What’s wrong with Sports Illustrated?

JOSH LEVIN, of online magazine, offers this forensic critique of the world’s best known and most loved sports magazine, but which he says has become “as hip as a 55-year-old with his hat turned backward” as it struggles with many of the problems faced by the print medium in the 21st century

In August 1994, on the occasion of the magazine’s 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated ran a 22,000-word story called “How We Got Here.” Steve Rushin’s sprawling, multi-part essay on integration, the rise of television, and the encroachment of corporate interests was the kind of story that the magazine had built its name on — playfully written long-form journalism that pinned down where sports had been and where they were going. Thirteen years later, you would never find such a piece in Sports Illustrated. What was once the sports world’s agenda setter has become passive and uncritical. Since the magazine’s editors no longer seem to care about such things, it’s time for a loyal reader to ask: How’d we get here?

Before ESPN the Magazine launched almost 10 years ago, SI had never faced a sustained challenge from the print world. Rather than having faith in its product—curious, well-written literary journalism and vigorous reportage—Sports Illustrated has taken to imitating its younger rival. The result: a magazine that’s as hip as a 55-year-old with his hat turned backward.

An avid sports fan can now read Sports Illustrated without learning anything new. In 1997’s The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge’s history of SI, Bill Colson (the top editor from 1996 to 2002) admits that the magazine’s increasing focus on the major sports helped “contribut[e] to the narrowing of interest of the American sports fan”.

Sports Illustrated had always, for better or worse, featured stories on chess, bullfighting, darts, and sailing. Even if you didn’t read all those stories on chess and sailing, SI‘s implicit message still got through—that sports isn’t just the stuff you see on TV, that a great story is a great story no matter whether it’s about playing quarterback or handling snakes.

VOTE NOW! Online voting for the SJA Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year is now open – click here for details

The magazine no longer has this sort of peripheral vision. Coverage of soccer, hockey and track is restricted to short, perfunctory superstar profiles. The magazine’s last 16 covers have featured baseball, football, football, baseball, football, football, football, football, football, football, baseball, baseball, baseball, football, basketball, and baseball. Last year, rather than choosing the best athlete alive, Roger Federer, as the mag’s Sportsman of the Year, SI Editor Terry McDonell anointed highly marketable domestic basketball demistar Dwyane Wade. The implicit message: Sports is everything you already know about and nothing that gets low ratings.

All of SI‘s recent “bonus pieces”—the lengthy, literary takeouts that run in the back half of the magazine—have focused on tragic circumstances: Jack McCallum on the death of young athletes in Vietnam and Iraq, SL Price on Mike Coolbaugh (the first-base coach who was struck and killed by a batted ball in July), Alexander Wolff on sports in New Orleans two years after Katrina, Gary Smith on the deprivations suffered by Miami coach Randy Shannon and Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain on the road to athletic success.

Many of these pieces, particularly Price’s essay, are skillfully crafted and emotionally powerful. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that, for SI, these weighty stories are a kind of penance, the magazine’s telegraphing that, despite the buffoonery that lards the rest of its pages, it still has a serious mission.

But sports stories need not be sad or redemptive to be works of art. It’s possible to write a long, well-written essay that doesn’t take itself too seriously—just take a look at an old Dan Jenkins spitball, Frank Deford’s probing psychological pieces, or Rick Reilly’s jokey features. Or, better yet, read Michael Lewis’ story on NFL place-kickers. It’s the consummate SI bonus piece, written with an inquisitive eye and packed with detail, except it was published in the new issue of the New York Times sports magazine, Play.

Sports Illustrated has plenty of competitors besides ESPN and the New York Times. The increase in sports television coverage, and partly the popularity of SI itself, created a huge demand for comprehensive, sophisticated sports journalism.

Traditional beat reporters, web writers, enterprising bloggers, brainy statisticians, and YouTube videographers are now producing plenty of smart, funny, indiscreet, insidery material every day. Sports Illustrated used to distinguish itself by writing better, and securing better access to its subjects, than anyone who wrote faster. Now, with a few exceptions—Ian Thomsen’s recent story on the Celtics’ maneuverings to corral Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Tom Verducci on how the Red Sox saved Jonathan Papelbon’s shoulder—the magazine’s reported pieces don’t offer original details. They just come out three days later than everybody else’s.

To continue reading this fascinating deconstruction of a sports journalism icon, click here

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form