Longreads Best of 2014: Sports Writing

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in sports writing.

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Eva Holland
Freelance writer based in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Together We Make Football (Louisa Thomas, Grantland)

It’s been a bad year for football: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, the lingering Jameis Winston saga. And a bad year for football means a big year for think pieces about violence and football—I couldn’t tell you how many of those I read this year. But one of them stood out. In “Together We Make Football,” Louisa Thomas reflects on the uncomfortable relationship between the NFL, masculinity, violence, and women. She takes her time, building a case slowly and methodically, before driving home her point: that violence is inherent to, and integral to, the NFL. That although the vast majority of football players don’t beat their wives, there may be no way to separate the bad violence—the off-field violence—from the on-field violence that we love. Here’s Thomas:

Football is our culture’s great spectacle of violence, our version of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. You can see signs of football’s celebration of amped-up manhood in the pageantry of our own bread and circuses: the military jet flyovers, the Built Ford Tough commercials, the shiny uniforms, the amplified crunching sound of hard hits, the big-knotted ties, and the pregame show special effects that seem like something out of Transformers 12. You can see it in the silver gladiator mask that Terrell Suggs wore during the pregame introductions when the Ravens played the Steelers last Thursday. But those are only symptoms. Get rid of the truck commercials, get rid of the gun salutes, and you’d still have the violence on the field. Get rid of the gladiator mask, and you’d still have Suggs.”

Suggs, Thomas reminds us, has been accused on multiple occasions of assaulting his wife – with his fists, or, on one occasion, with bleach. He recently signed a $16 million contract and has never been suspended by the NFL.

Dropped (Jason Fagone, Grantland)

Here’s the Holy Grail of sports writing, as I see it: Find an athlete, or a team, or a game, whose story resonates beyond the narrow world of a given sport. Find a story that isn’t just enjoyable to read, and doesn’t just teach us something about that particular sport, but that teaches us something about the world and ourselves. It’s a tall order, and sports writing is full of over-reaches, stories whose writers stretched too far hoping to grasp that greater meaning. 

Not every sports story needs to reach that far (sometimes I just want to read about the game, you know?) but when they do so successfully, I don’t forget it. And Jason Fagone’s “Dropped” has stayed with me since March. It’s a subtle, complicated story about the greatest juggler in the world, and his decision to retire and open a concrete resurfacing company. Fagone warns readers right at the start about what they’re in for: It really is a nearly 7,000-word story about juggling. But it’s also about so much more, and it’s worth the time.

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Barry Petchesky
An editor at Deadspin.

Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant? (Wells Tower, GQ)

There’s no scoreboard, no clock, no winner, yet it’s impossible to argue that Wells Tower’s account of a single elephant hunt doesn’t play out with the drama and even the pathos of the best sports narratives, with the moral quicksand just a little closer to the surface. This piece could have gone wrong in so many ways, but by avoiding the traps so many manly-man writers spring on themselves—overwriting in a futile flail at getting at “what this all means,” or, conversely, underwriting in a sad Hemingway impersonation—Tower acts as a spiritually faithful stenographer to a moment he accepts he can’t possibly do justice.

For Jared Remy, Leniency Was the Rule Until One Lethal Night (Eric Moskowitz, Boston Globe)

Jared Remy, son of the Red Sox legend, murdered his girlfriend after a lifetime of second, third, and 14th chances. The Globe’s dive into Remy’s troubled past is infuriating because it never makes the outcome seem inevitable. Were this not a sports story, it might still be the most immaculately reported crime story of the year—but, with overtones of Penn State and FSU, there lurks the sense that Remy was free to do what he did only because of the deference of a sports-crazed city.

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Mary Pilon
Sports reporter at The New York Times.

The Ride of Their Lives (Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker)

It feels like a cop-out to choose something from the New Yorker, but Bilger completely teleports readers into the world of youth bull riding, a dangerous pastime that still draws child competitors—and critics. The contrast between the extremes of rodeos and coming of age today in rural America is completely absorbing and invokes classic questions about humans and their relationships with animals and high-risk athletic endeavors. The black and white photography by Jonno Rattman provides a stunning compliment to Bilger’s economical prose of broken bones and rugged dreams. 

