Longreads Best of 2015: Sports Writing

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

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Mina Kimes
Senior Writer at ESPN the Magazine and espn.com.

This is Why NFL Star Greg Hardy was Arrested for Assaulting his Girlfriend (Diana Moskovitz, Deadspin)

Last year, the NFL was rocked by several incidents of domestic violence, starting in September with the release of a video of Ray Rice’s assault of his then-fiancee and peaking in February, when charges against star defensive end Greg Hardy were dismissed after his accuser disappeared. By November, most football fans had moved on. Diana Moskovitz did not. She continued to tirelessly report on the issue, and in November, Deadspin published a devastating scoop: pictures that showed exactly what happened between Hardy and his ex-girlfriend, Nicole Holder, that night in Charlotte. Moskovitz’s piece, which laid out the facts of the case in meticulous detail, forced many to confront what had happened. It also pushed readers to ask why it took photographic evidence to make the world care.

Broke (Spencer Hall, EDSBS)

A common criticism of longform writing, especially on the internet, is that it’s too self-centered; too many features rely on the first person, and too many writers insert themselves into their pieces. This is often true. But sometimes, as with the case of this stunning Spencer Hall essay, it’s an incredibly effective technique.

By juxtaposing the story of his own family’s financial struggles with the larger story of the systematic impoverishment of college athletes, Hall compels readers to look at the issue in a new way: through the lens of personal pain. He shows us that the controversy over whether college athletes should be paid for their services isn’t an intellectual or economic debate, but an ethical one. By denying athletes the right to earn a living, the NCAA forces them to live with the looming threat of financial insecurity—an ache that Hall himself knows all too well.


Glenn Stout
Series Editor of the Best American Sports Writing, and Longform Editor for SB Nation.

The Education of Alex Rodriguez (J.R. Moehringer, ESPN Magazine)

What I find most impressive about J.R. Moehringer’s profile about Alex Rodriguez is that despite the tremendous advantage he had having access to his subject over a period of months and the luxury to spend so much time with him (more than 100 hours), he still bothered to write this story in an innovative way.  Rodriguez is not quoted in the story at all, an approach that both reveals a deep understanding of Rodriguez as a character—no matter what he has ever said about himself, it never seems to come out as intended or remotely spontaneous—but it also shows that Moehringer, as a writer, is still willing to experiment and take risks. We’re all familiar with the write-around, where a writer doesn’t have access and is forced to present a silent character. In this story, Moehringer turns that device on its head, and the result, A-Rod without A-Rod’s constant commentary on all things A-Rod, makes Rodriguez somehow even more accessible, and, shockingly, even sympathetic.

The King Of Tides (Kim Cross, Southwest: The Magazine)

One of my favorite sports stories this year was really hard to find—it’s from an airline magazine, and although it is available online, it is so in sort of a PDF format, which isn’t much in vogue. So unless you flew Southwest, you might have missed this.

It’s a small, quiet story about fishing, a memoir about Cross’s father, and in that, is thoroughly unremarkable. In fact, I often counsel young writers NOT to write memoirs, and if they do, not to write them about their parents or grandparents, because the results are often either too trite and cloying or claustrophobically and uncomfortably private. Yet this lovely story avoids those pitfalls, and became one I’ve shared among other writers as much as any other this year, and has informed my work on similar stories. It taught me something about memoir—I think Cross’s relentless use of unique and absolutely specific detail allows the story to come off as thoroughly authentic. Moreover, that specificity in almost every sentence (go ahead and check) leads the reader, I think, to find similar moments of explicit authenticity in his or her own private stories. In the end, we don’t so much identify with Cross’s story as much as we use it as a conduit to identify with and notice our own. How else to explain how I found my own father, who never fished and certainly never took me fishing, in her story, about her father, who did?


Don Van Natta Jr.
Senior Writer at ESPN.

The Unhappy King of Snooker (Sam Knight, The New Yorker)

At 39, Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan is the world’s best snooker player. Just don’t ask him how or why he got to the top. He’s as mystified as anyone as to why he can make the white ball dance and why, for three long years, he could not. Mastery of anything is often hard to decipher and harder to explain. The Rocket is also baffled by what the game has done for him—and to him. He seems happier when he’s not playing but can’t enjoy it because then he starts worrying he’s not playing enough.

