Hits and Misses: The year in sports journalism

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Here are some of the biggest Hits and Misses in sports journalism in the last year, in more or less chronological order. Also check out David Uberti’s year-end review, which highlights how coverage of sports leagues as institutions is one of the best developments of 2015.

 

Hits

Stuart Scott’s legacy

On January 4, the longtime ESPN sportscaster died of cancer at age 49. His passing inspired moving tributes from his home network and competing outlets, from professional and college teams, and even from Jon Stewart and President Barack Obama. The outpouring was a testament to Scott’s reputation: smart, fair-minded, and brimming with exuberance. He brought humor and lyrical flourish to the SportsCenter desk, and never a shred of pretense. No wonder he’s credited with connecting the cable channel with a younger and more diverse viewership. ESPN also deserves a nod for its beautiful 14-minute video obituary to Scott—which it put together in his final weeks with real grace.

 

Women’s World Cup shatters records

Fox Sports’ investment in its first-ever broadcast of a World Cup paid off big time. In partnership with Telemundo, the network aired every one of the 52 Women’s World Cup matches, 16 of them on the main Fox channel—the most ever on broadcast television for any World Cup, men’s or women’s. The network also had 28 on-air broadcasters and 60 pre-produced features. It was worth it: The thrilling tournament was a huge ratings win. After record-shattering viewership in late matches, the extraordinary final between the US and Japan drew an average of 25.4 million viewers, with a total of 43.2 million tuning in for all or part of the match. Ratings easily bested last year’s men’s World Cup, the Stanley Cup, the Winter Olympics, and every game of the NBA finals. The only people truly surprised were those not paying attention to the sport’s rising popularity. (I guess that includes advertisers.)

 

Enough with sexism and abuse in sports culture

It seems like 2015 was a turning point, in which more people in sports media spoke up about sexism and abuse, rather than just outsiders speaking to sports media. CNN’s Rachel Nichols and Michelle Beadle of ESPN and HBO Sports challenged celebrated boxer Floyd Mayweather on his history of domestic violence. Katie Nolan of Fox Sports pushed back on sports media’s condescending attitude toward female fans. A ProPublica / New Orleans Advocate collaboration exposed police failure to check an NFL player’s “rape spree.” Deadspin, in painful detail, eviscerated the NFL’s decision to permit Dallas Cowboys star Greg Hardy’s return to the game after being found guilty of abuse. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Amelia Rayno added her personal story to the sexual harassment complaints that led the resignation of the University of Minnesota’s athletic director. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch wrote fantastic columns on how female sports reporters deal with sexual harassment and pregnancy, and the embarrassing rarity of women calling NFL games. Meanwhile, in cheerier news, Jessica Mendoza broke ground as the first woman to call both the College World Series and nationally televised MLB playoff games.

 

Enough with corruption

The methodical journalism of Andrew Jennings, a “curmudgeonly old reporter” born in Scotland, paid off. As the Washington Post has detailed, it was his work that laid the foundation for the FIFA investigation that came to a head in May, when seven top officials in international soccer’s governing body, were arrested in a hotel raid for “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption. Several other individuals and corporations were also indicted. Jennings did the hard of work of proving what everybody seemed to know, and, at age 71, he was impressively vindicated. The impact is still shaking out.

 

NJ Advance breaks news about Rutgers coach

As Rutgers University’s athletic department has moved onto a bigger stage, NJ Advance Media, which publishes The Star-Ledger and NJ.com, is giving it more scrutiny. That includes news about the university’s investigation into rule violations by football coach Kyle Flood, who inappropriately interacted with a faculty member about the grades of one of his players. That led to Flood’s three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine. (After a lackluster season, not to mention the arrests of seven players, Flood was later fired, and the school’s embattled athletic director was forced to resign.)

 

The story of Serena Williams

The tennis star’s epic quest for a Grand Slam and her 22nd major singles title came up short in September, but it inspired a wealth of terrific journalism (and even advertising.) Among the best: The New York Times Magazine’s inspired choice of poet Claudia Rankine for a cover story on Williams; New York’s elegant profile; Brian Phillips’ reflection in Grantland on watching Williams grow up; and FiveThirtyEight’s data-crunching look at whether Williams is really the Greatest Of All Time. She was also named as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year”—the first solo female athlete to be honored since Mary Decker in 1983.

 

Radio station stands up to pressure from Detroit Lions

WXYT-FM (97.1) is a popular 24-hour sports network in Detroit that has broadcast Lions football games for the past 12 years. Headlining host Mike Valenti is fiercely critical of the hard-luck NFL franchise. In its latest contract negotiations with the station, the Lions allegedly wouldn’t sign unless WXYT fired Valenti and toned down its scalding complaints about the team. The station refused, Valenti is still on the air—and the Lions walked, signing instead with WJR-AM (760) for the next five years. “This is a petty, juvenile, nasty organization,” Valenti said on air. “They don’t like me because I don’t fear them.” In a time of skepticism about sports media’s coziness with the leagues, it’s refreshing to find journalists—and station managers—who haven’t lost their spines.

