The Changing Face of Sports Journalism
I’ve never been much of a sports fan, but I nevertheless found Josh Levin’s recent Sports Illustrated critique a fascinating read; the piece appeared on Slate.com yesterday evening. Levin’s premise is that while Sports Illustrated was once a serious and skillfully-written journal that covered obscure and unpopular sports as much as it did the American triumvirate of football, baseball and basketball, that happens to no longer be the case.
Regardless of the fact that I’ve been fascinated by magazines for nearly as long as I can remember, I happen to know next to nothing at all about sports journalism. And so this came as something of a surprise to me. Now that I think of it, I guess I had always been under the general impression that SI was only taken seriously by minimum-wage lunkheads and the like — people who would have much preferred getting their weekly sports fix via a much easier-to-digest media method, and who subscribed to SI only because the sports commentary on the TV news was too short to offer worthwhile athletics analysis, or something like that.
Aand probably also because the magazine itself had very similar production qualities to the checkout-counter entertainment tabloids, I’d always assumed it was nothing more than the People of sports journalism: A publication that was home to talented and intelligent writers, but because its owners and its lawyers were overly concerned with stuffy legal matters like plagerism and libel and such, simply didn’t have the steel balls necessary to set those bright minds loose.
Until I read Levin’s article, in fact, I’d never been under the impression that SI covered much of anything aside from the major sporting superstars. Apparently in its heyday, though, the editorial team held onto a rather loose definition of what constituted a sport. And it was exactly that creatively open-minded attitude that caused the magazine to become the publishing legend it is today. Who the heck knew?
And here’s something else for all of us who are not especially interested in athletics to think about: As far as Josh Levin is concerned, “An avid sports fan can now read SI without learning anything new.”
Why, you might wonder, is that such a thought-provoking quote? Well, because it implies that at some point in the past, an avid sports fan could read SI and learn something new. And by “learning [something] new,” we’ll have to assume that Levin is referring not just to learning about new players or matches, but rather to new sports altogether. New ideas about what it is that constitutes amusement, really. How many of you non-SI readers, for example, are aware that the magazine of years past regularly ran stories about unexpected diversions such as snake handling, darts, chess and skateboarding?
In his Slate story, Levin even goes on to explain that in a 1997 book about the history of Sports Illustrated (Michael MacCambridge’s The Franchise), a former SI editor, Bill Colson, is quoted as saying, “the magazine’s increasing focus on the major sports helped contribut[e] to the narrowing of interest of the American sports fan.”
Think about that last sentence for just a second. Even if we assume that Colson’s opinion about the influence of SI is only moderately correct, that still says something so hugely important about its responsibilities. And I don’t just mean the magazine’s responsibilities toward its subscribers, or to the board and the shareholders of the company that owns it, but to the actual spirit of American sporting itself.
I’m being quite serious.
Consider for a second the very powerful trickle-down effect that media entities such as Sports Illustrated have on the American popular culture at large. After all, if such an authority as SI deems a given sport as worthy of our attention, a substantial percentage of the supposed 3,150,000 people who read the publication each week will very likely swallow that information whole, without giving so much as a second thought to its validity, or even its truthfulness.
Or to say it another way, SI has a great deal of power, culturally speaking. And because power, of course, can be used for either good or evil, doesn’t it seem a shame that SI is not trying harder to share the wonders of the sporting word with those of us who don’t find it wonderful at all?
I certainly do.
I’ve tried to enjoy sports. Believe me. And yet I remain among the unconverted. I did find myself developing something of an interest in soccer during a trip to Amsterdam in 2002; I was in the city while the World Cup was taking place in South Korea, and it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in the energy and the excitement. One afternoon while shopping, I even found myself thumbing through a book about the Dutch soccer obsession, and I could hardly put the thing down. But soon after I left Europe, my new interest in soccer began to wane. Predictably, I suppose.
I was flipping through an issue of Esquire earlier this year, and I found myself reading an article by Chuck Klosterman — something I don’t often do, because while I find Klosterman to be a very talented writer and a seemingly intelligent person, I also get the feeling that his writing, to say nothing of his public persona, has devolved into a caricature that is goofy just for the sake of being goofy. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Maybe it’s just that he’s been unfairly typecast as someone who doesn’t — or can’t — write about serious issues. As we all know, this sort of unfair and inaccurate typecasting happens all the time to regular folks who suddenly become celebrities, but in the case of someone as obviously intelligent as Klosterman, I find it a shame. And yet this particular column, which appeared inside an issue called The 2007 Esquire 100 — an “annual register of emerging ideas, trends, discoveries, products, people, and obscene gestures you should know about before everyone else does,” according to a note in the magazine — proposed to be Klosterman’s own Four Point Plan to save sports journalism, and therefore did not at first glance appear to be the standard carictured Klosterman fare.
