Longreads Best of 2017: Sports Writing

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

***

Mary Pilon
Contributor to The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vice. Previously on staff at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Author of The Monopolists and The Kevin Show (March 2018)

Is This the NFL’s First Female Player? (Lars Anderson, B/R Mag)

I’m a sucker for high school sports stories, but Anderson’s examination of Becca Longo isn’t just a showcase of a plucky talent, it also challenges long-held assumptions about the league’s recruitment pipeline. Longo is the first woman to earn a football scholarship to a Division I or Division II school, and Anderson offers a fascinating window into the training and psyche required to become be an ace-level kicker. In lesser hands, the story could have been mawkish or puffy, but Anderson’s prose is sharp, layered, and will likely be reread when we see Longo in the Super Bowl one day.

Nick Kyrgios, the Reluctant Rising Star of Tennis (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)

Sports profiles are loaded with sepia-toned tropes about ambition: Most athletes are striving to be “the best,” “give it their all,” or “make the podium.” But in this profile of tennis prodigy Nick Kyrgios, Thomas shatters those conventions to explore the quirky and complicated relationship Kyrgios has with achievement. The piece is tied together with pearly quotes like, “I’d rather be doing that than working at Chipotle or something.”

Teen Girl Posed For 8 Years As Married Man To Write About Baseball And Harass Women (Lindsey Adler, Deadspin)

This Deadspin tale is nothing short of bonkers. (The site is owning the sports-catfishing beat.) Adler reports that at age 13, Becca Schultz assumed the false online identity of Ryan Schultz, a married father of two — and an aspiring White Sox blogger — who was studying to become a pharmacist. While masquerading as Ryan, Schultz trolled women online, inflicting real pain on some, and was cradled by the “exploitative ecosystem of online sportswriting, which created the conditions for her to get her enviable opportunities without much interrogation from editors…” Adler’s tale illustrates the changing dynamics of sports journalism and online fandom, as well as the increasingly strange and odd ways in which sports communities develop. One of the reasons Schultz held onto her fake online identity so long was simply because “it worked.”


Seerat Sohi
Freelance NBA writer for most sites on the internet.

Colin Kaepernick Has a Job (Rembert Browne, B/R Mag)

Introspective, observational, heartbreaking, and absolutely scathing in its conclusion about racism in America, the best sports feature this year featured zero access to its subject. In a year where every aspect of our culture felt connected in ways that were either hard to understand or felt like a stretch, Browne got to the bottom of it all.

Why President Trump Ignites Gregg Popovich (Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com)

Popovich, the NBA’s curmudgeonly genius, as tactician, teacher, policy wonk … and commander in chief? One of the most interesting profiles on the NBA’s most interesting coach features anecdotes and insights that really give you a lens into his personality.


Erik Malinowski
Features writer and editor; author of Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History. 

The Awakening of Colin Kaepernick (John Branch, The New York Times)

There were many thousands of words published this past year on the NFL quarterback’s swift transformation into social activism icon, but Branch’s thorough, probing exploration into Kaepernick’s formative years in Northern California represented, for my money, the most illuminating of the lot. By focusing his narrative eye largely on the time before Kaepernick’s silent protests propelled into the national spotlight, Branch’s story produces not just a deeper appreciation of the player’s fascinating backstory but a realization that this moment in history has, in many ways, been years in the making. Like Muhammad Ali, much of the visceral divisiveness surrounding Kaepernick will wane and we’ll look back at this time with a clearer perspective. When that time comes, this story should be required reading. (In truth, it already is.)


Don Van Natta, Jr.
Senior writer for ESPN Magazine, ESPN.com and the best-selling author of three books. Currently writing Powerball, about the NFL, with ESPN colleague Seth Wickersham.

Can Baseball Turn a 27-Year-Old Into the Perfect Manager? (Chris Jones, The New York Times Magazine)

An irresistible profile of a prodigal baseball manager named Justin Jirschele of the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators. This isn’t just a story about the White Sox organization’s trust in a 27-year-old manager with “great baseball blood.” It’s about a son attempting to live up to his father’s expectations, a manager balancing his players’ hopes with his own, and about finding fresh ways to recover from baseball’s daily heartbreaks. Like everything Chris Jones writes, it’s a perfect gemstone of a story.

‘You Can’t Give In’: Monty Williams on Life After Tragedy (Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated)

Former NBA Coach Monty Williams, now the head of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs, tries to cope with the loss of his wife, Ingrid, who died in a head-on car crash in February 2016 in Oklahoma City. Ballard has given us an unforgettable piece about the power of forgiveness and love.

