Which sports journalists do sports scholars turn to first? We asked a few of our writers to recommend the sportswriters they most appreciate for perceptive insights into the workings of their favorite games.
Because I wrote about Bill Russell and the rise of the NBA in the 1960s, I have a deep appreciation for Frank Deford, who was just twenty-four years old when Sports Illustrated put him on the pro basketball beat in 1963. There were plenty of other smart writers who covered basketball – Leonard Koppett of the New York Times, Arnold Hano at Sport, Pete Axthelm at Newsweek, and so on – but Deford was better than anyone at capturing the NBA’s feel in those years. He painted pictures in his articles, making you feel like you were on the bench, in the locker room, or chatting with the coach at the hotel bar. Gifted with an expense account and a confident charm, Deford got to know the players as real people, and he wrote about them that way. The NBA was a contradiction then, surging into high-profit, high-visibility status as the third major team sport in the U.S., yet still small-time and sweaty. Deford captured the whole scene.
–Aram Goudsouzian is author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. He is chair of the History Department at the University of Memphis.
My favourite current journalist for insights into a particular sport is Hugh McIlvanney on boxing. McIlvanney writes routinely on football, horse racing and other sports, though I find him not to be as good on these sports as on boxing. He also has a general attitude to women in sport shared by most British writers. This said, at his best, McIlvanney can approach the great writers on boxing, people like Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, and Pierce Egan. He is the only sports journalist to have been named Britain’s Journalist of the Year.
–Jean Williams is author of A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport. She is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
Elliotte Friedman is one of the best hockey reporters out there. He worked for many years on the iconic Hockey Night in Canada broadcast on the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster. As of this season he works for Rogers Sportsnet, which hired him away from his old employer when the company bought the exclusive rights to NHL broadcasts in Canada. Friedman is frequently a voice of reason on a broadcast panel dominated by loud, conservative journalists. He is living proof that one can provide informed and insightful analysis without being part of the Old Boys’ Club culture that dominates much of hockey’s TV punditry.
–Mark Norman is editor of the website Hockey in Society. He is PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, specializing in sociocultural studies of sport.
This has to be a tie between Jonathan Wilson, whose book Inverting the Pyramid has taught me the historical development of football tactics in a very entertaining fashion, and Michael Cox, whose tactical analyses of important matches on Zonal Marking and The Guardian are a pleasure to read. I recommend their work for anyone interested in the inner workings of football.
–Kay Schiller is co-editor of the volume The FIFA World Cup 1930-2010: Politics, Commerce, Spectacle and Identities. He teaches history at Durham University.
Nowadays I look to Michael Atherton in The Times to help me understand what’s going on in cricket. As someone who played over a hundred tests for England, half as captain, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. But he’s also a thoughtful, not to say philosophical, commentator who generally brings interesting theories to bear on the day’s cricket minutiae. We used to have an England cricket captain, Michael Brearley, who really was a philosopher – he gave up his university job to play professionally – and his occasional newspaper pieces on cricket also add something to the normal sports section fodder. But I’d say Atherton is no less insightful than Brearley.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London.
I’m not sure that he counts, since he does a podcast/radio show (in Spanish no less) that focuses on Honduran soccer and Honduran players, but José Armando’s reporting on MLS and European games that include Catrachos is great. He is particularly good at breaking down game tactics. On a more accessible front, FourFourTwo’s writers provide excellent analysis of games and individual players. For just one example of this, see Lee Roden’s recent article on Neymar’s improved play under Luis Enrique and where Luis Suárez will fit when his suspension is over. I also think the wonky tactical stuff that Michael Cox did for Zonal Marking did was phenomenal.
–Joshua Nadel is author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America. He teaches history at North Carolina Central University.
I always look for Jim White‘s articles on football in the Daily Telegraph. I got to know Jim a little when we lived in Oxford – he is a fellow Manchester United fan, but by no means myopic or lacking in perspective. He writes with a perceptiveness and gentle humour that always sheds light on aspects of the strange world of football. His book You’ll Win Nothing With Kids was hilarious, as it chronicled the ups and downs of managing a junior football team, alongside meeting greats such as Mourinho and Ferguson in his day job. He is not strident, populist or angry, just measured, thoughtful and always interesting.
–Graham Tomlin is dean of St Mellitus College in London.
In his columns, coverage of the Knicks for New York newspapers, and especially his book The Essence of the Game is Deception, the late sportswriter Leonard Koppett (1923-2003) established a benchmark for understanding how basketball works. Koppett was a keen observer and a superb writer, but my appreciation for him goes beyond this. He interpreted the fluid swirl of action on the court in relation to fundamental tactical values and technical elements, which he derived from a reverse engineering of the basic principles baked into the game by its inventor, James Naismith. Koppett layered into his analyses of basketball action the insight that the “essence of the game is deception,” a nuanced appreciation for the ways in which the building blocks of the sport – shooting, ball handling, passing, defense, and rebounding – allow players to deceive opponents so as to “get free,” as he put it. Though a number of contemporary journalists, sometimes aided by advanced statistical analytics, offer comparable insights into today’s game, Koppett’s work is unsurpassed and remains a touchstone for me whenever I watch, think about, teach or write about the sport.
–Yago Colás is author of the forthcoming Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Culture of Basketball. He teaches comparative literature and sports culture at the University of Michigan.
Brian Phillips is, for me, the most exciting to read because of his unparalleled ability to turn a phrase while simultaneously teaching you more about soccer and tennis – and really, whatever sport he is writing about at the moment. He is witty, biting, insightful, and just so literate. I started reading Phillips when he helmed The Run of Play, but I became obsessed — and told him so — when he published his Grantland piece on boxer Tom Molineaux. This past summer, it felt like he could write no wrong: his observations about watching the U.S. Men’s National Team in a bar on Copacabana Beach taught me more about the World Cup than any play-by-play account ever could, while his profile on Nick Kyrgios did the same for Grand Slam tennis. And have I mentioned his wit? While I enjoy the occasional Drew Magary rant (particularly when it is about Derek Jeter), Phillips has a sophisticated snap of humor like no one else sitting in front of a laptop. His imaginary email exchange between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic during the men’s final of the U.S. Open was likely the first time pierogi featured prominently in a sports story, while his Twitter feed is one for the ages (“And with one final, wistful smile, Jim Nantz was loaded in his crate and wheeled back to the Ark of the Covenant storeroom till next year”). Reading Brian Philips is, in a word, thrilling, because he is as much a writer as he is someone who has something smart to say about sports.
–Amy Bass is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete. She teaches history at The College of New Rochelle.