And yet it was.
But still, even though the man used nearly 1,900 words to make one solitary point, it was a very worthwhile read. And an easy one at that. And so I strongly suggest you click on this link immediately, and then read the 1,900 worthwhile words. And if you then find yourself interested at all in the point Klosterman is trying to make — that sports writers need to stop spouting only their opinions, and should instead focus much more on crafting analysis — then you can of course choose to return here. And at that point, I will grasp your shoulders with both of my hands, and I will do my best to help you look in the direction that both Klosterman and I sincerely hope the current sports writing administration is headed.
Or if you’d rather not do all that, I’ll just go ahead and tell you what the poor guy is trying to say: Sports journalism needs to lose the mindlessly opinionated blog-style writing. It needs to try a bit harder to be like the other sections of the newspaper. It needs to dig a bit deeper, to take more chances, to look for the unusual stories and the unexpected stories. It need more think-pieces. Etcetera.
Granted, this was not a point that required 1,900 words in order to be made clear. But the reason I’m pointing it out now is because after reading Klosterman’s column, I started seeing commentary almost everywhere I looked that was attempting to make the same general point: “The current state of sports journalism sucks, but that isn’t a real huge deal because it can be changed with relative ease.”
I’ll admit to knowing nothing at all about this last point — that the process of changing the current state of sports journalism could be done painlessly and with ease. But in his Esquire piece, Klosterman does us the favor of explaining: “For various reasons,” he writes, “(some good, some bad), the world of sports journalism is still controlled by a surprisingly small cabal. And what that means is that the sports media still has the potential to reinvent itself; if its dominant players changed how they did things, everything would change, almost instantaneously.”
I suppose it might seem odd that this concept fascinates me as much as it does, considering that my interest in sports is close to nonexistent. But hell, if the entire world of sports writing can really be altered as easily as Klosterman claims it can, than can’t the same thing be said about all forms of mainstream media and communication? I don’t see why not. And that is an exciting thought.
There’s a psychological term for the process that takes place in the brain after someone buys a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, for instance, and then starts seeing vintage Volkswagen Beetles everywhere they look. I can’t recall the term, but nonetheless, this is essentially what happened to me after I read Klosterman’s essay. Everywhere I looked, someone was rambling on and on about the changing face of sports journalism.
It was right around this time that I discovered Deadspin.com, a sports blog so smart, honest, and different that no actual sports knowledge is necessary to enjoy it. And although I haven’t yet had a chance to give it a proper and thorough read, I think it’s safe to assume that the same could be said for the new sports magazine being published by the New York Times, which is called Play.
Interestingly, Play has quickly been making good with devout Times readers by publishing the work of brainy writers who also tend to dabble in sports journalism. Writers like Michael Lewis, for instance. Lewis is the author of the award-winning Moneyball, a heady tome that masterfully deconstructs the 2002 Oakland A’s and their enigmatic general manager, Billy Beane. It was widely hailed as something of an instant masterpiece in the fields of both business and sports. Obviously, that’s nothing easy to accomplish. As far as I’m concerned, if Lewis is the type of guy we’ve got penning features for our large-circulation sports magazines these days, I’d say things are looking up.
In fact, depending on your point of view, the existence of Play may go a good distance in proving the point that sports journalism already has changed. That is, as long as we swallow the prevailing opinion that the New York Times, in all its myriad multimedia platforms, does indeed represent the current American zeitgeist. As for me, I’m not really so sure it does. I would actually argue that the Times defines the zeitgeist more than it reflects or represents it, which isn’t really what newspapers were originally intended to do. But then again, the Times isn’t so much a plain ol’ newspaper as it is a cultural institution, in and of itself. And if that’s the case, then sports journalism as defined by Play technically became the expected norm as soon as the final page of its first issue came spitting off the rolls of the printing press, and then into the paper folding machine, and through the saddle stapler, and into the box and onto the truck. So for the love of God, please: Let’s keep it coming.
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