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.
These issues came to a head last April when Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, confronted Will Leitch, then the editor of Deadspin (now with New York Magazine), on HBO’s Costas Now. Bissinger railed against blogs and taunted Leitch, brandishing a folder of vulgar blog posts and asking him if he had ever read the sports writer W. C. Heinz, who was Bissinger’s symbol for a tradition of greatness. “I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty; they’re dedicated to dishonesty; they’re dedicated to speed,” Bissinger said. After the show, Bissinger was ridiculed on the blogosphere and did an about-face, apologizing repeatedly and granting interviews to the blogs he had chastised.
I think Bissinger was on the right track but blaming the wrong medium. It is easy to criticize and stereotype bloggers, but most bloggers and their readers didn’t grow up devouring the latest Red Smith column with their morning coffee. Sports fans under thirty spent their formative years watching shows like ESPN’s Around the Horn, which features newspaper columnists shouting at each other like lunatics.
An interesting thing happened in the wake of the Bissinger-Leitch dustup: Deadspin and other blogs started interviewing older, celebrated sports writers, like Frank Deford. Check out the comments section on these long and fascinating Q&As—the young blog readers loved reading about these guys and seemed to enjoy their long-form narratives. In other words, readers of Deadspin appreciate great writing; it’s the newspapers that have given up on it, feeling as though they have to chase rumors and deliver a ceaseless stream of chicken-nugget news. In marketing parlance, sports sections have degraded their brand.
Like anything, this devolution of sports writing is complicated. People holding AARP cards tell me, “There are no more good sports writers.” That’s just not true. There are excellent writers out there: Buster Olney, Damon Hack, Gary Smith, John Feinstein, and Rick Reilly come immediately to mind, and there are others, some at smaller papers—Terry Pluto, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, for example—working under the national radar. So far, the magazine industry hasn’t suffered the same kind of economic devastation that has befallen newspapers, and Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Sporting News, and The New Yorker still, on occasion, publish put-down-your-iPhone-and-read-this articles. SI and ESPN are publishing some nice narrative work in the magazine, and on the Web, particularly in The Bonus and E-Ticket sections. Yahoo has hired some ex-newspaper stars and done some good investigative stories. In other words, all is not lost.
But here is a typical scenario that illustrates the problem for newspaper sports sections. Beat writers covering a baseball game see a player strain a hamstring. Immediately they are all on their BlackBerries posting an item about the injury and how the batting order was just changed. Something must be posted! Any writer who misses the tidbit will be called on it by his or her editor. But everyone has the same information; no one “scoops” anyone. So why not wait and weave that tidbit into the game story? The reporter would have the chance to go to the locker room and ask questions, talk to the manager about the change in strategy after the injury—to add context and nuance and narrative. These days, that sort of insight is too often lost. “If I were the editor,” says ESPN’s Buster Olney, who also blogs, “I would say, ‘Don’t worry about beating the seven other papers on the hamstring story; focus on developing your thousand-word game story. Remember the great writing you loved as a kid? Write it up like that.’”
Tim McGuire, a former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune who now teaches the business of journalism at Arizona State University, says newspaper management is showing a lack of leadership. “It’s a mission problem. The reporters are doing too much, and they’re confused about their mission,” he says. “We’re pouring the same news on people that they can get anywhere.” What’s needed, McGuire says, is for newspapers to play to their strengths. Make statistical information readily available on newspaper Web sites, of course, but it’s time for narrative storytelling and vividly written game stories to make a comeback—because journalists know how to weave tales, put events in context, and act as intermediaries to the firehose of information on the Web. Most bloggers don’t have that skill or, more important, that mission.
I spent the last few years working on a biography of Red Grange, a football player who played in the 1920s. In my research, I studied a century’s worth of sports writing, from W. C. Heinz and Red Smith to Hunter S. Thompson. As I read through yellowed newspapers, I encountered descriptive writing, clever word play, references to Shakespeare, the Bible, heroic couplets—and a wise eye toward human nature. I could see, smell, and hear these games. And when the stars played poorly, the writers didn’t soften the language leaving their Underwoods. They were not glorified flaks, as they are now often portrayed. Thompson, for instance, would study game film with NFL players to better understand their athletic choices.
Sports journalism has had its failings—homerism, winking at behavior that should have been scrutinized, and turning a blind eye to racial inequality, to name a few. The biggest story of modern sports is performance-enhancing drugs, a story which has been subject to some uneven coverage. While there were whisperings in the press, and Sports Illustrated bravely highlighted the issue in 2002, I wonder if Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal would have gotten past Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler, Heinz et al. My bet? Through their dogged reporting and descriptions of the players’ ridiculously bulked-up frames, the juicing would have been exposed early on.
The sports section is called the “toy department” by those who think its mission is more fun than consequential. But go to any major sporting event and you’ll see that the importance of sports to our culture is obvious; they are part of people’s dreams, of how they define themselves. The sports pages used to hold the honor as one of the best-written and best-reported sections in a newspaper. It’s important for sports, for newspapers, and for our society that they recapture that mantle.