Down with celebrity profiles, the steroids saga, and blow-by-blow business news. Let’s bring back good storytelling.
by Michael Rowe
Does sports journalism suck? In terms of urgency, the question is less national defense and more spilled milk, but I do feel like weeping whenever I peruse ESPN.com, fending off the bilge and looking for a piece that tackles an actual ethical or social issue. Or just tells a good story. Sportswriters don’t deny me this material outright. It’s simply the case that I have to wade through creeping sludge—predictable opinion, endless stats, finance-obsessed business news, empty profiles, and repetitive analysis—to read the kind of investigative and narrative reportage that appears sometimes in, say, Play, the New York Times’ prestige sports magazine. Nevermind that Play is a quarterly—an island in a sea of dead, beaten horses.
My complaint isn’t novel, of course. Gripes about sportswriting have sprung up from various quarters of the press. For a recent example, read the novelist Richard Ford’s crotchety screed from the Fall 2007 issue of Play. Still, few have offered a clear diagnosis. Is something wrong with the way journalists cover sports? Or, are the whiner-critics just impossible-to-please cranks? We can shrug dismissively and say it’s a little of both, but that would ignore the true culprit plaguing sportswriting: the cruddy specter of “insider knowledge.”
Start with the fantasy football syndrome. This internet-facilitated imaginary game, in which you “draft” players whose statistical achievements become points for your team, has become so popular that TV sports analysts and sportswriters routinely advise viewers and readers on which players they should or should not stock on their fake roster. In one particularly entertaining instance, an NFL Network analyst queried ex-coach Jim Mora—who piloted the Saints and Colts before retirement—about his fantasy football squad. Mora dismissed the whole caboodle with mumbles and an eye roll.
Of course Mora doesn’t get it: He used to coach in the NFL. Football coaches rely on probabilities generated by statistical analysis to inform their play-calling. And that's the central appeal of fantasy football: It mimics the act of coaching by passing off numbers—who gains more yardage against whom, who tends to choke when, and how one defense fares against a certain offense—as insight into the game. Thus we play at possessing professional knowledge, and, in the absence of the required muscles, numbers transport us inside the game as virtual shot-callers. Mora has no more interest in fantasy coaching than I have in playing a game of “fantasy infant”—been there, done that. It’s the fantasizing spectator who wants to be caught up in what he imagines are the details.
The push for the inside scoop reduces sports coverage to gossip slinging. The players who merit media scrutiny aren’t professionals, exactly; they're celebrities. Writers cover the indispensable liabilities (Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, and their misdeeds) and the singular talents (Johan Santana, Randy Moss, and their superstardom); readers gawk at their larger-than-your-life lives and want to know more. Sports Illustrated, in its 2007 NFL preview issue, broke from this tendency when it profiled, in brief, a long snapper from the Denver Broncos, emphasizing his minor but indispensable talent—hiking the ball 8 or 15 yards. By and large, however, it’s precisely these workaday pros we relegate to the background.
The untold stories of mere professionals might inform us, though. After all, many of the most successful baseball managers and football coaches were themselves unknown, unheralded, and undistinguished as players. As it turns out, they knew a thing or two anyway and were likely shrewd observers of the pro world. Nevertheless, what you read about sports concerns the superstars: who they are, how they do it, what they think.
Another, less obvious symptom of sportswriting’s blinkered perspective is the endless rehashing of the blogosphere. Online, and increasingly in print, journalists bow down at the altar of each others’ opinions, which typically concern the bureaucratic minutiae of draft choices, business rumors, and team finances. Sometimes, of course, writers rearrange the sacraments or chop the altar up, but ultimately they traffic in news and opinions about the news, nurturing the obsessive in every sports fan.
