To borrow from the man himself: I know Mike Wilbon a little bit. Like almost everyone in sports media, I like him. He's gracious and generous to a fault, nothing in person like the grumpy old man cartoon character he often plays for comic effect on "PTI." And when it comes to the state of contemporary sportswriting, he's entitled to his hard-earned opinion.
Still, I think he's wrong.
Earlier this year, Wilbon -- who coincidentally guest-edited the 2012 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology -- told Ed Sherman that "there’s not as much good stuff being written as there used to be." Since good is always and forever a relative term, a matter of feeling and individual taste, there's no way to disprove Wilbon's assertion. There is, however, a lot of countervailing evidence, from blogs to magazines to newspapers to websites; from long takeouts to short posts to meticulous journalism to stem-winding diatribes; enough good stuff, I hope, to change Wilbon's mind.
Herein, my favorite American Sports Writing of 2012:
"The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever," Michael Mooney, D Magzine.
"Let It Fly," Jordan Conn, Grantland.
"Man In Full," Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated.
The best sports stories aren't really about sports. They're about people and the world, in all the messy complexity and halting lack of resolution that characterizes both. These three pieces epitomize that, and in each case, the authors did something I find admirable - they eschewed the easy, satisfying narrative conventions we long for as readers, the ones that sports themselves are pretty much designed to provide. (Beginning, middle, end; protagonists and antagonists; drama and conflict leading to synthesis or conclusion). Instead, they embraced ambiguity. Mooney's everyman bowler-cum-Sisyphus may or may not be changed by his remarkable near-miss; Conn leaves you with the sense that Mo Isom's remarkable journey isn't over, but rather just beginning; a sense of borrowed time and the essential unfairness of mortality itself hangs heavily over Ballard's otherwise inspiring tale. In a way, all three of these stories are about what happens before and after the credits of the typical sports movie: we are born to struggle and die, and along the way, the best we can hope for may be fleeting moments of something approaching grace.
"Is an ESPN Columnist Scamming People on the Internet?" John Koblin, Deadspin.
A confession: I'm a sucker for stories about con artists and grifters. I'm not sure anything is more All-American than inventing yourself out of whole cloth. As such, I found this story fascinating and irresistible -- and the way it played out in semi-real time, evolving and erupting over a period of days, with both Koblin and his readers digging up details, was Internet journalism at its best.
"Notable Dogs in College Football and Elsewhere," Spencer Hall, Every Day Should Be Saturday.
Another confession: I'm a huge sucker for dogs, and for elegiac stories about dogs loved and lost. My all-time favorite piece in this genre is Bill Gilbert's 1975 Sports Illustrated story "Mirror of My Mood," which perpetually brings me to tears; Hall's piece is a strong No. 2, starting off as a cute, whimsical listicle before delivering an unexpected, beautifully-written emotional wallop. I cried reading this one, too. RIP, old friend.
"The Other Half of the Story," Melissa Segura, Sports Illustrated.
"Football is Dead. Long Live Football," J.R. Moehringer, ESPN the Magazine.
"Games of Chance," Kevin Van Valkenburg, ESPN.com.
"American Ghouls," Charles Pierce, Grantland.
If you're at all familiar with my work, you know I have a few things to say when it comes to the matter of brain trauma in football. I also read just about everything published on the topic, and these were the four pieces from 2012 that most stuck with me. Moehringer's essay captured America's complicated cultural and psychological relationship with football -- and most importantly, the gain-is-worth-the-pain romanticism and rationalization it produces. Van Valkenburg covered the same ground from the perspective of semi-pro football players, and in a resonant bit of biography, from his own experience playing the sport. By simply speaking with -- and listening to -- the wives of former football players whose lives have been irrevocably harmed, who spend most of their time desperately coping, who are picking up the human tab for America's Sunday afternoon escapism, Segura reminded everyone that it isn't just brain-damaged athletes who pay a terrible price. And in an astute essay that that easily been about gun violence or state-sanctioned torture or the other ways in which we fail each other at the most basic moral level, Pierce made is clear that we all pay a price, too, crafting perhaps my favorite sentences of the year:
We ought not to allow people to be destroyed — either all at once, or one concussion at a time — for our amusement. Doing so makes us amoral. Hell, it makes us vampires.
"Overheard Conversation Suggests NCAA Prejudged Shabazz Muhammad Case," Baxter Holmes, Los Angeles Times.
