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Longreads Best of 2020: Sports and Games

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

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Twelve Minutes and a Life (Mitchell S. Jackson, Runner’s World)

Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery was a passionate young football fan and player, whose only crime was to attempt to jog while being Black in Brunswick, Georgia. At Runner’s World, Mitchell S. Jackson recounts Arbery’s murder in cold blood and interrogates a sport where participation is really only sanctioned and safe for privileged white people.

And though the demographics of runners have become more diverse over the last 50 years, jogging, by and large, remains a sport and pastime pitched to privileged whites.

Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? Ask what are the sanctions for asserting their right to live and run—shit—to exist in the world. Ask why? Ask why? Ask why?

Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.

The buckshot blast hits Maud in the chest, puncturing his right lung, ribs, and sternum. And yet somehow, he wrestles with Travis McMichael for the shotgun, and yet somehow, he manages to punch at him. Gregory watches for a moment from his roost. Meanwhile, Bryan continues to film. Travis fires his shotgun again, a blast that occurs outside the view of Bryan’s phone, but sends a spray of dust billowing into the frame. Maud, an island of blood now staining his white t-shirt, continues to tussle with Travis McMichael, fighting now for what he must know is his life. In the midst of the scuffle, Travis McMichael blasts Maud again point blank, piercing him in his upper chest. Maud whiffs a weak swing, staggers a couple of steps, and falls face down near the traffic stripes. Travis, shotgun in hand, backs away, watches Maud collapse, and makes not the slightest effort to tend him. His father, still clutching his revolver, runs to where Maud lies facedown, blood leaking out of his wounds.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was more than a viral video. He was more than a hashtag or a name on a list of tragic victims. He was more than an article or an essay or posthumous profile. He was more than a headline or an op-ed or a news package or the news cycle. He was more than a retweet or shared post. He, doubtless, was more than our likes or emoji tears or hearts or praying hands. He was more than an R.I.P. t-shirt or placard. He was more than an autopsy or a transcript or a police report or a live-streamed hearing. He, for damn sure, was more than the latest reason for your liberal white friend’s ephemeral outrage. He was more than a rally or a march. He was more than a symbol, more than a movement, more than a cause. He. Was. Loved.

USC’s Dying Linebackers (Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated)

There is no question that American football is a punishing physical sport, one in which players can sustain permanent injury. Science is just beginning to understand the damage that occurs to the brain after repeated blows to the head on the field. A study mentioned in the New York Times in 2017 found that in a single game, one lineman took 62 hits, with G-forces similar to crashing a car into a wall at 30 miles per hour.

At Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg brings the consequences into sharp focus, starting his story on May 12, 2012, the day that famed linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, ostensibly after suffering long-term brain damage playing football for the USC Trojans and over 19 NFL seasons. Rosenberg reports on a horrific pattern that has emerged among former members of the 1989 USC Trojans football team, where five of 12 linebackers have died before the age of 50.

May 2, 2012
Matt Gee always says that “Junior does what Junior wants,” and what Junior Seau wants on this day is to die. Matt is out for breakfast when he gets the news, in the staccato notes of a breaking national story: Junior Seau . . . dead . . . gunshot wound to the chest . . . possible suicide.

Matt is shocked. At 42, he is not yet used to watching his teammates die.

Twelve names. Twelve dreams.

Twelve linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989, each with the strength of a man and the exuberance of a boy, swimming in everything USC has to offer: joy and higher education and adulation, endless adrenaline surges, alcohol, cocaine if they want it, steroids if they need them. Anything to feel fearless and reckless, wild and free.

In 1989, tacklers are taught to lead with their heads. Drug tests are easy to beat. Pain is for the weak. Complaints are for the weaker. This is how the game is played.

The linebackers form a team within a team, each player with his own role. Seau is the most talented. Alan Wilson is the quietest. Craig Hartsuyker is the heady technician. Scott Ross and Delmar Chesley serve as mentors to Matt, who will become a starter after they leave. David Webb is the team’s resident surfer dude

The Trojans go 9-2-1 and then win the Rose Bowl that season, but football fools them. The linebackers think they are paying the game’s price in real time. Michael Williams takes a shot to the head tackling a running back in one game and he is slow to get up, but he stays on the field, even as his brain fogs up for the next few plays. Chesley collides with a teammate and feels the L.A. Coliseum spinning around him; he tries to stay in but falls to a knee and gets pulled. Ross, who says he would run through a brick wall for Rogge, breaks a hand and keeps playing. After several games he meets his parents outside the home locker room and can’t remember whether his team won or lost. Hartsuyker breaks a foot and stays on the field. Another time, he gets concussed on a kickoff, tells trainers he is fine, finishes the game and later shows up on fraternity row with no recollection of playing that day. Somebody sets him on the floor in front of a television, like a toddler.

