In the 1920s, The New Yorker published a piece that declared sports a “trivial enterprise” involving “second-rate people and their second-rate dreams and emotions.” The magazine went on to concede, however, that “the quality of writing in the sports pages is, in the large, much superior—wittier, more emotional, more dramatic, and more accurate—to the quality of writing that flows through the news columns.” Indeed, many of the greatest writers in journalism—Grantland Rice, W. C. Heinz, Jim Murray, Red Smith, to name but a few—found their home on the sports pages. Sports are big business and they have big themes: physical and intellectual tests, joy and heartbreak, hope and perseverance, teamwork and individual transcendence. The games and characters are ripe for vivid storytelling, and philosophic discourse about human nature and our culture. They are also part of a multibillion-dollar industry in need of dogged watchdog journalism.
But since the mid-1990s, two forces have diminished classic sports writing. First, television coverage in general has expanded, making hype and the sensational aspects of sports dominant. ESPN became a cultural and media juggernaut, sending fans to SportsCenter for highlights and scores, rendering game recaps and box scores in the next day’s newspapers obsolete. Newspapers gradually began reducing the size of game stories, dashing the more literary ambitions of their writers. Many of the more stylish writers migrated toward higher-profile and better-paying radio and television gigs, and the faster news cycle created a sports world in which the best reporting started getting sliced into smaller stories. It used to be that a star writer like Red Smith would cover the games and put all of his reporting into a substantial game story or one of his columns. “Red Smith was my inspiration to get into sports writing,” says Buster Olney, a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine who spent six years at The New York Times. “You read his writing and said, ‘Wow!’ Today, in four-hundred words you can get the basic details of the game story, but you miss the details and the anecdotes. It’s interesting, and important, to know how the players and managers think, why they made certain decisions. That’s the cool stuff, and it’s getting lost.”
The Web, meanwhile, did to sports writing what it has done to journalism more broadly: carved up the audience and exacerbated the more-faster-better mindset that cable TV began. Anyone can go to the Web anytime to get scores, rapid-fire articles about games, and gobs of analysis and statistics. There are generalized sports sites like ESPN.com and SI.com, hyper-focused team news blogs, sites run by the athletes themselves, and irreverent sports sites such as Deadspin.
All this dramatically changed the job of the sports beat writer and columnist, traditionally the bedrock of sports writing. Malcolm Moran, who is the Pennsylvania State University’s Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, says 2003 marked a sea change in sports writing. In April of that year, autigers.com, an Auburn University fan site, was flooded with posts about sightings of Mike Price, the head football coach at archrival Alabama, at a strip club in Pensacola, Florida. The scandal became a national story, and Price was fired. “We passed a threshold,” says Moran, who spent his reporting career at USA Today, The New York Times, Newsday, and the Chicago Tribune. “The next nine-hundred and ninety-nine pieces of speculation on a fan site have to be checked out, and it could cost you your job if you miss one. It changed the business, and not for the better.”
In addition to covering the games and the teams, beat writers now must chase blog-based rumors—and blog themselves. It’s an untenable situation, and most reporters simply react to the daily torrent of news bites while the bigger stories and issues go wanting. Even columnists are producing more hackneyed items. The last Pulitzer for a sports column went to Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times—in 1990. Mark Saxon, a beat writer for the Orange County Register, says today’s sports journalism is good for hardcore fans and fantasy league players looking for an edge, but the quality of the coverage and the overall storytelling have suffered.