If you're at all familiar with my work, you know I have a few things to say when it comes to amateurism and the NCAA. Holmes' story managed to: (a) embarrass the NCAA's seemingly un-embarrassable system of kangaroo-court jurisprudence; (b) clear Muhammad to play for UCLA, an outcome that hurts nobody and brings joy to many; (c) show once again why amateurism has never made any real sense, except as a rotten first principle that produces unjust rules and enforcement. Not bad for a single news article.
"Marathon Man," Mark Singer, The New Yorker.
Races have a clear-cut ending. This story doesn't. Which is exactly what makes it so good.
"Fuck You, Pelicans Are Awesome: A Defense Of The NBA’s Best New Team Name," Barry Petchesky, Deadspin.
The funniest -- and best-executed -- low brow/high concept-ish gag article I read in 2012. I used to write pieces like this for the late, unlamented ESPN.com Page 2, and this was as good (probably better) than anything I or anyone else there ever produced on our best days. What makes it work is the total dedication to the idea, the sheer overkill of tone and actual research involved. Petchesky wasn't content to write a two-line joke and link to a badass pelican nature video; instead, he put in the work, constructing a crazy-quilt case that even a devoted bird lover wouldn't bother making, and in doing so earned my giggles one absurd reportorial and rhetorical brick at a time.
"Did This Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?" Thomas Lake, Sports Illustrated.
"Jerry Sandusky's Small Group of Loyal Supporters Includes Joyce Porter, Who Says He's a 'Saint,'" Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports.
Two great stories on their own merits, and also two stories that offer powerful lessons for young journalists (and much-needed creative reminders for the rest of us): (a) if something has gone from conventional wisdom to folklore, like the story of Michael Jordan getting "cut" from his high school team, there's probably a much better story behind the legend; (b) the most interesting stories are often about pariahs, outcasts and people you can neither relate to nor understand, people who -- like Jerry Sandusky's handful of diehard supporters -- are themselves mysteries.
"On the Trail of the Piggyback Bandit," Bryan Curtis, Grantland.
The single weirdest sports story of the year -- of any year, really -- delivered with pitch-perfect tone by the under-appreciated Curtis. Grantland devotes a massive amount of literary and intellectual firepower toward the shared cultural experience of watching things on television and/or the Internet, and as such, I often find myself disappointed in the site's disinterest in engaging the wider world. That said, I'm not sure another publisher could or would devote the money, time and talent to tell a story like this properly. So kudos.
"Field of Schemes" website, Neil DeMause.
Collected columns at The Nation, Dave Zirin.
In a sports media landscape dominated by facile, Stick-To-Sports thought and analysis -- and also endless angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussion of Tim Tebow -- DeMause and Zirin qualify as national treasures. If you're sick of Sports Welfare and the lies and spin that make it possible, then DeMause is a must-read -- calm, clear-eyed and just snarky enough, a Virgil for our ongoing taxpayer Inferno. As for Zirin, he's the rare -- and beyond the aforementioned Pierce, maybe only -- sports writer who is just as comfortable discussing how Egyptian soccer clubs helped foment political and social revolution as next week's Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game.
"Marvin Miller, the Man Who Beat Some Sense into Baseball," Tommy Craggs, Deadspin.
"17 Days in November," Wright Thompson, ESPN.com.
Great writing doesn't have to be long. Compelling web content doesn't have to be short. Miller's inimitable life and impact on sports could -- and should -- fill multiple books, but Craggs does a masterful job of distilling both to their essence in a few hundred elegant words. Thompson, by contrast, tells a story of family, murder and madness in a feverish, time-shifting, maximalist style -- quite unlike the finely-honed narratives that are his calling card -- to ingeniously marry form and function. The last line of Thompson's piece is a gut punch.
Anything and everything that pisses him off, Drew Magary, Deadspin.
Best Ranter Alive. Furious intelligence, the most engaging voice in sports writing -- sorry, Bill Simmons -- and total lack of pretension make Magary a treat, and also the only writer in America who should be allowed to use ALL CAPS on a regular basis. His takedowns of Joe Paterno's dissembling final interview and the narrative-framing shell game that was BountyGate are personal favorites.
"A Trip To the Threshing Floor," Eli Saslow, ESPN the Magazine.
"Where Did it All Go Wrong?" Liz Merrill, ESPN.com.
