Introduction: In Extremis
One decade into the new millennium the world of sports is in extremis. Everything is more extreme — hits and hip checks, endeavor and entitlement, compensation and consequence. Forget "faster, higher, stronger." Try "deeper, steeper, crazier."
When I signed on for this gig, I expected a full complement of gnarly surfer dude stories and ultra-tortured ultra-marathon confessionals. I didn't expect the death wish that suffuses the language and the actions of so many competitions and competitors: among the stories submitted for consideration this year were tales about high-altitude skiers who take their lives in their hands to ski in the "death zone"; an annual Vermont "Death Race" organized by triathletes whose stated ambition is "to break you"; and a breathtakingly reckless pickup skateboarder named Danny Way.
The need to declare oneself a world champion of something, to create worlds to conquer, even if it means maybe getting killed in the process, has spawned proto-playing fields unheard of when my hero, Red Smith, filed his first piece for the St. Louis Star in 1927 — an account of the first night football game at Washington University written from the point of view of a glowworm outshone by the newly installed stadium lights. As Red saw it, his job was to help readers "recapture the fun they had at yesterday's game or find a substitute for the fun they didn't have because they had to go to work instead."
He also said that his job was to provide "momentary pleasure, like a good whore."
By the time I joined the Washington Post sports staff in 1979, Red's Runyonesque notion of sports writing was obsolete. "Juggling," Robert Lipsyte, then Red's colleague at the New York Times, called it. (Juggling may be the only subject not covered by this year's submissions, which included pinball, bridge, birding, and competitive computer programming.)
Led by a new generation of edgy sportswriters like Lipsyte, we found new purpose in the great issues of the day — race, equal opportunity, drugs, and labor disputes. We became personality journalists, medical writers, and business reporters. Red quit juggling and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for columns devoted to grown-up subjects, including off-track betting, baseball free agency, and Olympic hypocrisy.
The toy department, as he called it, was all grown up.
Today fun is all but gone from the sports page. No one needs us around for a good time with virtual fields of play beckoning at home at the touch of a joystick. Pretty soon no one will feel the need to go to a game because now you can be in a computer-generated game with graphics so graphic, violence so violent, stylin' so stylish, that NFL players have taken to imitating their virtual clones.
Nobody needs us to report any score. With YouTube highlights, streaming video, and 24/7 saturation bombing of Fanboy sensibilities on a proliferating array of dedicated cable channels — MLB, UFC, WWE, Archery TV, Board Riders TV, Fourth and Long, Cricket Ticket, Nascar HotPass, Golf Bug, Futbol Mundial, not to mention the networks created by teams and for teams, like YES — there's precious little sports left in sports writing.
And precious little news. Team-sponsored websites routinely give access — and scoops — to their own "reporters" — who are quite literally the new "house men," as hacks of old were called. End zone Twitter feeds by athlete auteurs preempt the fastest press box scribes.
Sports journalism is in the midst of an identity crisis so profound that we no longer know whether we're made up of one word or two. "Sportswriting Is One Word," Frank Deford declared in his 2010 Red Smith Lecture in Journalism at Notre Dame. A master of the long form in his glory days at Sports Illustrated, Frank saluted our business as the only journalistic endeavor to merit its own signifier, while mourning the passage of in-depth "takeouts." "Sports stories — two words — are disappearing," he said.
Glenn Stout, the indomitable editor of the Best American Sports Writing series, published by Houghton Mifflin since 1991, prefers two words — sports writing — as does spell-check. "The intention is to celebrate good writing that happens to be about sports," he explains, "rather than 'sportswriting,' a definition which tends to mean sports reporting, usually confined to news stories that appear in newspapers and ... far more narrow in scope."
Red Smith used two words — sports writer — in a 1937 letter to a young man seeking advice on a career in journalism. Decades later he took the opposite approach. In the introduction to an anthology of columns called Strawberries in the Wintertime, he noted that the title "captures, I think, some of the flavor of the sportswriter's existence."
Like losing coaches at halftime, we have adjusted. Sports writing may be as popular as ever, Deford says, but it's as likely to be measured now in characters as in column inches. Newspaper columnists and beat writers have reinvented themselves as prolific bloggers and tweeters, attracting cultlike followers with their digital haiku — not quite what E. B. White meant by the "clear crystal stream of the declarative sentence." (Red considered it part of his job to read Elements of Style every year.)
But long-form sports stories are flourishing in new soil — popping up on new websites where space is infinite and nobody says, "Cut from the bottom." I'm happy that so many of those sources are represented in this collection.
It's anybody's guess how many published words are devoted to sports every year. Two things are for sure: fewer and fewer of them appear in traditional outlets, and Glenn Stout has read more of them than anyone else. He read 10,000 or so stories and sent 71 for my consideration. I lobbied for a couple of others that somehow eluded his in-box — Powers's column about death in Vancouver and two stories from the ABC News series about the sexual molestation of female swimmers by their coaches — because they exemplify the risks and risk-taking behavior that is the subject of so much of today's best sports writing (and sportswriting).
Lunatic endeavor has become ubiquitous, both on and off the field. To wit: an American BASE jumper — BASE stands for "buildings, antennas, spans, and earth" — who makes his leaps in a hand-tailored Italian neoprene suit like "Rocky the Flying Squirrel"; an Austrian free-diver whose ambition is to prove he can descend 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, give or take, without his head exploding; surfers who charge manfully into the waters of a Norwegian fjord in winter in order to be able to say they surfed above the Arctic Circle; English schoolmates who took the treacherous route to the summit "because it was there" and lost their lives on Mont Blanc.
The roster of all-star risk-takers also includes "sexting" quarterbacks, concussed quarterbacks, and the team doctors who send them back into the huddle; bong-sucking swimmers and blood-doping bikers; monied homeys like Marvin Harrison, the wide receiver on the other end of so many Peyton Manning heaves, who can't not go home again; and his extreme opposite, Darryl Dawkins, the first man to go straight from high school to the NBA, "the Man from Lovetron" who took a risk and applied for a job as a college coach.
General managers who pay a gazillion dollars for a .230 shortstop are risk-takers. Owners who shut down the most profitable game in the history of humankind are risk-takers. And truth tellers like Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker are as rare as candor is risky. His admission of the impotence and incontinence caused by prostate cancer surgery — telling Howard Bryant what it's like to wear diapers in a major league clubhouse — was as daring as any daredevil flight of fancy.
Their risk is our salvation.
"Introduction: In Extremis" by Jane Leavy from The Best American Sports Writing 2011. Introduction copyright 2011 by Jane Leavy. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.