The Cheating Scandal That Ripped the Poker World Apart (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired)

As Brendan I. Koerner reports in this fun story at Wired, when it comes to poker, “it’s sacrilege to accuse a peer of cheating without airtight proof.” When Texas Hold ‘Em player and “self-described analytics geek” Veronica Brill publicly aired her misgivings about Mike Postle’s unconventional yet highly successful poker play, the blowback landed on her, not him. At first. But was Brill right? Did Postle cheat? Read the story and decide for yourself.

LIKE MANY OTHERS who spent huge chunks of time at Stones, Brill had long considered Postle a friend. A generous soul who exuded a puckish charm, Postle was the sort who’d pay for everyone’s drinks while regaling the bar with bawdy tales. (He was particularly fond of a story about getting banned from Caesars Palace over a misunderstanding involving a sex worker.) But up until the summer of 2018, few of the pro players at Stones thought much of his poker prowess. “He was playing well enough to support himself, it seemed,” says Jake Rosenstiel, a Sacramento pro. “But none of us thought Mike was this great poker player.”

Everyone was thus surprised when Postle began to dominate the casino’s livestreamed Texas Hold ‘Em games starting in July 2018. The once middling Postle suddenly turned formidable, even taking thousands of dollars off some big-time players during their swings through Northern California

Brill, a self-described analytics geek whose day job is building medical software, was among those who got clobbered by Postle at the table, and she served as a livestream commentator during much of his streak too. By early 2019, she had seen enough to surmise that Postle’s success didn’t make mathematical sense. She thought he was winning far too often, particularly for a player whose strategy didn’t jibe with game theory optimal, or GTO, the prevailing strategy in Texas Hold ‘Em today.

Tremendous effort is required to develop the ability to know which single move to make in the millions of possible betting situations. There are 2,598,960 possible hands in five-card poker, a figure that vastly understates the game’s intricacy. Players must also have a feel for how their opponents are likely to react to each gambit.

Shades of Grey (Ashley Stimpson, Longreads)

In 2018, the state of Florida voted to ban greyhound racing because it was considered “archaic and inhumane.” But, what if they got it wrong? In this deeply reported Longreads feature, Ashley Stimpson introduces us to the sport of kings through Vesper, her retired racing greyhound. Tracing Vesper’s life from its start in liquid nitrogen, Stimpson learns that her beloved pet was conceived when “pellets of semen the size of a lentil” were collected from her brindle dad Lonesome Cry and implanted in her mom, a dam named Jossalyn. Stimpson discovers a world of breeders, veterinarians, and trainers dedicated not only to the sport but to the health and well-being of the dogs in their care.

It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.

Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.

I don’t mourn for greyhound racing and its long-delayed reckoning. I do sympathize with working-class people who genuinely love their dogs and who feel overlooked and overpowered by the currents of political change. And selfishly I feel sad that I’ll probably never have another dog like Vesper; I so love the bony ridge of her spine, the way her teeth chatter when she gets excited, the skin that clings to the cartilage between her eyes, softened by so many hands like an ancient piece of pottery. I don’t know if she was happier in the starting block at the track or tucked into her monogrammed bed here with me, but I’m open to the possibility that it was the former.

The Casino That Time Forgot (David Hill, The Ringer)

When you think of gambling in America, you don’t immediately think of Hot Springs, Arkansas, but at one time, “when Las Vegas was still a dusty smudge on the horizon,” Hot Springs was the place to be, where musicians, sports stars, and mobsters gathered to soothe their ills in the healing bubbly waters that emerged from deep inside the earth. In fact, “Some of the more popular ailments that patients came to treat were venereal diseases. Al Capone would ‘take the waters’ in the 1920s to treat his syphilis.”

An excerpt from David Hill’s book The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, the piece is a rich profile of a sting operation at the Vapors Casino in the 1960s. What’s super fun about this story, one that is told in rich detail, is that one of the casino workers running the sting is the author’s grandmother.