Three things I've learned about writing and reporting: when you don't have the goods, you write the story; when you have some of the goods, you tell the story; when you have all of the goods, you share the story. Saslow's piece on Michael Irvin's cathartic Hall of Fame speech and Merrill's piece about the suicides of friends and former college teammates O.J. Murdock and Kenny McKinley were both exercises in sharing, epitomizing the deep-dive reporting that makes the best stories possible. (Related thought: while ESPN catches plenty of flack for junk-food programming like "First Take" -- what, do sports media critics expect Bill Moyers to weigh in on Tim Tebow? Or for ESPN to set some sort of example for competing daytime claptrap like "Today" and "The View?" -- the company also invests more time and money into first-rate sports journalism than any other entity. In fact, the cheap, throwaway lowbrow stuff arguably subsidizes the expensive, time-consuming prestige work, because there's a much bigger market for the former than the latter. Something to keep in mind the next time you want to throw your remote at the television).
"The Marine and the Orphan," Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated.
Restrained tone and elegant prose -- go ahead: try to find a jarring sentence or wasted word -- transform a story that could have been treacly into something quietly beautiful. Not sure why this piece didn't get more attention when it ran. It should have.
"Truth and Consequences," Steve Madden, Sports on Earth.
"A Failed Experiment," Michael Weinreb, Grantland.
"Suckers for Superheroes," Frank Rich, New York Magazine.
Why Joe Paterno? Why Lance Armstrong? Why build statues to living men? Blame the sports media-industrial complex, and the hero-hungry public whose insatiable appetite for inspiration and escape ensures that the dream factory never closes its doors. The first temptation of sportswriting to God up one's protagonists, with predictably disappointing results. Weinreb explores how the cult of Paterno warped an entire campus; Rich draws parallels between David Petraeus, Armstrong and Paterno to describe how myth-making affects politics, national security and the culture at large; Madden sheds light on how hero-worship -- and the dollars to be made off it -- infects and co-opts the same media that is supposed to know better.
"Tackling Costas' Tirade," Will Leitch, Sports on Earth.
The second temptation of sports writing? Godding up yourself. In some ways, sports writers are like theater critics mixed with wanna-be Norman Mailers, deeply insecure and unshakably arrogant at the same time, always needing the last word. Always needing to be right. Thank goodness for Leitch, whose reflexive empathy and willingness to seriously entertain the notion that hey, I might be wrong here made his open-ended piece on the fallout from Bob Costas' televised halftime remarks on gun control and the murder of Kasandra Perkins by suicidal Jovan Belcher far more thought-provoking than the typical Athlete X is a spoiled, entitled person and Coach Y should be fired because losing is unacceptable sports column.
"Out of Bounds," Leander Schaerlaeckens, SB Nation.
"The Two Rogers," Alex Belth, SB Nation.
I recently spent two years as a contributing writer. Which is a nice way of saying fulltime freelancer. Which, in turn, is a nice way of saying un-and-underemployed. As such, I've spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the future of sports journalism, wondering if there's really much of a paying market for nonessential stories. Gary Smith is wonderful; a decade from now, is any sports media outlet going to be able to afford to have the next Gary Smith write six wonderful pieces a year? I have no idea. What I do know is that SB Nation launched a long form section this year, and recruited Best American Sports Writing series editor Glenn Stout to run it, and is actually paying writers to produce the kinds of stories I most like writing and reading. Which gives me hope. Stout already has shepherded a number of fine pieces; Belth and Schaerlaeckens authored the two I liked best.
"Arrowhead Anxiety," Kent Babb, The Kansas City Star.
You know how you can tell Babb's chronicle of Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli's seemingly Nixon-esque level of workplace paranoia is a compelling story? Because the piece was obviously was scrubbed and flattened-out by skittish company lawyers ... and still was an eye-opening, no-freaking-way read. (Along those lines, if there's a single story from 2012 that is all but begging for a liner notes/deleted scenes/director's cut re-release, this is it).
"Will You Still Medal in the Morning?" Sam Alipour, ESPN the Magazine.
"Call of Booty," David Fleming, ESPN the Magazine.
Sex in the Olympic village. The overwhelming importance of the Gluteus Maximus in all things athletic. I have no clue why nobody bothered to tackle these topics earlier; some stories are obvious only in hindsight. Funny, informative and altogether charming.
"Whitney Houston, an Anthem," Jeff MacGregor, ESPN.com.
Leave it to MacGregor to pen the most astute piece on Houston's death and cultural significance, and to do so for a sports website. What a world.