 

Beyond the big leagues

Sports aren’t bound by the major leagues, much as they might want you to think otherwise. Some of the best journalism of the year illuminated other corners where athleticism and the physical world come together. Eva Holland dug deep into the Yukon River Quest, the world’s longest annual canoe and kayak race, for SB Nation Longform. At the same site, Kim Cross told the tale of a man without hands or feet fighting for a spot on the national paralympic rugby team. Scott Cacciola turned out a great profile on ultrarunner Kaci Lickteig in The New York Times. In Outside, Grayson Schaffer wrote about an endurance cyclist who left a cult and then biked around the world. And “Angry Sky,” an ESPN 30 for 30, featured the New Jersey truck driver determined to take a balloon to the edge of space and then jump out.** Stories like these expand and stretch dominating narratives. They ventilate the sports section. And they are, simply, a joy.

 

Misses

Deflategate

It was the saga that would not die. In January, an Indianapolis reporter broke news that the NFL was investigating whether the New England Patriots improperly deflated footballs before its AFC Championship game against the Colts. This instigated a “sports media feeding frenzy” that lasted nine months—some of it important news, but often just warmed-over gossip, bad predictions, “scoops” that were dependent on anonymous league sources, and, in too many cases, pieces that were just downright wrong. Collectively, the noise over something so relatively trivial turned into a parody of sports journalism.

 

Overreacting to Marshawn Lynch’s press conference

Shortly before the 2015 Super Bowl, this Seattle Seahawks running back gave a soon-to-be infamous (and hilariously parodied) press conference in which he answered every question with variations of the phrase: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Lynch’s reluctance to speak to the media wasn’t new, but it ignited preposterous overreaction, with some writers hollering about how Lynch should be penalized because players’ contracts require them to be available to the media. But Lynch only made painfully clear what we already know: Rarely does the sports press conference result in more than generic bromides anyway, empty as anything Lynch said. And reporters whose source development depends wholly on this structured access might want to rethink their approach, and instead push back against the league’s suffocating control of players. After all, who’s the real winner in a system where players say nothing of substance to the media? (For the record, the NFL did not fine Lynch.)

 

“I’m kind of a big deal.”

In April, ESPN’s Britt McHenry was caught on tape when she grossly insulted an employee at a tow truck company, belittling her appearance, intelligence, and job. “I’m in the news, sweetheart,” McHenry says in the video. “I will fucking sue this place.” Once exposed, she apologized. ESPN suspended her for one week. (Not everyone thought that was sufficient.)

 

ESPN fires Bill Simmons, then shutters Grantland

In an incredibly shortsighted move, ESPN abruptly dismissed The Sports Guy in May, and, five months later, it shuttered Grantland, the celebrated sports and culture site that Simmons created four years ago. Grantland (which I contributed to in its early years) built an exceptionally loyal audience in a short time because it showcased the originality, intelligence, and humor of its writers. Not only was ESPN foolish to drop one of the most interesting sports sites on the Web, but it handled the closure with embarrassing clumsiness—some Grantland contributors first heard the news on Twitter.

 

The Undefeated struggles to find its legs

What is “black Grantland” when there’s no Grantland? We’ve yet to find out. As Deadpsin has chronicled, in exhausting detail, ESPN’s standalone site for the intersection of sports, culture, and race is still struggling to launch. After numerous delays and some impressive early work, the site has only published 21 articles in about two years. None are written by women, and most actually appear on ESPN.com, without any kind of distinctive tag. ESPN ultimately dismissed editor Jason Whitlock in June and installed Kevin Merida in October. It’s a shame that the site’s long and troubled runway led it to miss out on covering such a significant era in black history. Here’s hoping the multitalented Merida can finally bring The Undefeated to life.

 

The melodramatic hype and then demonization of Ronda Rousey

The media—and not just sports outlets—hyped this UFC fighter as “unbreakable,” “the best female athlete ever,” and “the world’s most dominant athlete.” The hyperbole overshadowed every other fighter, leading to total shock when Rousey was bested by Holly Holm (a 20-to-1 underdog) for the bantamweight title in November. It was Rousey’s first loss. Suddenly, the media turned on her, and often in the most patronizing language possible. Rousey “didn’t respect the pressure or the magnitude of the moment.”  She’s “paying for her arrogance” and her “brat act.” Even Donald Trump piled on, calling her “not a nice person.” Please. Someone tell the hype-machine to drop the in loco parentis attitude. Then go read Ramona Shelburne’s much more interesting take on Rousey in ESPN the Magazine.

 

Gutting the sports desk

Talented sports journalists exit the field every year. But it was a bloody tidal wave in 2015. Immeasurable insight and experience went out the door, willingly and otherwise. Among them is Detroit baseball writer Tom Gage, this year’s winner of the highest honor in the field. Other losses: 12 veterans of the New York Daily News sports staff; several from the Los Angeles Times, including columnists Chris Dufresne and Bill Dwyre*; two sportswriters at The State in South Carolina; four more at the Chicago Tribune sports desk; numerous at the Philadelphia papers (including the Flyers beat writer the Philadelphia Daily News hired just three months earlier); and Gene Myers, longtime sports editor of the Detroit Free Press. This is hardly just a crisis of newspapers, though. ESPN laid off 300 workers (not to mention the Grantland staff); Bloomberg News’ big cuts included a number of sports reporters and editors; and Sports Illustrated eliminated all of its staff photographers. Turns out the popularity of sports coverage doesn’t translate into job security. It’s brutal out there. There’s one notable coda, however: In November, a jury awarded $7.13 million to former LA Times columnist T. J. Simers, who alleged that the paper unfairly forced him out in 2013 after he suffered a mini-stroke. The Times plans to appeal the decision.

*Correction: The former LA Times columnist is Bill Dwyre, not Tom Dwyre, as was originally published. 

** Correction: This sentence originally misstated the title of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.