Some sportswriters readily acknowledge this trend. Robert Weintraub, who has written for Slate, Play, and the Columbia Journalism Review, says that much news-oriented sports coverage is often seen as “not opinionated enough.” In a world of judgment and pronouncement, he says, “everything is framed as an argument.” Sports journalists are insiders in the proverbial know, whatever bloated shape it takes. Accordingly, they dispense with incredible vigor their judgments against, among other things, the personal character of players and coaches and the business decisions of team franchises. For an example, read any Bill Simmons column on ESPN.com.
It’s not that this kind of writing is worthless. Reading it can teach you how the pro game is played. But writers like Simmons, who is very creative, lead their audience into the thicket without stepping back for the long view. They narrate no overarching point; they stir us to be entertained, not edified, challenged, or rocked a little out of our adoration.
“The talking head culture,” says Michael Rand, a sportswriter and blogger for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “is not necessarily the result of the internet.” The 24/7 nature of news, an evolutionary trait that’s ossified over the past 20 years, compels reporters to dig ceaselessly for novel information, rather than hone stories. Or, alternatively, writers hone a few stories (steroids, draft day) over and over, incrementally adding a bite of information here and a snatch of insight there. The end result: stories on repeat, with no takeaway but the intense fandom of all who write about sports. It’s media saturation to make wet blankets of us all.
But so what? What kinds of stories can we really expect in this echo chamber? I’m not asking for sportswriters to be allegorists, uncovering the cultural symbolism of professional athletics. On the contrary, sportswriting already belabors the symbolism of sport. For instance, ESPN.com’s recent profile of Wes Welker, wide receiver for the New England Patriots, reproduces that most common of sentimental sports narratives: Before incredible success, there was the adversity of not being quite as successful. The profile gussies up the chronology of Welker’s high school, college, and pro careers, but in the end Welker’s hard work signifies success only because he’s now famous.
Instead, let’s have more narratives like Chuck Klosterman’s recent piece in Play documenting the lives of several unremarkable NBA players whose careers were transformed when superstar Kevin Garnett became their Boston Celtics teammate. At least to a certain degree, Klosterman recounts the story of professionals, not celebrities.
Or there’s the Times’ investigation of sexual harassment at New York Jets games. Reporter David Picker found male fans congregating near a concourse in the Giants stadium. They were there, as Picker writes, to cheer “an obscenity-laced chant, demanding that the few women in the gathering expose their breasts.” If this portrait of besotted NFL fans doesn’t conjure the loony and occasionally reprehensible character of contemporary sports fandom, nothing will.
From the alternative press, which so often shuns sports coverage, there’s Sherman Alexie’s politically irate sports column, Sonics Death Watch, for Seattle’s alt-weekly the Stranger. Short and incisive, the column digs into the racial preferences of fans, the morality of pure talent, and anecdotal evidence of testosterone overload. It’s a riot.
So why aren’t there more of these kinds of attempts at investigation and storytelling? Primarily, because literary concerns might look a little stupid in the atmosphere of contemporary sports coverage, especially given the sordid epic of steroids. As Hal Crowther, an Oxford American essayist and author most recently of Gather at the River, told me, if you’re “a sportswriter with any sense of yourself as a writer, it’s hard to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
It’s not so much that the under-nuanced steroids saga ought to be disregarded; it’s simply the case that doping acts as a gravity well, sucking in the attention of fans and sportswriters alike. It’s easy to get your pique up over such scandals and refuse to understand the motivations compelling pharmaceutical enhancement at the cost of giving in to the 24/7 news cycle and prioritizing scandal over more sophisticated reporting.
And that’s ultimately what I want to read: sophisticated, contemplative journalism—not footnotes to press conferences, business transactions, and player quotes. I want sportswriting to offer evidence of athletic struggle, not celebrity, evidence that “professional” sports tells me something about the cruelty, appeal, and exhilaration of playing. Fans and sportswriters, spectators all, may try to get inside sport, but few of us are on the sidelines and even fewer are on the field. Readers have been left to digest fantasy fluff and their own obsessions. If it has become increasingly difficult to admire athletes and appreciate sports, we ought to realize that their potential for narrative, for story, made them newsworthy in the first place.