Longreads Best of 2018: 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.

Mirin Fader
Writer-at-large for Bleacher Report’s B/R Mag.

Most Dominating Athlete of 2018: Simone Biles (Danyel Smith, ESPN the Magazine)

Danyel Smith’s ESPN the Magazine cover story of Simone Biles was one of the most impactful pieces of sports writing I read this year. After I finished it, I felt like I knew Biles. Smith got Biles to open up, to even admit the fear she feels while competing on bars (what Olympic gold-medal winning athlete readily admits fear?), which is a kudos to Smith’s skills as a reporter. Although I don’t know Smith personally, I felt like I could hear her voice throughout the piece. She seamlessly interwove history and culture and context and sport to put together one of the most versatile sports profiles I’ve ever read. My favorite paragraph really sums up Smith’s brilliance as a journalist, and Biles’ genius as a gymnast: “But no matter how sparkly her leotard, she’s a killer as stone cold as David Ortiz or Robert Horry ever was. She creates each time she competes. Plus, Biles will run the score up on you with a red cheer bow on a ponytail pulled higher than J-Lo’s.”


Louisa Thomas
Contributor for The New Yorker.

Juan Martín del Potro Strikes Back (Chloe Cooper Jones, GQ)

Juan Martín del Potro is one of tennis’s most popular — and inspiring and tragic — figures. Del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009, beating Roger Federer, and then his wrists began to fray. Cooper Jones tells the story of his long journey back. This is a beautifully written profile, an insightful portrait of the player on the court and the person off it — but it is also, most movingly, a meditation on pain.

Drew Brees is Hiding in Plain Sight (Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated)

Bishop tackles the age-old question of what makes greatness — or even the greatest — and why it can be so easy to overlook. Take Drew Brees, the subject of this piece. At the same time, without being didactic, Bishop reminds us of something else: as seriously as we take all the records, sports are fun. And so is this story.

Everyone Believed Larry Nassar (Kerry Howley, The Cut)

A thoroughly reported, devastating reconstruction of what might be the most important sports story in recent history: how Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of young women and not only got away with it, but thrived in the gymnastics community.

Joel Anderson
Senior writer for ESPN the Magazine.

The Search for Jackie Wallace (Ted Jackson, The Times-Picayune)

On the Friday before the Super Bowl, The Times-Picayune dropped this tremendous profile of former NFL player and New Orleans native Jackie Wallace and his heartrending — and apparently ongoing — struggle with homelessness and drug abuse. The story got its start in 1990, when photographer Ted Jackson came across Wallace living in a camp underneath Interstate 10. Jackson photographed him for a story that ran that year, which seemed to lead to Wallace being rescued from the streets and addiction. But this is where the story begins, as Jackson loses touch with Wallace over the years and details his search for him over the next couple of decades. There’s so much to love here, starting with the care Jackson and the Times-Picayune put into showing how drugs can unravel a life and into asserting the fundamental humanity of Wallace. Jackson also subtly shows there’s more to his relationship with Wallace — a reminder that reporting doesn’t have to be merely transactional — and much more to Wallace than his troubles. It’s surprising in all sorts of ways, but especially in how humanizing it is of Wallace.

Everyone Believed Larry Nassar (Kerry Howley, The Cut)

In excruciating detail, Kerry Howley showed here how Larry Nassar — the unassuming and relentlessly charming USA Gymnastics national team doctor — wormed his way into the homes and hearts of hundreds of young female gymnasts and their families en route to becoming one of the most notorious child sex abusers in modern history. It’d be irresponsible not to credit the herculean investigative efforts of the Indianapolis Star in breaking the case against Nassar and USA Gymnastics — and the many other reporters and media outlets who tracked the developments through Nassar’s sentencing in federal and state court — but Howley’s exhaustive story illuminates exactly how and why Nassar was able to escape detection for so long. It wasn’t because his victims were silent. Far from it, in fact. It wasn’t because Nassar was particularly discreet. No, Howley writes, it was because Nassar “was good at this.” Two scenes from Howley’s story show this best. The first is told from the vantage point of a 9-year-old girl, who was digitally penetrated by Nassar with her mother sitting only a few feet away in his living room in 1990. The second comes near the end of the story, when one of his victims manages to make him cry during his sentencing hearing and she feels briefly triumphant. I won’t spoil the final line for you but it’s an unforgettable close that couldn’t have been more perfect, or haunting.


Natalie Weiner
Staff writer for SB Nation.

The Children of Central City (Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster, The Times-Picayune)

They Are the Champions (Katie Barnes, ESPN the Magazine)

Both of these stories are extraordinary examples of my favorite kind of sportswriting — the kind that uses sports’ near-universal appeal and reach to illuminate social and political issues. “The Children of Central City” uses the lens of one youth football team in New Orleans to examine violence in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods; as its former coach explains early in the multi-part series, he’s had 28 former players be shot and killed over a 14 year span. The football team is a jumping off point through which the authors (and director — there’s a corresponding documentary) can explore how the trauma that comes from growing up surrounded by violence impacts kids’ lives, and how football is an escape, if an imperfect one. It’s a thoughtful, empathetic take on a story that’s too often left unexamined because it’s wrongly perceived as inevitable.

In “They Are the Champions,” two very different kids growing up in very different parts of the country share one thing: they are transgender. Their stories are pressing  not only because LGBTQ perspectives are grossly underrepresented in media as a whole, but also because they show that sports is the battleground where the very core of how we understand gender will be determined — a statement that sounds like hyperbole, but when you’re in the middle of Barnes’ story parsing the various ways people rationalize dividing sports by gender, quickly becomes self-evident. Mack Beggs and Andraya Yearwood just want to compete, and the world is going to have to catch up.


Matt Giles
Editor and head of fact-checking, Longreads.

Alone at Sea (Elizabeth Weil, New York Times Magazine)

Aleksander Doba has kayaked the Atlantic Ocean three times, and each crossing has been more dangerous than the last. Weil’s profile of the Polish native is an engrossing read of his trans-Atlantic trips, and why the 71 year old continues to push his body and psyche to such extreme limits. As he explains his reasoning to Weil, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.