In Jerry Jones v. Roger Goodell, NFL Owners Should Choose Sides Wisely (Sally Jenkins, Washington Post)

Sally Jenkins is America’s best sports columnist. Her analysis of the modern-day NFL is whip-smart, unsparing, and often prescient. This piece, about the civil war between Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell, perfectly captures what the feud means for the embattled commissioner and his embattled league.

The Fairy Tale and the Nightmare (S.L. Price, Sports Illustrated)

Brazilian soccer player Helio Nampier Neto’s had a premonition of a plane crash followed by his own inexplicable survival. Then a plane ferrying the player and his teammates to a storybook final match goes completely silent 11 miles from the runway before crashing. Seventy-one people on board die, including nearly all the members of the Chapecoense team. Neto is one of only six survivors.


Diana Moskovitz
Senior editor, Deadspin

A Team of Their Own (Jessica Luther, B/R Mag)

Luther’s feature on an all-girls baseball team is a great read — but the reaction to the story was just as important. To the surprise of nobody in sports media, it included flurries of tweets demanding the young women go back to softball, or hell, all the way back to the kitchen. Thankfully that nonsense isn’t stopping girls travel baseball, but it’s a reminder why stories like this need to be told.

Colin Kaepernick Is Called A Distraction, But From What? (Bomani Jones, The Undefeated)

After Jones’s piece was published in March, thousands of words would be parsed about Kaepernick’s protest, the reaction to the protest, the players who joined in, and Kaepernick’s sudden inability to find a job. Some pieces are long, some pieces are very long, but none cut to the heart of the matter like this piece did. Every sentence is a dagger in the insidious heart of the favorite wiggle word of NFL leadership — distraction — and why its use to avoid Kaepernick is a load of crap. “Stop hiding behind code,” Jones tells NFL owners. It’s advice that leaders in many walks of American life should heed right now.


Megan Greenwell
Editor and writer, previously the executive features editor for Esquire.com and a senior editor at ESPN Magazine.

The Search For Aaron Rodgers (Mina Kimes, ESPN Magazine)

Every living sportswriter wanted a good Aaron Rodgers story. I got pitches for at least three during my time at Esquire, always with a long list of caveats about the topics his reps considered out of bounds (the most interesting ones, of course). So when he finally agreed to a profile without restrictions, and insisted the interview be conducted in the writer’s home, it should have been a recipe for the type of bland mush that makes up so many athlete profiles. Except the writer was Mina Kimes, so the story was filled with so much insight that I had to read it twice to catch all the perfect, tiny details. After describing Rodgers examining her bookshelf and her berries, she turns the odd circumstances to her advantage in a single line: “As he studies his surroundings, it occurs to me that when I write about this, I’ll have to describe my things instead of his things, and I realize that’s probably why we’re here.” She deftly avoids every cliche about one of the most cliche-saddled dudes in sports, making us understand far more than just what makes Aaron Rodgers tick.


Matt Giles
Contributor and head fact checker, Longreads

A Fifteen-Year Old (Sorta-Maybe) Basketball Prodigy (Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated)

‘He Needs to Be a Kid’ (Jesse Dougherty, Washington Post)

These two features tackled the rapid expansion and changing nature of recruiting in amateur athletics. Ballard tracks Nico Mannion, a high school freshman whose dunks have rippled through social media, attracting countless followers and college coaches who believe the guard might be the missing piece for a Final Four run. Dougherty profiles an even younger prospect, Neiko Primus, the nation’s top-ranked nine-year-old, and examines whether that classification actually means anything to Primus and, more importantly, his mother. Ballard and Dougherty successfully cover recruiting on both the macro and micro levels, leaving the reader with a nuanced portrait of the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that hundreds of teenagers endure year after year.


Mike Dang
Editor-in-chief, Longreads

Pushing the Limit (Alexandra Starr, Harper’s Magazine)

Sexual misconduct scandals have recently ousted powerful men in Hollywood, media, and politics, but Starr’s story reminds us there has long been a legacy of sex abuse in youth athletics, where the “extreme power imbalance between coach and athlete” has created conditions where “secrets are kept” and “perpetrators are protected.” Institutions like the U.S. Olympic Committee say it’s impossible to investigate all claims of misconduct due to the number of private club teams and gyms that oversee youth sports. (A coach fired for misconduct at one gym can resurface at a new gym, re-starting the cycle of abuse.)

Starr documents allegations of assault and abuse that span decades. When asked about some of the scandals, head of the U.S.O.C. Scott Blackmun replies, “Honestly, it was not on my radar.” Pair with this quote from Marci Hamilton, head of Child U.S.A., an organization that works to prevent child abuse and neglect: “What always comes out, in the end, is that the institution knew more about abuse than just about anybody else.”