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Best 'Sports Writing' Shows Athletes At Their Limits

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Best 'Sports Writing' Shows Athletes At Their Limits

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Best 'Sports Writing' Shows Athletes At Their Limits

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today, fun is all but gone from the sports page, writes Jane Leavy. No one needs us around for a good time, with virtual fields of play beckoning at home at the touch of a joystick, and nobody needs us to report any score, with YouTube highlights, streaming video and 24/7 saturation bombing of fanboy sensibilities.

Sports writing, she concludes, is in the midst of a profound identity crisis, but she concludes, like losing coaches at halftime, we've adapted. That from the introduction to the "The Best Sports Writing 2011." So how's that adaptation going? What's the most interesting sports story you read this past year? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes joins us to talk about why America needed to focus on governance and not counterterrorism in Afghanistan. But first, Jane Leavy joins us here in Studio 3A. She's the editor of "The Best Sports Writing 2011." Jane, nice to have you back.

JANE LEAVY: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And part of that identity crisis is that so many of the stories you chose come from magazines and the Web and so few from newspapers.

LEAVY: Well, you know, Glen Stout(ph), who's the series editor, I think he said he read 10,000 pieces, of which I was given 71 to read. And I was stunned, being an old newspaper hound, that only two, three, something like that, came from actual newspapers, from sports sections that people, you know, open up and crinkle in the morning.

And it was a forcible reminder that what used to be columnists who had opinions - phased out at the New York Times, we've noticed, right? - you know, has taken root in new soil. Most of the places, Internet sites that have sprung up, and different kind of small niche publications, sports literati and now Grantland.com, Bill Simmons' site, which I'm writing for some.

And so you can't kill sportswriting, but you're not finding that much of what we think of as the great sports pieces in newspapers today.

CONAN: And great sports - we're not talking game stories.

LEAVY: No, no, game stories you see in newspapers, but again, they're sort of redundant. You don't need, I mean, game stories were created in a day, as my mentor Red Smith(ph) used to say, where your job was to get up and re-create the fun somebody had the day before at the ballgame, or, if he had to work, the fun he didn't have. And you don't need us for that anymore.

You'll have seen, you know, the 10 - 11-10 game with, you know, the homeruns in the sixth game of the World Series 27 times before you pick up the newspaper. So writers have to find a way to do something different.

And we started to do that a long time ago. We started to become medical writers. You know, people would say, well, you know, he's got a knee. Well, we all have knees. What does that really mean? You know, so - or business reporters because of free agency. And then, you know, color people the way you have on TV, only really with explication that only words can bring.

CONAN: And investigative reporters too. One of the pieces that you include is a story done on abc.com from a TV piece that they did, which looks into the fact that 36 swimming coaches had been banned for life for sexual abuses involving young women swimmers.

LEAVY: Yeah, and it proves the point, two things. One, I think, you know, female reporters, you see them going after the stories, and it's in Salina Roberts'(ph) piece about, you know, a horror show of cheerleading in Texas; and Sally Jenkins(ph) from the Washington Post, her column about Ben Roethlisberger and the, you know, downing - ordering his - I won't use the word - women to take more shots at a bar.

There is a culture of entitlement that suffuses sports, and very often now it's the female reporters who have the cajones, I guess...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEAVY: ...to go get those stories. And these two young women at abc.com went and documented this, and so it didn't come out of a traditional, you know, sports writing nexus.

CONAN: And that's A) a suggestion that either that's changed, or is that sports writing or is that news writing?

LEAVY: Well, you know, news writing and sports writing have become synonymous. And it started with, you know, free agency, and now it's in the concussion debate. And the problem is, you know, fans don't necessarily want to hear about that. They don't want to read that the sports that they love to watch can be lethal or disabling.

We were talking before about the number of concussions and deaths and suicides in hockey this year. It's the summer of suicides with three enforcers having apparently killed themselves. I went online earlier just to, you know, look like I was prepared. The list of suicides in hockey is astonishing.

I wrote a piece this summer about Mike Flanagan, the former Oriole ballplayer, a pitcher who I covered way back in the day for the Washington Post, who had a stint as a general manager that didn't work out, and he killed himself, three daughters, wife, he killed himself. Why? Because these guys, if they're lucky enough to survive the violence of the sports they're in - baseball obviously doesn't fit in that...

CONAN: As much, no.

LEAVY: No, not as much. But they don't really know how to be after the glow disappears, and if they're disabled mentally by too many hits upside the head, their capacity to deal with those things is even more diminished.

