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.
Senior writer at The Athletic.
The Unbreakable Bond (Mina Kimes, ESPN the Magazine)
A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.
Jackie MacMullan is the Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)
This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)
2019 Sportsperson of the Year: Megan Rapinoe (Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated)
One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that.
Britni de la Cretaz
Freelance sports writer and sports columnist at Longreads.
The Maddening Promise of Diamond DeShields (Katie Barnes, espnW)
Katie Barnes’ writing is always a treat, and this story is a great example of why. With this profile, Barnes shines a light on Diamond DeShields, a player poised to break out in the WNBA, and elevates her apart from famous athlete father and famous athlete brother, allowing her to shine on her own terms.
Don’t Forget Jordan McNair (Tyler Tynes, The Ringer)
With this story about the death of Jordan McNair, the Maryland football player who collapsed during a team practice, Tynes refuses to allow us to look away from a tragedy that should hold our attention but is too willingly forgotten. He uses McNair’s death as a window into the exploitative world of college football, one that routinely and systematically harms young, Black men, and implores the reader to reckon with it. It is a great example of a human story that ripples far beyond a single person and challenges entire worlds and structures that many people hold dear.
Muffet McGraw is Done Hiring Men (Lindsay Gibbs, Think Progress)
This is the story heard ’round the Twittersphere and the entire NCAA Women’s March Madness tournament. Gibbs went to South Bend, Indiana to spend time with Notre Dame WBB coach Muffet McGraw and came away with the sound bite that would make waves when the story was finally published: Muffet McGraw had an all-women coaching staff, and that was intentional. But rather than rest on just the juicy quote, Gibbs uses McGraw and the Notre Dame WBB program to examine why the gender disparity in women’s basketball still exists, why there aren’t more women coaching this women’s sport, and what needs to happen for that to change. It’s not often that women’s March Madness gets the headlines; Gibbs and McGraw made sure they would.
Former sports writer at Deadspin.
They Want Her to Be the Next Yao Ming. But What Does She Want? (Everett Cook, Deadspin)
Through just one conversation with the 19-year-old New York Liberty rookie (via a translator), Everett Cook dives far beneath the simple quirk of Han Xu’s existence as both the tallest active player in the WNBA and its first Chinese draft pick since 1997. Instead of wondering what everyone else wonders when they first see Han — when will she fulfill her destiny as the female Yao? — readers will finish the piece simply hoping that she’ll soon feel less alone. As captured in the profile, Han ducks to avoid ceiling fans, scrapes pickled chiles off her pizza after ordering from a menu she can’t read, and struggles to both pass the time and develop as a player in a place where everyone’s a stranger and few speak her language. Though nobody will ever experience the kind of year that Han Xu had, it’s impossible not to feel a deep empathy for this lonely, gifted, and unique basketball player after reading this profile.
Lesbians Won the Women’s World Cup (Shannon Keating, Buzzfeed)
This is my favorite take on my favorite sports story of the year, because in this article, Shannon Keating is all of my queer women friends who told me, “I’m not a sports fan, but I am a fan of these hot girls” as the USWNT spent the summer pummeling all competition en route to another World Cup win. In my experience, sports and the gay community don’t mix as often as they ought to—when I tell someone in a queer space that I’m a sportswriter, a longer explanation is almost always necessary. But in just a handful of games over a few weeks, players like Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O’Hara, and Ashlyn Harris helped invite countless outsiders (like Keating) to bask in the joy of their victories.
Keating’s writing would have been very entertaining in itself even if the piece was just confined to unfettered praise for the team’s abilities and attitude, but it’s also important in the way it confronts how odd it feels to be in love with this United States soccer team while feeling sick about the country as a whole. As she chants “Lesbians!” instead of “USA!” at a bar, while watching a match where the game-winning goal was scored by an openly gay women who knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and preemptively blew off the White House before her team even won the trophy, Keating finds what we all needed in 2019: something to be proud of.
The Line of Fire (Natalie Weiner, SB Nation)
We’ve all read stories about how sports – usually football or basketball – are a ticket out of poverty and violence. Usually for a black kid. Natalie Weiner’s treatise on the ways in which gun violence has affected football players takes that idea and turns it on its head. In a masterful piece of gritty reporting, Weiner takes readers through an emotional hellscape, imploring them to look closer at something they’d rather ignore. Even in the national discourse around gun violence, little attention is paid to its omnipresence in urban communities beyond the statistics. Weiner uses football as a way to explore the people and communities oft-ignored, deftly navigating the intersections of race and class therein. When a football player dies, Weiner notes that “football player” is often splayed across the headline, the subtext being “this is not just another kid, this is a football player. A kid who tried; a kid who worked; a kid who was doing all the Right Things…”
Even as numbers of youth football participants continue to drop, these coaches still fill their teams with students who are looking for…something. Perhaps safety or opportunity. One of the coaches sums it up with this quote: “Football is going to come down to the people who have an option. My guys don’t have an option.” Weiner asks us to consider what it means when that option isn’t safe either – when the poor black kids who tried still died? And what will we do now that we can’t unknow this? It is one of the most important pieces of sports writing this year.