Hazel Hill was another good country person who loved to gamble. She was 42, an attractive brunette, and looking like high society that night in her party dress and shawl. Only she wasn’t high society, not by a long shot. On her own dime, Hazel wouldn’t ordinarily be in a place like the Vapors. She’d likely be at the Tower Club, with the other down-on-their-luck locals. Or, if it were a special occasion, she might be at the Pines Supper Club, or any number of the more proletarian establishments around town, where the low rollers and hustlers could gamble cheap and drink even cheaper. Hazel worked for the Vapors as a shill player, gambling with house money to keep the tourists interested and the games going. It wasn’t a great job as far as the money went, but it was the best job Hazel had ever had, playing with the house’s money and blowing on doctors’ dice for them. Whatever the pay, it was worth something to her to just be in the Vapors. It put Hazel right at the center of the whole world.

Hazel was a street-smart high school dropout. She had become a wife and a mother in Hot Springs, earning her living on her wits and the skills she had picked up in the casinos—how to calculate odds, how to place and take bets, how to deal cards.

Now, though, it was Dr. Rowe who was pocketing chips. The shills had their eyes on him. One of Hazel’s fellow shill players, a buddy of the club owner named Richard Dooley, watched Rowe like a hawk. One of the craps dealers was paying Dr. Rowe more money on each of his winning bets than he actually won. It could have been a simple error, but the fact that Rowe was putting the extra chips in his pocket, rather than in his stack of chips along the rail of the table, told Dooley all he needed to know.

Out There: On Not Finishing (Devin Kelly, Longreads)

So much of sport involves accomplishment. It involves besting someone or something — be it an opponent, a distance, a time, or even yourself. Sometimes, people create and nurture their own identities based on their athletic achievements. But what happens — as Devin Kelly asks so thoughtfully in his Longreads essay — when the stories we tell ourselves about what achievement is turn out to be false? That the true reward is simply in the doing?

For a long time, I thought I ran, and competed in sport, as a way to use the metaphor of sport to understand life. Life is a marathon, I was often told. I remember watching and re-watching Chariots of Fire, particularly that moment in the rain when Eric Liddell, just minutes after winning a race, states: “I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires energy of will.” I loved that moment as a child, especially as someone who had, at one point, a deep amount of faith. But I always paused the clip before he stated what later became to me more obvious: “So who am I to say believe, have faith, in the face of life’s realities…I have no formula for winning a race. Everyone runs in their own way.” It’s true, that everyone runs in their own way, which is a fact I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve grown older. Patience, both with my own peculiar movements through life and with those of others, is a skill I actively try to cultivate and maintain. And yet, even Liddell’s quote has to do with winning. And that — the idea of winning, or finishing, or accomplishing — has become its own universal signifier. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you have done.

What happens if what you once used to make sense of things no longer helps you make sense of things? What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?

I grappled with these questions for hours on that farm in Georgia. Under the stars and all alone, I did not know what I was doing. Each lap, I shuffled past the bonfire, past my friends singing karaoke, past the laughter of strangers, and each lap I shuffled away from them, until they became the soft patchwork of voices traversing a distance, the kind of sound that hollows you to your core and fills you with a deep sense of missingness, a longing to be there and not wherever you are. At that point, the race had ceased to be a race for so many people, but it hadn’t for me.

The thing about horizons is that, upon reaching one, you always encounter another. It’s the in-between where life lives. In another poem, “On Duration,” the poet Suzanne Buffam writes: “To cross an ocean / You must love the ocean / Before you love the far shore.” This is a beautiful explanation of what it means, as so many endurance runners say, to be “out there.” Out there is a place, but it is also a feeling. It is a series of moments stretched out across hours, or even days, that feel like one long moment. It is the act of building the bridge between two points and being the bridge at the same time. Out there is distance turned into feeling. It is metaphor actualized.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: Music Writing

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

A long, long time ago / I can still remember / How that music used to make me smile
—Don McLean, American Pie

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Like A Shovel and a Rope (David Ramsey, Oxford American)

In the before times, a little over a year ago, we traveled to Savannah, Georgia, for a music festival. It was fall, but still sweltering. We stood for hours directly in front of the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty strangers who, too, love music. This seems like a heat-induced fever dream, an act now incomprehensible. The day’s highlight was seeing Shovels & Rope — the husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — play live. The energy and intensity of their performance outshone the sun on that humid Georgia afternoon.