CONAN: The phenomenon too of what some have described as the first death. An athlete dies twice. Their career ends, and then they have to figure out something else to do. And Mike Flanagan may not have gotten the same - well, I don't want to speculate. You wrote the story.

LEAVY: Well, I mean, apparently - what was said by his friends at the time was that after he couldn't pull, and nobody has been able to, the Orioles out of the Peter Angelos-induced swoon, he couldn't find another place in baseball commensurate with his experience and with, you know, his desire to show he really could do something. So what do you do with yourself?

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Leavy, whose new book is "The Best American Sports Writing 2011." It's biggest sin is it includes none of her own work, other than the introduction. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Taylor(ph), Taylor with us from Augusta, Georgia.

TAYLOR: Yeah, well, the best sports story I actually read and heard about was a national sports story. I can't remember the student's school, but he was a cross-country runner, and, you know, he's competing in a match, and he comes across an opposing team's runner who's actually hurt himself and was bleeding quite profusely during the race, and he couldn't do anything. So he actually picked the opposing runner up, put him on his shoulders, carried him back to the other team's coach covered in his own blood and then continued on with this race and finished it.

CONAN: Yeah, I did read that story, and it was quite an inspiration. He ran back to the original starting line with this guy and then went on and obviously did not finish in the top two or three but gave up his own - it's a great story. It's one of those things that - thanks very much, Taylor.

TAYLOR: You're welcome.

CONAN: It's a wonderful - it's another reason, these exploits like that, in sports, they're out there for everybody to see.

LEAVY: Yeah, well, and they're - but they're hard to find, not because they're so few but because they don't tend to get the big publicity. I hope one of you, you or Taylor, will provide me with a copy of that story. I would love to read it, because what dominates sports coverage, and what I tried to address in the introduction here, is the extremes to which sports have now gone.

I'm not just talking about money or speed or violence. It's this seemingly - I'm about to editorialize - inane pursuit of extreme endeavor in which to say I conquered the world. And so when one - when all the regular worlds have been conquered, let's create something else.

So you get this guy doing BASE jumping, which I think it means buildings...

CONAN: Aerials...

LEAVY: Yeah, jumping off high things and seeing how far you can go without the normal paraphernalia. And there is this guy who has a profile, I think Craig Vetter(ph) wrote it, I hope I'm right, who wants to prove that he can jump off some cliff somewhere and fly without his specially made Teflon, polyester, whatever, flying suit, without a parachute. And he thinks he can defy the rules of gravity and the laws of nature. And why, you know?

CONAN: There is a terrific piece that you begin the collection in by John Powers about the terrible accident at the Olympics where a luger was killed in practice, and that's not the heart of the story. I mean, it is the idea that these courses are so much faster than they used to be. You saw the luge course in Lake Placid, for example.

LEAVY: Yeah, I was a little tipsy at the time, which I wasn't supposed to be, but it was very cold out there, and some fans had brought some white Russians, in fact a vat of them. I mean, it was a construction, you know, whatever you call those things, to the luge run.

And the astonishing thing is the guy from Georgia who was killed, looked like a crash dummy thrown off...

CONAN: The country Georgia, not the state Georgia.

LEAVY: Yes, correct. You know, thrown over the wall of the luge, was going 90 miles an hour. Now, in Lake Placid in - what year was it?

CONAN: 1980.

LEAVY: Thank you, 1980, you went 20 miles an hour slower. Now, did the competition suffer from that? Does a fan see it differently? Believe me, as a writer, it's just still whoosh. But I would wonder, and I would ask, why there had to be a course constructed the way it was at Mount Whistler. Why couldn't there have been netting on the sides?

Was it that it interfered with NBC's camera shot? I don't know the answer to that, but I'd sure as - I'd like to ask the question. What made it necessary? And it's true in every sport. Football players are still hitting each other in the head, but they're faster, and they're bigger, and they're stronger, and it's the difference between hitting, you know, a car at 20 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour.

CONAN: The book is titled "The Best American Sports Writing 2011." More with editor Jane Leavy in just a moment. What's the most interesting sports story you've read in the past year? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Not just the incident, we're talking about the words about the incident. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Sports, long considered the toy department of journalism, has long since grown up, and the business now faces an identity crisis. That's what Jane Leavy tells us in the introduction to her new collection, "The Best American Sports Writing 2011."

You can read an excerpt from that on our website, at npr.org. She is also the author of "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood," just out in paperback.

