How Sportswriting Lost Its Game


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, 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.

Play coverMy 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.

Holly M
4/23/2009 3:15:10 AM

We cannot generally say that sports journalism sucks. In the world of entertainment, sport has become one of the famous activities that people get involved with outdoors. Football, for example, is very famous in our nation. A lot of fans are hooked up to seeing every games in the field without considering its cost. In connection with this, NFL is one of the most famous leagues of football players in the field of sports. Sadly, it might be a time of great mourning for football fans, as John Madden will grace the small screen no more. John Madden has not passed away, but instead he is retiring from broadcasting games and from other activities. Madden is among the greats of sports broadcasters. His coverage never needed credit repair for his knowledge of the game. Madden is also in the National Football League Hall of Fame as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who never had a losing season during his tenure and which included a Super Bowl victory. Chris Colllinsworth is slated to take over for him, but many would give personal loans to keep John Madden at his post.

Bill Tsiu
12/21/2008 10:55:07 PM

What I hate about sports journalists is that they often write something based on guess and they tend to stir up the hostile between fans. --Cool widgets at statbeast. Check it!

Bill Tsiu
12/21/2008 10:54:50 PM

What I hate about sports journalists is that they often write something based on guess and they tend to stir up the hostile between fans. --Cool widgets at statbeast. Check it!

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