At Oxford American, David Ramsey’s intimate portrait of the hardest-working couple in rock ‘n’ roll is a love letter written in 40 short parts. Ramsey captures not only the je ne sais quoi of Shovels & Rope, he documents the down and dirty, the ordinary sleepless exasperation of raising a family while writing, recording, and touring.

Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

There is a way of singing that is a distant cousin of the temper tantrum. A sound that simmers at the bend and snap of the spirit, fragile and fierce. We are peculiar animals that sing songs to each other, but we are still animals.

I think what got me hooked on the way that Cary Ann sings shares something of this current, the way something so powerful could have such brittle edges. Shovels & Rope is like this, too—they seem to conjure in each other a kind of frenzy, grease and fury, tender cries at the edge of a scream. They are an anthemic band, but their medium is the fragility of the anthem: Something about to break.

The thing that they do, I hesitate to say that you have to be there, but—there is an intimacy and devilment to their live performance, a lift and crash, that has been hard to capture on record. So that their art, like the lives they have carved out for themselves, is a thing on the move, uncatchable as a storm. Home and the road and home on the road.

Pure Magic: The Oral History of Prince’s Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show (Alan Siegel, The Ringer)

When I think of Prince, I remember his musical genius. How when he did something, he did it his own way and how his way was always a sharp cut above, a sneak peek into his brilliance, which seemed to radiate from him like heat from the sun. His approach to the 2007 Superbowl half-time show was no different, from how he secured the job and created the setlist, to how he ignored the traditional pre-event press conference requirement to play a few songs instead. Then of course, there was his legendary game-day performance — in the pouring rain, to boot. A truer artist there never was.

Meglen: We had a little meal, just the four of us. At the end of the meal, Prince reached down, and he had a little portable DVD player, because that’s what you had at the time. We weren’t going online at that point. He had a bunch of the previous Super Bowl halftimes. And he basically was critiquing them, saying, “This was good but I wouldn’t have done this.”

Hayes: This is what his thing is: “I don’t care about how you did it before. This is how I do it.”

Meglen: Which finally prompted Saltz to go, “What would you do?” He looked at Saltz, and in his normal Prince way, said, “Sir, follow me, please.” And the three of us followed him upstairs into the living room. And the entire band was standing there in position.

Hayes: He tried to give us a heads-up just to make sure we were on point. Just so, like, everybody knew their stuff.

Meglen: He went over, put on his guitar, and said, “Hit it.”

Arzate: He gave us actually all a private show. The cleaning people, myself, and the executives.

Mischer: When we said, “You’ll have to have a press conference. They would like to interview you,” Prince point blank said, “I don’t do interviews.”

Mischer: He said, “I’m just gonna play for them.” And we said “OK.”

Shelby J.: As we’re walking to the stage I’m like, “I think I’m gonna be sick.” All I can see ahead of me is all these cameras. And so there were these doors over to my left, I didn’t say a word to anybody. I just kindly excused myself for a moment. There were bushes outside. I literally got sick, stood back up, and was like, “OK.” And people were [there] in their Super Bowl garb, but they don’t know me from a can of paint, so I was cool with that. I shut the door and came back in.

Adande: Prince and all his people come out and kind of pick up their instruments, and take their positions.

Flanked by Australian dancers Nandy and Maya McClean—the Twinz—Prince stepped up to the microphone in a salmon-colored suit, thanked Mischer, and addressed the reporters sitting in front of him. “We hope we don’t rock your ears too much,” he said. “Contrary to rumor, I’d like to take a few questions right now.” At that moment, someone in the crowd blurted out, “Prince, how do you feel about performing …”

Adande: I think it was a plant.

Gongaware: It was one of the sportswriters.

Adande: Before he could even finish [the question], Prince just breaks into “Johnny B. Goode.”

Push Play (Chris Dennis, Guernica)

Throughout our lives, most thinking human beings struggle with the question of who we are. As Chris Dennis so eloquently puts it, “We align ourselves with some predominant pattern to alleviate not just our own loneliness, but the perceived loneliness of others around us—until some wild, original thing appears and, against our simpler nature, we leap for it.” For Dennis, loving the music of Dolly Parton and her unabashed conviction in being her made-up, bouffant, silicone-enhanced self helped him understand his own identity.