What's the most interesting sports story you've read this year? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Among the pieces included as the best was written by Jake Bogoch. His piece "School of Fight: Learning to Brawl with the Hockey Goons of Tomorrow" first ran on deadspin.com, and Jake Bogosh joins us now from the studios of WBEZ, our member station in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.

JAKE BOGOCH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you grew up playing hockey in Western Canada, and you tell a story that in fact you were instructed as a young man into the rules of hockey fights, but instructed off the ice, impromptu. It was a taboo subject.

BOGOCH: Yeah, absolutely. So the thing in hockey when you're a kid in Canada is somebody is going to eventually have this talk with you. It's going to be your dad or your brother or a neighbor, whoever. And my dad did not grow up playing hockey.

So this guy, this neighbor of ours on this summer house we had on this lake, he gave me this sort of unsolicited lesson. He just took me aside and told me how I could basically dismantle some poor kid on the ice.

CONAN: And it is, as you say, a role on every hockey team, from Peewee to the NHL.

BOGOCH: Absolutely, yeah. So there's people who have made a good living fighting. They're not necessarily skilled players. And this still exists. It's not as pervasive as it was in the NHL, but it is very much still a designated role.

CONAN: And yet nobody really - the phrase that you say: We have to protect the goalie.

BOGOCH: It's a euphemism, sure, but it's also about intimidation. It's about - you can - and also, the research that I dug up is you can actually win hockey games. There's a pile of research that showed that the more violent teams, the more fighty and hitty kind of style, that wins games. That wins championships. And it has for years.

So protecting the goalie, yeah, sure that's a euphemism, because maybe your goalie will come under attack. But it ladders up to a much bigger purpose.

CONAN: It is a strategic part of the game, not just to get the fans involved, but to change momentum.

BOGOCH: Yes. So what'll happen is - so let's say you're down two goals, three goals, and you're at home, on your home ice. And your fans are snoozing. They're not in the game. You look like - you look terrible, and your team looks sluggish.

So what will happen is the designated pugilist will go out there, either by his own volition or from the coach, and he will drop the gloves, and he will fight somebody. And typically, that other somebody is another fighter or an agitator, certainly not a star player. And win or lose, that fight, it gets the crowd out of its torpor, and it gets them screaming and on their feet and going nuts.

And that typically is the loudest cheering of any hockey game. It's not the goals. The goal, sure, it's a nice, sharp spike, but this makes people go insane. And when you have your fans on their feet, it can lift you - you, as a team - from your funk and get going and score goals.

CONAN: And you found a rare admission, a course - a camp in Canada that taught one-day lessons in fighting for kids.

BOGOCH: Yes.

CONAN: And you went. You signed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOGOCH: It wasn't easy to sign up. That was hard. That guy made it hard for me to get in.

CONAN: Because they thought you were going to write bad publicity.

BOGOCH: Yeah. They'd had a ton, as you can imagine, already. There was a newspaper in Minnesota that just eviscerated this guy. He wasn't the most media-savvy guy. He was just a nice guy who was - who started up this hockey camp, and this - he had a totally legitimate hockey school for skills and things, and this was just a one-off.

I think it was - initially, it started, I think, as a stunt. That was my hypothesis. And then it did so well, he did it again and again and again.

CONAN: And so this seminar would travel around through different places, and you attended one. But as you point out, as reprehensible as it might be, A, they taught you techniques that actually worked.

BOGOCH: I was blown away. So my own career as a hockey player, as lackluster as it was - I mean, I played relatively seriously, and I was cut from an elite team. But I'd been in a couple of fights, and I just did not know what to do, despite this unsolicited lesson I'd got. It wasn't great. One fight, I just got absolutely destroyed.

And so I grew up believing that it was a totally random thing, that these guys would just go for these short, frantic bursts. And there actually is a technique to it. And when these guys slowed down everything and they broke it down bit by bit, there is a mechanic to it. And, yeah, it looks furious, but it doesn't necessarily - it doesn't have a script, per se, but there's certain moves that are recurring, and there are certain things that absolutely do work.

CONAN: You write in your piece: The stars need protection. Wayne Gretzky so appreciated Dave Seminko's services that in 1983, he gave Seminko the car he won in the All-Star Game's MVP. The lesser players need a job. The league needs to sell the game. That's why fighting isn't going anywhere. The incentives are too strong to keep it around. Course and slapdash as it might have been, fight camp was teaching kids to cope with hockey as it is, not as we wish it might be.