Sam Knight not only makes you care about O’Sullivan’s aggravations and annoyances, but he makes you understand them, practically feel them. Featuring hilarious quotes (“I have told my son he ain’t fucking playing snooker, because I love him too much”), gritty details and a triple-banked final paragraph, this is my favorite sports profile of 2015.

A Force Unleashed (Tim Layden, Sports Illustrated, Appearing online in 2015)

Thirty years ago, Mike Tyson launched his boxing career in Catskill, NY. Tim Layden, then a young, hungry reporter for The Schnectady Gazette and The Albany Times Union, was by Tyson’s side, carefully chronicling Iron Mike’s first professional bouts. Without acknowledging it, Tyson and Layden shared a hunger to get out of upstate New York. Tyson goes “from Knockout Curiosity to heavyweight champion to the precipice of Full-Blown Freak Show,: while Layden reaches his profession’s pinnacle at Sports Illustrated, where he’s worked with distinction for 21 years.

Old-school journalists will nod at the lyrically told moments: trying to get a reluctant source to chat (Tyson’s no-comment was delivered via a playful punch to Layden’s gut); winning a seat among the inner-circle of wise, grizzled scribes (Layden secretly dumped his beer into a toilet to keep up appearances); being the fresh-faced hotshot who “gets all the reps.” I’ve long admired Layden’s work about every conceivable sporting subject, but never before has he written something so personal and so powerful.


Erik Malinowski
Freelance writer based near San Francisco.

The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived On (Wright Thompson, ESPN)

The life of Ted Williams has long been a reliable source for some of the most lyrical and beloved sports writing ever put to paper. But in this narrative—which took years to coalesce—Thompson’s focus is not trained on the Splendid Splinter but rather Claudia Williams, Ted’s last surviving child and the one burdened with protecting his legacy. The result is a heart-breaking examination of family, of remembrance, of death and the kind of deep love that binds us together, especially in the most turbulent of times. Thompson’s 2015 was, for him, a typically superb year that resulted in some of the most ambitious sports writing anyone dared attempt. I’d argue this was his most relatable and affecting piece.

Life’s Rich Pageant: Meet a Florida Man (Holly Anderson, Grantland)

For me, the biggest (and saddest) story in sports media was the abrupt folding of Grantland, which was a near-daily source for some of the most tenaciously reported and elegantly written prose in sports writing. But Grantland was at its most captivating when it pushed its own fuzzy boundaries and made you wonder how exactly something got published (even as you were thankful that it was). Anderson’s harrowing and hilarious tale of a Florida man embarking on a bowfishing trip gone horribly, painfully awry encapsulates this ethos in every anecdote and cringe-worthy turn of events, even as it doubles as a riveting piece of culture writing that enlightens rather than patronizes. Would anyone else have published this piece? Maybe, but maybe not. Point is, Grantland did, and the site shall live on in our hearts, for this piece and so many of its daring brethren.


Longreads Editor’s Pick: Matthew Giles
@hudsongiles

Chip Kelly, Football’s Most Intriguing Figure, Is Also Its Most Unknown (Kent Babb, The Washington Post)

Many a profile has been written about Chip Kelly, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, and each has an anecdote of how the sui generis coach goes to great lengths to maintain his privacy off the field. Yet Babb, one of the best profile writers working at the moment, manages to not only track down and interview Kelly’s ex-wife (a first, since those same profiles all reported he was a lifelong bachelor), he fleshes out in great detail a portrait of an individual who had a life before becoming Kelly of daily urine tests and heart rate monitors. In Babb’s telling, Kelly’s idiosyncrasies don’t define him.

Crunching the Numbers: College Basketball Players Can’t Wear 6, 7, 8, or 9 (Zach Schonbrun, The New York Times)

College basketball is one of my many passions, but I never for a moment considered the origins of uniform numbers in the college game. Schonbrun’s takes a great question—”Why do college uniforms only include the numbers 0 through 5?”—and goes beyond the answer (referees can signal a player for a foul just once), reporting when the practice started and whether it needs to be changed as more and more universities are added to the Division I ranks.

 

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.