In the fall of 1986 I turned seven years old, and my father gave me a used black Magnavox boombox. It was sitting on the coffee table when I came home from school. “Push play,” my dad said, and the look on his face confused me, until I realized that the surprise—the actual gift—was the cassette tape he’d already put in the player. So I pushed play. Looking back, it’s obvious that he had fast-forwarded to the song he knew I would immediately recognize and want to hear, because I’d heard it on the radio in the car several times and sang all the words. But when I pushed play, I suddenly felt embarrassed, uncertain, because I loved the song very much and the gift meant that my dad knew: that he saw me, and approved of my loving it. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted my dad to understand me in this way. I had some ineffable sense that loving Dolly Parton might be something I should hide.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR)

I started to study guitar four years ago, finally making good on a dream I’d put off and denied myself for decades. A few years later, I started studying bass too. Of all the decisions in my life, committing to music has had a profound influence on me, on how I perceive my limitations and my potential. It’s a daily labor of love, where focus and concentration bring small, yet regular rewards from learning to read music, playing songs, training my ear, and working on rhythm and timing. While I’ll never achieve mastery, Lavinia Spalding’s piece at AFAR immediately resonated with me. A child guitar prodigy, she gave up playing in her teens. In a bid to reclaim her music skills and reconnect with her late father, Spalding travels to Spain to study with three tocaoras — the oh-so-rare female Flamenco guitar masters. This piece reminds me of the sheer joy of learning music and how powerful a good teacher’s encouragement can be.

You don’t need to read music to play flamenco, she says. “Flamenco is ninety percent improvisational,” she explains. “It comes from the houses; it’s deep inside the people. It’s an ethnic music, not a scholastic music.” She suggests I simply follow along while she plays falsetas, or soleares melodies. Then her hands explode across the strings like fireworks, and all I can do is stare. And panic. And realize how unprepared I actually am.

Fortunately, she’s as encouraging as she is talented and tenacious. “You’ve got it!” she says again and again during our hour together. She repeats this praise even when it’s abundantly clear that I have not, in fact, got it. Toward the end of our lesson, she suggests I record a video of her playing slowly. Back in my rented apartment, I watch the video 50 times and practice fanatically—once for six hours straight—until I memorize the falsetas. And when my fingertips start tingling, I’m euphoric. I run my thumb over them like they’re a row of tiny talismans.

“I miss my body when it was ferocious”: The Transfiguration of Paul Curreri (Brendan Fitzgerald, Longreads)

Imagine that there is a thing you are put on this earth to do, and then suddenly, you’re no longer physically able to do it. This is exactly what happened to singer-songwriter Paul Curreri, who was cut down in his musical prime, sidelined by permanent injury. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” In this deeply researched and carefully crafted Longreads feature, journalist Brendan Fitzgerald documents Curreri’s uneasy relationship with his body and his art after suffering damage to the primary tools of his trade — his fretting hand and vocal chords.

In 2008, Curreri’s body began to mutiny. A vocal hemorrhage canceled a tour; another silenced him for more than a year. He self-produced two more studio albums, then he and his wife left Charlottesville. They tried Berlin, and then Austin, Texas. In 2012, while working on demos for a new album, Curreri injured his voice a third time, after which his body seemed all at once to come undone. A twinge in his fretting hand appeared overnight and did not resolve; a doctor told him the pain would not improve. Both arms became inflamed and ached in such a way that, for a time, Curreri found it hard to turn a doorknob or hold a fork. He shelved the new songs and moved with Sproule back to Charlottesville.

Curreri’s appeal, for me, had always lived in his brazen standoffs with limitation, failure, and dissolution. “Beauty fades — it goes a-crackin’ and a-juttin’,” he sang on 2004’s The Spirit of the Staircase. “Some folks go slow, some all of a sudden.” For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday. Read more…

A Box of Meat and $100 For Your Life

A sign for The Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota, one of the countrys largest known Coronavirus clusters, is seen on April 20, 2020 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. - Smithfield Foods pork plant in South Dakota is closed indefinitely in the wake of its coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

As Nick Roberts and Rosa Amanda Tuirán report at The Counter, the meat packing industry — given basically unlimited liability protection from President Trump under pandemic health guidelines they wrote themselves — not only failed to protect workers from contracting COVID-19, they actually ramped up production to take advantage of the opportunity to increase sales and profits.

