When sports scholars open the sports pages (or websites), which journalists do they read first? In part one of this week’s panel discussion, we asked a few of our writers to recommend the sportswriters they most appreciate for unlocking the workings of the game – the strategy, the action, the atmosphere of the stadium. For part two, the same writers tell us which journalists they rely on for insights into the broader meaning of sports.
On the sports journalism issue, it is worth saying at the start that the profession has been changed fundamentally, especially since 2008, with digital media increasingly replacing newspapers. The Telegraph, for instance, made another 55 editorial staff redundant in October 2013, bringing the total across the paper to 400 redundancies since 2008. Sports journalism has been a part of this. Now, ex-players and celebrities with Twitter accounts have become a cheaper way of promoting a particular publication.
Still, there is very good writing out there. On the broader cultural impact of sport, my favourite journalist is Marina Hyde of the Guardian. She is extremely funny on Sepp Blatter and his attempt to be a head of state through FIFA. Hyde is generally unimpressed by all the egos in football – and the celebrity world in general. Her weekly columns range from Westminster scandals to the supposed feminism of Beyoncé.
–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.
I read sports journalism on a couple of different levels. First, I read my friends: upstanding individuals like Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Alan Abrahamson, and Jeff Pearlman. I read them because I like them as people, so I find their insights interesting. Then, of course, I read all Boston writers on the Red Sox. It’s a family requirement. More recently, I have found Twitter to be my go-to source for, well, snippets – from people like Bruce Arthur, Nancy Armour, Bonnie Ford, Michael Beattie, Steve Wilson, and Richard Deitsch. Finally, there are the journalistic voices that I elevate to the level of the primary sources of sports history: writers such as Red Smith and Larry Merchant.
But few contemporary sportswriters have the kind of reach that John Branch does when it comes to providing insight into how to make more of sports, how to make meaning, how to transcend the game itself. His Pulitzer Prize-winning piece on the skiers who died in the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche in the Cascade Mountains was a well-deserved cap on an amazing array of stories over the past decade or so, stories that seem to take sport from the fringes and drag it mainstream. And to think he still has most of his career ahead of him.
–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.
Nathaniel Friedman (a/k/a Bethlehem Shoals), co-founder and main creative force behind the pioneering blog FreeDarko, quite simply invented a new way to write about the cultural impact and significance of basketball. In doing so, he influenced a younger generation of sports journalists (some bloggers, but also others now working in more mainstream media venues) who have helped fans to think more deeply about sport as a cultural phenomenon. Shoals’ work – not only on the blog but also in his co-authored books FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac and FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (which I use as a textbook in my Cultures of Basketball course) – weaves together the affective investment at the heart of our engagement with sports, a command of the broader popular cultural and political fields mediating sports, a light-hearted and light-handed deployment of philosophy and theory, and a focused pursuit of the successful, the awe-inspiring and, especially, the moving. In this respect, especially when the moving is obscured by an obsession with the successful, Shoals’ writing continues to teach me how to read basketball – as philosopher Walter Benjamin put it – “against the grain.” In the process, he excavates the sport’s unpromising places so as to offer present and posterity a brilliantly rich record of the game.
–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.
Simon Barnes is a sports journalist who always sees the wider context of sport and life. He has an extraordinarily broad range of interests, including birdwatching, natural history, politics, and just about every sport you can think of. He has great insights into the nature of sport, but sees it fitting into a wider narrative of life and eternity. For him, sport is not just a pastime, but tells us some vital things about ourselves and our place within the world.
–Graham Tomlin is dean of St Mellitus College in London.
For years the most lively sports writer in Britain has been Simon Barnes. He’s an enthusiast rather than an ex-pro – as I can testify, having played against him in amateur cricket games – and his strength is to remind us where sport stands in the wider scheme of things. He is great at puncturing the pomposity of over-earnest sports bores, without ever forgetting that sport really does matter in its own way. One of his pet aversions is golf. He once likened Jack Nicklaus to a “walking father’s day card.” He was Chief Sports Writer for the Times for many years, with a license to write about whatever he liked. For some unknown reason the Times has just sacked him. He now writes for ESPN’s British site.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London.
Though a lot of his work focuses on the actual day-to-day of the game, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate Grant Wahl‘s writing on soccer and its impact on society for Sports Illustrated. Recently I’ve been impressed with his work on issues of gender equity and corruption in the sport. At the same time, Keir Radnedge is also a great read for looking not so much at the broader impact of soccer, but at the inner workings and shady dealings of FIFA and soccer institutions more broadly. Of course, Jeré Longman and Sam Borden of the New York Times do great work as well – both with game reporting and looking at broader issues (Longman’s piece on violence in Brazilian soccer stands out, as does his more recent article on prison-produced soccer balls). Thinking more in terms of platforms rather than specific writers. In Bed With Maradona consistently covers the wider implications of the sport, as does Howler magazine (with less consistency).
–Joshua Nadel is author of Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America. He teaches history at North Carolina Central University.
My absolute favourite is Thomas Kistner of the German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung. Kistner writes very critically about the politics of sports, especially about the workings of FIFA and the IOC. He is also author of the recent book FIFA-Mafia (only available in German). The title gives away Kistner’s take on the organizations. His pen is somewhat exaggeratedly sharp – not everything he labels a scandal is one. But Blatter and Bach are certainly able to take it.
–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.
I don’t always agree with Dave Zirin, who is sports editor for The Nation, but I frequently do. At a time when many fans and journalists decry the “intrusion” of politics into sport, Zirin is unafraid to highlight and critique the many ways in which sport is – and always has been – a political social institution. Recently, he has been a strong voice on pressing issues in sports, such as violence against women by male athletes, the controversy over the Washington NFL team’s nickname, and the many ways in which the Brazilian poor were negatively impacted by hosting the 2014 FIFA Word Cup.
–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.
My favorite sportswriter working today is Brian Phillips at Grantland. He hooked me with a four-part series in 2012 called “The Death’s-head of Wimbledon,” a first-person narrative about the experience of reporting on the tennis championship – he wrote like a sober, nerdy Hunter S. Thompson. Since then, he has consistently made me think, “I wish I wrote that,” because he is both funny and smart. While most sportswriters are consumed by the ever-churning news cycle (and many academics can come across as axe-grinding scolds), he steps back, asks what it all means, and has fun with it. Whether he is writing about soccer, a sport that I love, or tennis, about which I don’t care at all, he treats his subjects as mythic yet complex figures, representative of some grand notion. He makes sports seem both amusing and important. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
–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.