BOGOCH: Yeah. I mean, think of it as, like, a lawless country. So hockey might have a central government that tolerates, say, like, regional militias. And if there are regional militias out there, you better have a Kalashnikov. You know, it's not a lawless place, per se. Like, there is that central government. But the - as each game unfolds, you know, the long arm of the NHL law isn't there to rain down on that.

And people just - it's okay. It's acceptable at the highest levels, and kids imitate it. And there was a study that I found that showed that among the minor league players and children, that kids who fight are perceived to be better hockey players by their coaches.

CONAN: Jake Bogoch's piece "School of Fight: Learning to Brawl with the Hockey Goons of Tomorrow," ran in Deadspin. It's included as part of the "Best American Sports Writing 2011." He's with us. Also with us, Jane Leavy, his editor. Jane, that piece is just terrific.

LEAVY: It's wonderful, Jake, and I would ask you two questions: One, how's your kidney? Because in the recitation, you managed to leave out the salient fact that a 16-year-old who out-weighed you and was at least your height, I believe, hit you in the kidney with such force that you had blood in your urine the next day. So, first: Are you okay?

BOGOCH: I am okay. There was blood in the urine. There's a bunch of doctors in my family, and they were furious when I told them that. So, you know, I just said all in the name of journalism or whatever, and sort of brushed it aside.

LEAVY: And you see what I mean about going to extremes.

CONAN: Yeah.

LEAVY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah. Let's get another caller on the line. Let's get Nettie(ph) with us, Nettie with us from Nashville.

NETTIE: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

NETTIE: Good, good. My comment is I read this wonderful article in the New Yorker about concussions, and football players especially I think is what it centered on. And I'm a professor, an adjunct professor, at an HBCU here in Tennessee, at TSU. A lot of my students are football players.

And it just kind of breaks my heart. We have discussions about, you know, what their body is going through and are they going to be okay. But there's - I mean, that's how they're getting through college, by using their bodies this way. And they remind me of soldiers. And...

LEAVY: But they're not paid.

NETTIE: And another article, too, that I read recently. I can't remember where, though. Boy, if you ask everybody, players and non-players at my school, they think they should be paid. And I never thought of that before, but this sports writing lately is making me look at my students as whole new people, with a whole new set of issues and problems. And it kind of breaks my heart sometimes, these young people who just want an education and are - I don't know, I think they're kind of getting abused.

CONAN: The concussion stories, and they first started running in the New York Times, and yes, there was a good piece in the New Yorker, too. But our friend Alan Schwarz, who's been on this program many times, started these stories. And Jake Bogoch, this has been nowhere more prominent of late than in hockey.

BOGOCH: Yeah, and it's a two-fold problem. So Jane was talking earlier in the program about how sports have progressed to this very extreme level, and how it's about conquering. And all - sort of parallel with that is the rise of the super-athlete. And in hockey, that's the same - the rink is the same size.

The players, however, are much bigger than they ever were. And these players are not just these, you know, lumbering, traditional goons. These are fast, skilled players. The best players in the league, some of these guys are, you know, 220, 240 pounds, and they are flying around that ice - very, very skilled.

So that first problem is just the collisions and the hits to the head, and they're legal, or formerly legal body checks to the head, which wreaked havoc on the league for a few years. And as of right now, the league's best player, one of the best ever, Sidney Crosby, is out with a concussion, a concussion that he suffered during the outdoor game with Washington last year. And the second...

CONAN: Excuse me, Marc Staal of the New York Rangers out because of a hit from his brother.

LEAVY: Right.

BOGOCH: Yeah.

LEAVY: And the thing about these - if you read the coverage about the NFL players and the hockey players, they're all saying, well, now you want us to play different? How are we supposed to learn how to do that? We spend our lives, starting in childhood, learning how to fight - the way you did, Jake - learning how to hit, you know, in such a way that you can strip the ball or strip the senses out of a person. And it's - the escalation, it's, you know, it's deeper, you know, steeper, crazier. That's the new motto(ph) in sports.

CONAN: And while we're - and, Neddy, thanks very much for the call. While we're talking about hockey, there is a more traditional piece from Sports Illustrated called "Eight Seconds." Sidney Crosby - this goes back and reconstructs frame by frame the eight seconds in which Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in the World, in - at - for the - at the Olympic Games to defeat the United States.

LEAVY: You remember anybody dropping their gloves during that thing?

CONAN: I don't think so.

LEAVY: Exactly.