One plant, One World Beef, offered incentives to employees to work six days a week without missing a day for paltry bonuses of up to $100 and a box of meat.

In April, as the first wave of Covid-19 infections began to spread across the U.S., the nation’s largest hotspot wasn’t in New York City. It wasn’t in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, or any major urban center. It was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a small city of about 190,000.

Specifically, it was in the Smithfield Foods pork plant on the north side of town, nestled into a bend in the Big Sioux River. By April 16, 644 cases had been traced back to the plant—44 percent of all the cases in South Dakota at the time—pushing Sioux Falls to the top of the New York Times’ list of single-source hotspots. The initial outbreak only grew as the weeks and months went on. As of September, Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant had reported nearly 1,300 coronavirus cases among its employees, about one-third of the plant’s total workforce. Four of those workers died.

For a brief period, the crisis at the Sioux Falls plant was front-page news—a stark indication of the growing problem in U.S. slaughterhouses. But the nation’s attention had largely moved on by September 10, when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finally cited Smithfield for failing to protect its workers at Sioux Falls. The announcement of this corrective action was, in a sense, historic: Smithfield was the first meatpacker to be fined by OSHA for a coronavirus-related violation. Yet the fine itself—a mere $13,494—told a different story. The amount translated to less than $10.50 for every worker who contracted Covid-19 from the Sioux Falls plant.

Under the previous owners, Brawley Beef (National Beef), the plant had the capacity to slaughter between 1,600 to 2,300 cattle on a daily basis. When One World Beef took over in 2015, CEO Eric Brandt said the company’s focus was on the quality of the meat over quantity, and would run a more streamlined operation—building gradually to a 700- to –1,200-cow daily capacity over the course of several years.

One OWB worker said that on a regular five-day week before Covid-19, employees would slaughter between 800 to 1,200 cows a day. But in spite of the ongoing pandemic, production at One World Beef Packers increased in the spring. In March, April, May and June, on average 1,500 cows were slaughtered every day, six days a week according to an employee who works in fabrication, the last stage of production at the plant.

In other words, the company cranked up its output during a time when it was likely to be financially advantageous to do so. U.S. cattle slaughter rates dropped precipitously during that four-month span; at its lowest point in late April, beef processing was at 60 percent of its previous year’s capacity. At the same time, and likely as a result of plant closures, wholesale beef prices jumped markedly during the period between April and June. For packing plants that managed to stay open, processing as many cattle as possible could be highly lucrative—even if it posed serious risks to worker health.

As fears around the pandemic grew, more and more workers began staying home from work, leaving One World Beef understaffed. In an attempt to maintain the brisk rate of production, the company offered weekly bonuses throughout April. Workers who came to work Monday through Saturday without missing a day were given a bonus of $50, later raised to $100, which was accompanied by a box of meat valued at $200 to $300.

Workers were told if they were scared to enter the facility, they could refrain from coming to work, but multiple employees told us they were warned by supervisors they might be transferred to another area of the plant, be demoted, or replaced altogether if they chose not to come.

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The 25 Most Popular Longreads Exclusives of 2020

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Our most popular exclusive stories of 2020. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

1. The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People

Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)

A headline-grabbing murder-for-hire plot helped expose the dark side of exotic animal ownership in the U.S. Is there now enough momentum to reform the industry?

2. Whatever Happened to ______ ?

Anonymous | Longreads | January 2020 | 20 minutes (4,879 words)

Envy over her success led her husband, also a writer, to become violent. She fights every day for her safety — and to avoid being relegated to obscurity like so many writers who are mothers. Read more…

‘Joe Biden Reeks of Decency’

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware addresses Drexel University Alumni. Biden was the youngest U.S. Senator at that time. (Getty Images)

In Kitty Kelly‘s 1974 profile at Washingtonian, you’ll meet a 31-year-old Joe Biden, not long after two critical events in his life: getting elected to the senate and the deaths of his wife Neilia and baby daughter in a 1972 car accident. The profile is a chance to step back in time and learn about Biden’s commitment to family, his approach to politics, his then-views on abortion, healthcare, and legalizing marijuana as well as his clear presidential ambitions.

Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.