How Self-Appointed Experts Rule the Autograph Industry (Jake Rossen, The Dallas Observer)

I’m a sucker for the off-field sports stories that point the lens to where readers wouldn’t even think to look. Anyone with an ounce of nostalgia for baseball cards, or even a dribble of the hoarder’s gene, would appreciate Rossen’s careful examination of the characters that make the seemingly humdrum third-party autograph authentication business into a fascinating underbelly. As Rossen says, the tale offers “a crash course in the new climate of memorabilia collecting, where letters of authenticity are more valued than the alleged pieces of history to which they’re tethered—even if that history was created yesterday.” You’ll never look at eBay the same again.  

And here’s my completely biased, in-house New York Times selection: 

Fixed Soccer Matches Cast Shadow Over World Cup (Declan Hill and Jere Longman, The New York Times)

Much digital and literal ink has been spilled around the World Cup this year and the continuing opera of FIFA’s corruption issues, but Hill and Longman masterfully weave the cinema of the off-field mayhem with raw investigative digging in this two-parter. Their reporting not only showed how vulnerable soccer was to match fixing ahead of the sport’s biggest competition, but how easy it was for officials involved to sully the field. 

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Flinder Boyd
Sports writer and retired international basketball player.

Rice Case: Purposeful Misdirection by Team, Scant Investigation by NFL (Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, ESPN)

Nothing captured the sports world’s attention this year quite like the Ray Rice case. Anyone who saw the gruesome video inside the elevator on TMZ was horrified. That lead to a burning desire for more information. What was the NFL’s role in the case? Who saw the tape and who didn’t? I was in England at the time the tape was released and even there I was asked similar questions over and over. The people, the world over, wanted answers.

Then Don Van Natta Jr., and Kevin Van Valkenburg released their devastating article, “Rice Case: purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL.” The piece is direct and succinct, and the reporting is so pitch-perfect that by the time you’ve reached the last line you’ll feel a range of emotions: anger, disdain, maybe even sympathy. In short, it’s world-class journalism at a time when we needed it most. 

Sea of Crises (Brian Phillips, Grantland)

It was a phenomenal year for sports journalism. If someone were picking a collection of pieces, there’s little doubt that Wright Thompson’s heroic work on the World Cup would win in a landslide. But for a single piece, there’s nothing I enjoyed quite like Brian Phillips’s beautifully subtle “Sea of Crises.”

On the surface it’s seems as if you’re reading a sumo wrestling story about the greatest wrestler of his time. But throughout, Phillips takes us on a series of fascinating detours that weave and glide in directions you never quite expect. It’s quirky and unlike anything I read this year. At times I felt like I was time-traveling alongside the author into uncharted places and events. There’s a big sumo wrestling tournament, there’s a coup, there’s a search, and then there’s the ending—the perfect ending. 

Honorable mention:

The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City (Kathy Dobie, GQ)

Kathy Dobie’s “The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City,” is an article about a youth baseball league in Camden, New Jersey. But of course, like any great sports story, that’s not really what it’s all about.

The story takes place in a city riddled with crime, but it doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, it focuses on everyday lives; it’s a slow burner, but soon enough the reader is able to connect deeply with the subjects and understand their hopes and fears, and they seem like our hopes and fears. As the piece winds its way down to the big finale, I found myself cheering alongside the parents and coaches for a group of pre-teen baseball players as they played their final game; I was overcome with emotion as it ended. Dobie seemed, somehow, to be telling us to open our eyes—victories happen every day.

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Longreads Editor’s Pick (Mark Armstrong)

Jerry Football (Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN)

A sensational profile of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones by ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. It’s not just the access he gets—Van Natta finally corners Jones at an Atlanta bar in order to get an interview, and Jones then invites him to drink with him for the next three and a half hours—it’s how deeply he’s able to dig into the relationships in Jones’s professional and personal life, and what keeps Jones from the elusive next Super Bowl trophy.