BOGOCH: Well, that's the really interesting thing, Jane, is that in the high-stakes games, there's actually very little fighting, almost zero. So in the Stanley Cup finals, the teams that do fight typically don't. And same thing at the Olympic level, the – I forget what the fines or the penalty is for the Olympics, but it's not kosher to do that. And at the Stanley Cup level, if you're penalized, you're in trouble. So people typically don't do it at the highest level. It's just more of that steely-eyed gaze and knowing what could be.

CONAN: And as Jake Bogoch points out in his piece, especially at the minor league level, where you have to do a little more to entertain the fans. And he writes about the goons. And also he wrote about the goons of tomorrow in his piece that's included in "The Best American Sports Writing 2011." He's with us from Chicago. Jane Levy, the editor, is with us here in Studio 3A. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Jen in Portland: I can't remember the young woman's name, but she was the cox for a college rowing team (unintelligible) maybe. While reading the article in SI, I found myself rooting for this young woman who'd been diagnosed with lung cancer. The entire time I was reading I was so sure she would beat the cancer. How I wanted her to win the fight. She succumbs, but not without a heroic battle. The article left me in tears. The young woman was Jill Costello, who died in June of 2010. And Jane, another powerful story.

LEAVY: Yeah. And again, you know, the cliche about heart is so often applied just to male athletes. And I wanted to include Jill's story because it showed something about how much people, women, can care about a sport that's not major league, it's not getting coverage, it's not going to result in a contract; it's just some part that defined her to such an extent that it was what she chose to do with her dying weeks. And it touched me as much as it touched you.

CONAN: Let's get Betty on the line. Betty with us from Birmingham.

BETTY: Hello. It's not only teaching kids how to hit each other. Here in Birmingham, we have a situation where one high school accused this winning team, 9-0, of having an ineligible player. So the Alabama High School Association said they couldn't be in the playoffs tomorrow. Well, they went to court. Court says, nope, you can't do that. They can play. Well, another team says, well, wait a minute, we should be in the playoffs, so they went to court. So we've had three county courts batting this back and forth, and it's going to the Alabama Supreme Court today to decide who's going to play in the football game.

CONAN: We already know who the winners are - the lawyers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BETTY: That's right. Isn't that ridiculous? And what are we teaching our children?

CONAN: Betty, thanks for...

LEAVY: Litigate.

CONAN: Go to law school.

BOGOCH: Go to law school. No jobs there either, guys.

CONAN: Here's an email from Rob in Tallahassee: Runner's World magazine had two outstanding stories this year, both in the last few months. One was an oral history of Grete Waitz's first-of-seven victories in the New York City marathon. The second was about the father of America's running boom, Frank Shorter, discussing publicly for the first time child abuse he and his siblings suffered as children. I recommend that reading to everyone. That reminds me of the story that's in your anthology, Jane. That's about Dusty Baker and his willingness to talk about what it's like to, after prostate surgery, wear a diaper in a baseball locker room.

LEAVY: Yeah. That was Howard Bryant's piece, and Howard's terrific. And, you know, here's a man, Dusty Baker, and you think about taking risks. Well, candor is a risk too. And he was willing to go on the record and talk about -while visiting, by the way, parts of Cincinnati that were stations on the underground railroad. A man of conscience, a man of - with a sense of history greater than just baseball. But he was willing to tell Howard about his surgery, about the consequences of it, you know, the incontinence that is, you know, happens to so many men after prostate cancer surgery. And, you know, what it took not just to tell Howard and to have it be public, but to appear in that way in his own locker room, because, you know, athletes are not necessarily easy on people about things like that.

CONAN: Here's Erin in Buffalo: I never read the sports pages, but the Buffalo News had a fantastic story last spring about the girl place-kicker who scored the winning point in her school's homecoming game, and then was crowned homecoming queen still in her uniform amongst her gown-clad court. She was self-effacing - I loved - and an A student. So...

LEAVY: I want to read that one.

CONAN: Oh, by the way, we need to thank everybody who has emailed us with the link to the story about the runner who helped a competitor. We've got it now and we'll get the facts out, and Jane will get the story as well. Jake Bogoch, thank you very much for your story, and thanks very much for joining us today.

BOGOCH: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Jake Bogoch, a freelance writer, joined us from WBEZ, our member station in Chicago. And Jane Leavy joined us here in Studio 3A. The most recent book of hers, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood." Good luck. Just out in paper.

LEAVY: Thanks so much, Neal.

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