Biden was devastated. He wanted to resign. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield persuaded him to stay, promising him several prestigious committee assignments. The Senate passed a resolution allowing him to be sworn in at the hospital bedsides of his sons. That was more than a year ago, and at the time he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay in the Senate through 1973. He said he would resign if his Senate duties took too much time away from his sons. “They can always get another Senator, but my boys cannot get another father.”

My wife said I was the most socially conservative man she had ever known. I’m a screaming liberal when it comes to senior citizens because I really think they are getting screwed. I’m a liberal on health care because I believe it is a birth right of every human being—not just some damn privilege to be meted out to a few people. But when it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body. I support a limited amnesty, and I don’t think marijuana should be legalized. Now, if you still think I’m a liberal, let me tell you that I support the draft. I’m scared to death of a professional army.

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A Fond Farewell to a Friend: the Arecibo Telescope

The Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico. (Getty Images)

We’ve been fortunate to publish Shannon Stirone at Longreads. Read “The Hunt for Planet Nine” and her latest for us, “An Atlas of the Cosmos.”

At Slate, science writer Shannon Stirone pays tribute to the Arecibo telescope, the massive, 1,000-foot-wide radio telescope that will be decommissioned after two critical cables that hold up the 900-ton device suffered irreparable damage this past summer.

At 57 years old, Arecibo has helped us look deeply into space, at light, stars, and entities beyond our planet. In doing so, it has helped us better understand ourselves as humans and our place in the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos. Stirone credits Arecibo with sparking her interest in science.

Built in the early 1960s, Arecibo was initially designed to study the Earths ionosphere, the chemically active layer in the upper atmosphere that is ionized by solar radiation.

In the decades since, it has contributed to our understanding of pulsars, near-Earth asteroids, and planets within—and beyond—our solar system.

In the world of space and astronomy, Arecibo means different things to everyone, but at the heart, it seems to hit the same for us all—this telescope meant a level of access to the cosmos that we simply can’t find anywhere else.

Losing Arecibo—or any telescope of this magnitude, or any spacecraft—drives home something I think we tend to forget: Telescopes and spacecraft aren’t just tools. They are extensions of ourselves.

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The Digital Security Threat Inside Jameson Rich’s Body

Pacemaker, The University Hospital In Lille, France, Pacemaker And Heart Defibrillator. (Photo By BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

For the past four years, author Jameson Rich has had a small defibrillator implanted in his chest. Its job? To detect and prevent an arrhythmia that could end his life.

At OneZero Rich reports on what happens when the cure itself brings a whole host of new problems. The defibrillator, called an ICD, is part of the internet-of-things, sending data to his doctor and updating its software to patch vulnerabilities. Despite empty assurances from device manufacturers, anything on the internet can and will eventually be hacked. Is it only a matter of time before malicious people hack the very device that protects his heart’s rhythm?

The ICD would be a fail-safe, a tiny defibrillator inside my body that could go everywhere that I went.

When I came across an FDA safety notice warning that some ICDs, namely those made by a company called St. Jude, could be hacked, I was only days away from surgery. Once hacked, the devices could allow an external actor to gain control of the ICD, reprogram its functions, and inflict all kinds of damage—even trigger death.

In the past 13 years, these devices have also been fully integrated into the so-called Internet of Things—millions of everyday consumer items being programmed for and connected to the internet. Once connected to the internet, the devices ease the work of physicians and hospitals, who can now manage the device and monitor the patient’s condition remotely. Patients are typically charged each time their device sends data to the hospital. Think of it as a subscription—for your heart.

ICDs are just one increasingly popular medical gadget in a rising sea of clinical and commercial wireless health devices. Whether it is the growing suite of cardiac-monitoring devices available at home and on the go or an Apple Watch outfitted with diagnostic software, we are outsourcing more and more of our health to internet-enabled machines.

Having now lived with an ICD for more than three years and a pacemaker for the preceding 14, I understand intimately the consequences of being a body paired to the grid. If your smart fridge loses connectivity, maybe your food goes bad a few days early. But if a wireless ICD experiences a failure, the result could be lethal. I am stalked by the fear of the device misfiring and have wondered endlessly whether the documented security risks posed by these devices could end up harming me.

