2011 Year in Review, Sports Media Edition
• January - Realtime sports news-aggregation site Quickish launches
• February - Rob Neyer joins SB Nation after 15 years at ESPN.com
• March - Boston hosts the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
• April - FreeDarko shuts down
• May - Those Guys Have All the Fun, an oral history of ESPN, publishes
• June - Bill Simmons’ Grantland launches
• July - Sports Illustrated unveils its inaugural Twitter 100
• August - Bleacher Report hires five high-profile writers
• September - Bruce Feldman leaves ESPN for CBSSports.com
• October - Deadspin hires Tim Burke of Mocksession as video editor
• November - Tommy Craggs promoted to Deadspin site lead
• December - Donations-driven sportswriting collective The Classical goes live
Sportswriters to Watch in 2012
• Jon Bois (SB Nation)
• Andrew Bucholtz (Yahoo! Sports)
• Emma Carmichael (Deadspin)
• Ben Cohen (WSJ)
• Andy Hutchins (SB Nation)
• Matt Norlander (CBSSports.com)
• Sebastian Pruiti (Grantland)
• Andrew Sharp (SB Nation)
10 Best Sports Longreads of 2011
* The first nine are in no particular order, but the final entry was clearly the best longform sports piece I read all year.
The Last Act of the Notorious Howie Spira (Luke O’Brien, Deadspin)
Most sportswriters, especially those who specialize in longform narrative, dream of that story where they can just dive in, word count be damned, and be totally ensconced with a single subject, digging for those details that live just under the exterior. Deadspin staff writer Luke O’Brien, it’s fair to say, got all that and more when he chronicled the shady rise and humiliating downfall of Howie Spira, the Bronx gambler who got Yankees owner George Steinbrenner temporarily banned from baseball in the ’90s. Spira showed up at the Gawker offices one day hoping to gin up interest in a book-and/or-movie deal covering his life’s escapades. Instead, Deadspin readers were treated to a taut, 11,000-word meta-tale of what happens when your subject tries to become bigger than the story itself.
Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer (John Branch, The New York Times)
Despite the rise in coverage over the past few years, concussions in sports are still one of the great underreported stories of our time, despite the heroic efforts of writers like the Times’ Alan Schwarz, a recent Pulitzer Prize-finalist for his series on this growing epidemic. Schwarz left the sports beat this year to become a national education correspondent for the Times, but his colleague, John Branch, took up the topic and spent six months investigating the life and death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died earlier this year from an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. A subsequent examination by Boston University researchers revealed that his 28-year-old brain was already damaged from severe blows to the head and that he likely would have suffered from dementia had he lived long enough. An emotional, 15,000-word, three-part saga that takes readers through all phases of Boogaard’s all-too-short life, Branch’s reporting is itself worthy of a Pulitzer when the next awards are announced in April.
Why You Should Care About Cricket (Wright Thompson, ESPN.com)
I’m a sucker for oversimplistic headlines, but Thompson delivers the goods here with his epic tale of Sachin Tendulkar, who is to Indian cricket what Michael Jordan was to NBA fans. By using Tendulkar’s star as a window into the fanatical cricket fandom of the world’s second-most populous nation, Thompson also gives us a glimpse of, universally speaking, what it means to be a fan of any sport and the overarching notion of hero worship. Mostly, though, it’s about the unending pressure heaped a single man. Tendulkar “has carried the burden of a billion people for more than 20 years,” as Thompson describes it. Who of us could handle that life? Would we even want it, if given the choice?
Corruption, Murder, and the Beautiful Game (Brian Phillips, Grantland)
There is perhaps no finer soccer writer on the planet than Brian Phillips, proprietor of the excellent Run of Play site and national correspondent for Grantland. While the historical corruption of FIFA has been well-documented, Phillips sheds a fresh perspective here on the decades-long laundry list of bribes, under-the-table handshakes, and vehement denials that have become commonplace in the sport’s hierarchy. But it’s Phillips’ exhaustive research and turns of phrase that’ll leave you with chills, knowing just how precarious the upper echelons of soccer teeter on a daily basis, and that on any day the top could come crashing down on us all.
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose (Robert Mays, Grantland)
In a cultural sense, the biggest sports story of 2011 took place on a field not within some downtown stadium but at a fictional high school inside our televisions. The ending of Friday Night Lights, after five up-and-down seasons, signified the most bittersweet of celebrations. Never appreciated by the masses while it was on the air, FNL became beloved by its loyal fan base as much for its depictions of small-town Americana as its athletic sequences. Months of interviews went into Rob Mays’ comprehensive oral history for Grantland, and the result is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
A Day With Mike Leach (Spencer Hall, SB Nation)
“I had joked about it. Oh, I’ll go fishing with Mike Leach. The pirate on the high seas ha ha ha.” Of course, much to the benefit of readers, the joke was on Spencer Hall, who spent eight hours sailing through Key West with the year’s most controversial college football coach. Hall’s timeline-centric structure is perfectly suited to conveying the wackiness and unexpected homeliness of Leach, who is as much an Xs-and-Os genius as he is an OCD-driven Luddite. Hall, by the end of his high-seas adventure, writes that he never expected Leach to be so “normal,” leaving us all to consider our own relative definition of the word.
The Confessions of a Former Adolescent Puck Tease (Katie Baker, Deadspin)
Before she left her job at Goldman Sachs and headed west for San Francisco, Katie Baker was Deadspin’s longform specialist and resident hockey nut. She deftly combined these two talents in recounting how she spent her formative years bouncing around Internet message boards under an assumed persona, talking puck with anyone she could. Effortlessly, Baker details her own experiences interacting with shady online types and hockey aficionados alike, until one day the experiment veers into unknown waters. Part confessional, part mystery, Baker’s cautionary tale for the Internet Era resonates with anyone who’s ever found themselves thinking they’ve clicked on one hyperlink too many.
The History and Mystery of the High Five (Jon Mooallem, ESPN the Magazine)
Sometimes, the best stories are born with the simplest of questions: Who invented the high five? Jon Mooallem, a San Francisco-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to The New York Times Magazine and the live-action Pop-Up Magazine, delves deep into the kind of sports history we all too often take for granted. The brilliance of Mooallem lies in his ability to make you think you know where the story is headed — and then hang an abrupt U-turn when you’re not looking.
The Wheels of Life (Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated)
There’s a reason why no one writer has won more National Magazine Awards than Gary Smith, the undisputed dean of longform sportswriters. No matter the subject, he gets you to care about what you’re reading. You can’t help it, so you don’t fight it. He sucks you in, makes you feel like you’re there onsite with him and his notepad. His piece on Dick Hoyt, a 70-year-old man who has completed more than 1,000 races with his wheelchair-bound son over a 33-year span, is but another feather in the sportswriting world’s most overstuffed cap.
But my favorite sports longread of 2011 was …
The Shame of College Sports (Taylor Branch, The Atlantic)
This ambitious, 14,400-word Atlantic cover story by civil rights historian Taylor Branch digs deep and works hard to peel back the stink that sullies much of modern collegiate athletics. Section by section, Branch methodically exposes how college athletes are being exploited by universities and organizational executives, who collectively pocket billions of dollars a year while the student-athletes themselves get bupkis. At times so shocking as to be laughable, Branch conducts a master class with his narrative, exposing the hypocrisy behind the NCAA while lobbying for sensible (and feasible) reform.