000 times, winning countless awards and paving a path into the Arkansas Sportscasters & Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

Over iced tea at Muggs Cafe in North Little Rock, the sports editor remembered back-to-back ties in national football championships by the University of Central Arkansas, as well as toiling alongside sportswriting titans like Orville Henry [“when Orville jumped from the Arkansas Gazette, I realized the Democrat might actually win the newspaper war”], Jim Bailey and Joe Mosby, and covering the Olympics. He recalled interviewing stars like the NBA’s Sidney Moncrief and Scottie Pippen, Conway’s pro football standout Peyton Hillis and golfer Bryce Molder, who grew from a 10-year-old phenom to an NCAA and PGA champion before McCollum’s eyes.

Going beyond box scores, McCollum notes trends like the rise of sports punditry on cable and the professionalization of college sports. “It’s much harder now to talk to a college head coach or players,” he said. “I remember when Razorback players’ dorm phone numbers were printed in the press guide.”

When he started in a newspaper office in the 1960s, he said, Johannes Gutenberg could have walked in from the 15th century and “figured out what was going on.” Nowadays the Log Cabin, which was acquired this month by GateHouse Media as part of a $120 million sale that included all 11 daily newspapers of Morris Communications Inc., doesn’t even have a printing press. Gutenberg, the inventor of moveable type, would be lost.

“It’s kind of like people going from horse-drawn carriages to traveling in airplanes,” McCollum said.

Smoking in the newsroom went the way of the horse buggy during McCollum’s career, a welcome change from the days when cigarettes coexisted uneasily with combustible copy paper. “A predecessor of mine, Andy Dean, once set his wastebasket on fire, then got it stuck on his foot when he tried to stamp it out. He was jumping, kicking, trying to get that flaming wastebasket free.”