Sportswriting is a terrible chore. There are only so many sports which offer only so many stories. The obvious stories, which can be taken from a box score, are barely worth writing. Who won, who lost, who scored, who helped, who played, and who didn't play. There are shots, completions, drops, saves, possessions, fouls, penalties, ejections, and fights. An article can be written about a come back or blown opportunity. Another can be written about a game changing injury or stroke of luck. These fill most of the space in a sports section or website. In the truest sense that is all there is to sports. They are games of numbers, and nothing more.
The rest of the space is occasionally occupied by a personal interest story or an essay about league finances, which are mostly boring. The personal interest stories are sometimes good because they go beyond the field, court, or rink and bring fans closer to a game to which they are already wed. The task of the writer is to make the article as interesting as the game, which isn't easy. Instead these articles are mostly candy for the fans because they in the end make professional sports possible. We like the games. We love the distractions. We live to escape. We want to know the athletes outside the lines because we've invested so much of our time and money watching them do things within them. Ultimately, sports reflect society. We like royalty and things that shine.
The best articles are those that elevate the mundane to that of legend. Maybe its a story about an underdog, or a fallen hero. Perhaps it is about a scandal that goes unnoticed. Rare is the sportswriter who can take an ordinary game and bring the reader into it with the kind of wisdom and tact that inspires greatness.
Sports Illustrated to me always meant a visit to the dentist's office. Being coerced into the Volkswagen by my Mom to take a ride to a wood paneled, globe light ensconced dungeon where "A Horse With No Name" by America was drilled into my psyche as Dr. Bennett scraped at my molars. The only respite came in being able to read Frank Deford's articles in the waiting room while my brother and sister were forced to bite down on fluoride gelled mouthpieces, which would inevitably cause one of us to vomit in the back of the car on the ride home. I always associated those mouthpieces with football. If I was tough and didn't swallow the fluoride I'd be rewarded with not having to have those medieval torture devices stuck in my head. When the time to keep them in was up I would eject the horrible things from my mouth and jog back to the waiting room to relive what Refrigerator Perry or "Chrissy" Evert or John Elway did six months ago. The thing that made Sports Illustrated so good was that the writers took the box scores and the personal interest stories and crafted them into larger tales of competition and sacrifice. Life was life, and sports were but a part of it, yet they were the part which offered inspiration. Some years after Dr. Bennett's office, the internet came, and somehow sports became life, and lamentably things stopped making sense.
I first discovered ESPN.com while attending college at the University of Colorado. My freshman year featured Rashaan Salaam's 2000 yard season which was trumped by Bill McCartney shockingly calling it quits. The Broncos evolved from a laughingstock to juggernaut as they were pushed by an Avalanche team that came ready made and improved as the decade waned. Even the Rockies and Nuggets made a dent, albeit a small one, but it supplemented the sense of dominance. People had to recognize "backwater" Colorado. They had to pay attention. The internet forced them. The day that I sat down in the computer lab in the College of Environmental Design, I'd heard that ESPN had a website, so I brought it up in all of its 56k glory, and from that point on everything changed. Everybody seemed to know everything. Suddenly the magazines in the waiting room were no longer relevant. They became antiquated books of dreams left to rot in piles, thumbed through by kids with short attention spans who couldn't be bothered with reading.
For some reason around that time I stopped enjoying stories about sports. I'm not sure when it happened but I know it was fueled by the impatience brought about by the internet. I had to know what was going on all the time, immediately, and the internet provided that fix. I wasn't alone in this need, and as a result information was stretched out and became repetitive. Like a thin sheet of butter spread across too many pieces of toast. I became far too informed on trivial subjects, and suddenly I was that kid in the waiting room who couldn't be bothered to read. Journalists stopped writing deep, researched articles in major publications, because everything had to be quick or it wouldn't be published. Worse, many journalists seemed to stop trying entirely, instead resorting to interviewing other journalists and pundits. In the race for content, the meaning of content changed. Content became filler, and the filler had no substance. The line between reality and fabrication blurred and often ceased to exist. One had to search hard for the truth while knowing even then what they would find wouldn't necessarily be accurate. Later came social networking and we as people morphed into advertisements, while the internet as a whole became a place of lists, pornography, and people yelling. Content was sacrificed for a need to know and deliver knowledge.
As has been my routine nearly every day since the dawn of ESPN.com I brought up the page this week out of habit, forgetting that I had yet to watch the most recent Stanley Cup Final game between the Bruins and Canucks. Lamentably I found out about the score, and disgruntled I noticed that Bill Simmons was presenting something called Grantland. I rolled my eyes. I'm not a fan of The Sports Guy. I can't really relate to him. His articles, when he's not writing about Boston sports or the NBA, are mainly focused on popular culture and reality television.
There is no real substance to much of what Simmons does, and half of it isn't sports. Furthermore, he fell out of love with the NHL some time around the lockout and decided to stop paying attention and campaign against the sport. While I can sympathise with falling out of love with a team- the Broncos of late have angered me to the point where I don't really want to watch them play- I would never completely give up. So when I saw Grantland, and newly minted Boston Bruins fan Bill Simmons, I couldn't possibly take it seriously. What was he going to feature? Round the clock coverage of Snooki and Tom Brady? Long winded essays on how he really, actually, totally, still loves hockey? Please! Unfortunately, the site delivered plenty of both, but I managed to stick around and read an article by Chuck Klosterman entitled "Three Man Weave" about a small town basketball team which defeated a better team with only three players. Klosterman's article is well written and researched. He's been writing for a long time so excellence is to be expected. It wasn't necessarily Frank Deford in a dentists office good, but it captured my imagination.
I remember a television show a while back, perhaps it was Murphy Brown, wherein the plot revolved around the team doing cheap reporting on several shallow subjects in order to draw in viewers so that they could then be hit with one or two in depth, meaningful reports on important issues. The idea isn't new. A marquis on an art house sparkles for a reason. In this way, perhaps Bill Simmons is on to something. Perhaps at some point he recognized the importance of bringing true content back into sportswriting. Maybe he saw what I saw. Tons of information but no stories of legends and their battles. Simmons admits that he isn't the greatest writer, so any jabs he takes at himself are relevant. But his ability to see and address a need is pertinent. Grantland offers what many have termed a "dream team" including the aforementioned Klosterman as well as the likes of Malcom Gladwell and Dave Eggers. The group seems to be serious about bringing the substance back into sports. That it comes from an unlikely source is ironic, but considering what much of the internet has offered up until now, it is acceptable.
Somewhere out there there is a kid sitting in a waiting room with an iPad wanting somebody to tell him a decent story. One can only hope that this movement catches on.