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Honorée Fanonne Jeffers on Helping Elderly Black People to Vote in 1976

Three men sit in front of a store window under a poster of Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia. Carter, who was born in this small Southern town, is running for the 1976 presidential election. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)

In this beautifully written essay at Kenyon Review, the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers recounts her mother’s efforts to overcome voter suppression in Georgia, and as a 9-year old, her own special role in helping elderly Black people to vote in the 1976 U.S. presidential election.

We had to walk around the Black neighborhoods—for Durham was still de facto segregated—and get as many Black people to register to vote for the presidential election as possible.

There was one home we stopped by, small and neat with a short stack of steps and a few flowers in the yard. That day, the lady who answered the door was light-skinned and maybe forty-five, though again, I was nine, so she probably seemed ancient to me. Her face was apathetic, and she sighed in a bored way as she explained, it didn’t matter who somebody voted for president, because these White folks were going to do whatever they wanted.

I expected my mother to correct the light-skinned lady. Maybe even start shouting, because Mama wasn’t known for holding her tongue. Instead, she nudged me toward the lady, asking, was her message of futility what we wanted to send to our children? That they didn’t have any power? That they couldn’t ever change their circumstances? Mama’s voice had turned “proper,” the accent of a schoolteacher who had graduated from Spelman College and had a master’s degree from another university as well.

I thought the lady would close the door on us, but she looked at me and smiled. Told me, I sure had some pretty long hair, and Mama nudged me again.

“Tell the nice lady who you want to be president, baby.”

On cue, I said, “I’m voting for Jimmy Carter!”

Mama held out the registration clipboard and pen to the lady, and after some hesitation, the lady took both and wrote down her information.

On voting Tuesday that year, Mama picked me up after school and drove us to the polls. She told me she had a very important job for me to do. But first, she needed to remind me of how I was reared, how I should remember to respect my elders.

She explained that I would take the hand of each old, Black person she would send my way. These would be people who couldn’t read. They knew the candidates they wanted to vote for, but because they couldn’t recognize the names on the ballot, they needed me to call out all the names for them, and then, they’d tell me which of those names they wanted to vote for.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Electric Guitar Pioneer

American singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing on stage with her guitar and Chris Barber's Jazz Band, Cardiff, Wales, November 1957. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

As a keen student of guitar and bass, I can never read enough about women who have played guitar. I’m eager to learn about them and their stories, about the experiences that infuse their playing and musicianship with skill and creativity.

At Oxford American, as part of their Southern Music Issue, Rosanne Cash celebrates the life and career of electric guitar pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an American singer and guitarist who influenced Elvis, Keith Richards, and Johnny Cash.

Her distorted Gibson and a voice that echoed from the center of the earth floated out of a lifetime of holy and carnal exaltations into the future, and changed the trajectory of rock & roll, blues, and soul music. …

Then she struts across the edge of the platform, with a little shimmy in her step, talking all the way about how fine the people are, how happy she is, how sweet everyone is. The band on the platform is vamping and the crowd is clapping in time. She picks her guitar up, where it is resting in what appears to be an empty washbasin, straps it on, and hits a couple of notes, in the wrong key. She calls to the band to ask for the right key and then—she brings it. My God, she brings it. She launches into “Didn’t It Rain” and it is transcendent, chilling, thrilling, and everything music is supposed to be.

Then comes the moment, two minutes and forty-nine seconds into the film, the few seconds that are a master class in performance, which I have watched dozens of times. She makes this little move that I’ve seen her do in other performance clips, but there is something particular about this one. She is playing her solo, and she lets go of the guitar and holds her hand up in front of her chest and leans forward, rocking back and forth a little, as if the strings are vibrating through her body. Her face is inscrutable. She is, as they say, filled with the spirit. To me, she looks to be in a numinous, otherworldly place. She is incredibly graceful, decked out in her Sunday best with her close-cropped, finely styled hair. She doesn’t care that it’s raining or that she is performing in a Brit’s weirdly conceived idea of the rural South, with wagon wheels and rocking chairs, or that the audience is sitting tightly packed on the other side of the wide expanse of the unused railroad tracks, shivering in the cold rain. She is not thinking of herself, or them, or about how to play the chords or the words of the song, she is not thinking of her last note, or the next one, or how her shoes look or if her hair is in place, she is not embarrassed that she started the song in the wrong key a couple of minutes earlier, she doesn’t care how awkward that horse and buggy arrival was. She’s not thinking of anything at all. She is a vehicle of musical ecstasy.

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