An award-winning journalist, writer, and editor, based in Toronto.
Robyn Hightman Found a Life on Bikes. In an Instant It was Gone (Peter Flax, Bicycling)
“What’s up with that bike?” a friend visiting Toronto asked me on a recent walk. He was motioning to a bicycle across the street that was painted white and chained to a hydro pole, with bright plastic flowers curling out from the spokes.
I explained what it meant, that a cyclist had been struck and killed at that location — that it was a ghost bike — and his face dropped.
“I didn’t know that was a thing.”
In far too many cities, it’s an extremely prevalent thing. For Bicycling, writer Peter Flax traced the story of how one of those ghost bikes came to appear on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. It resulted in a deeply reported piece on the life of Robyn Hightman, who found freedom and happiness on a bike, until a crash stole their life.
Flax weaves a heartbreaking tribute to a cyclist and the community impacted by their sudden death. Written from a place of empathy and understanding, this is the type of journalism that can lead to positive, tangible change. It is also a reminder that every ghost bike has a story to share, of a life lived and then tragically lost.
Contributor, Baseball Prospectus and SB Nation.
“You’re Going to Have to Run Faster”: How Football Neglects Black Coaches (Tyler Tynes, The Ringer)
Over the years, there have been many conversations surrounding the NFL and race/social justice. Tyler Tynes tackles one of those issues, the underrepresentation of Black head coaches, by speaking with Black coaches and introducing us to the NFL’s annual occupational mobility data. Racial disparities in hiring practices are not exclusive to the NFL and are deserving of further study and conversation. Tynes’ story is a reminder that not only is the Rooney Rule ineffective at preventing bias in hiring, but that more can be done. Tynes’ reporting is methodical, and it imparts care and insight that the topic deserves. It is a reminder that sports are political, no matter how hard people try to tell us otherwise.
Freelance journalist and author.
The Olympics are Over, but Tessa Virtue is Just Getting Started (Genna Buck, The Walrus)
Very early into Genna Buck’s profile of Tessa Virtue, the Canadian three-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, the skater says, “Whatever I take on next, I’m never going to be the best in the world.” This is what I imagine every Olympic gold medalist at least thinks when they’re contemplating retirement or in the early stages of the transition — I’ll never be as good at anything else in my life as I am at [insert sport]. I, who have never been the best in the world at anything (though I am internationally ranked in kvetching), don’t know how you move on from that, and neither does Virtue, at least not yet. Buck’s profile of the skater, who is one half of one of the greatest figure skating teams in Olympic history, shows a talented, focused woman trying to figure out what to channel her relentless drive towards now that she’s done with her sport. The story keeps coming back to Virtue’s desire to the best at something and her paralyzing fear of putting a foot wrong, which is unsurprising given the nature of her perfection-oriented sport. Buck, in her prose, skates in circles, because Virtue, though she’s staying busy, really doesn’t know where she’s going yet. Virtue has climbed to the top of the mountain but she doesn’t know how to get down.
Freelance writer and head of fact-checking at Longreads.
Climate Change is Sabotaging the World’s Most Dangerous Canoe Race (Eric Stinton, GEN)
Since 1952, the Molokaʻi Hoe — otherwise known as the world’s most challenging canoe race — has annually enthralled 40,000 competitors off the coast of Oahu, but as Stinton explains in this deep-dive, the Molokaʻi Hoe is threatened not by modernity, analytics, and improved training but by climate change. It’s an angle I have long thought about, specifically how the planet’s warming will affect the Bonneville salt flats, and this piece succinctly explains how the overall warming of the waters through which the course flows could cause this race to forever be delayed — and with that, the impact on the culture and heritage of its competitors.
How the Harlem Globetrotters Integrated the NBA (Eric Nusbaum, Sports Stories)
Earlier this year, Nusbaum debuted Sport Stories, a subscription-based newsletter which highlights oft-forgotten characters and incidents in sports history. This installment, from early November, is one of my favorites, in that it involves Goose Tatum, George Mikan, and Ermer Robinson, a World War II vet whose specialty was lofting one-handed shots thirty feet away from the basket (truly, THE OG Steph Curry). But what makes this Sports Stories’ articlr so interesting is how it goes beyond the game, and gives credit to the Harlem Globetrotters for irrevocably altering the NBA: following this 1948 contest, in which the Harlem Globetrotters defeated the dynastic Minneapolis Lakers, the National Basketball League merged with the American Association of Basketball, and by 1953, three black players would make their professional NBA debut, a first for the league.
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