Welcome to “Golden Age” of Sportswriting
"Golden Age". It’s a phrase you read, and hear, an awful lot these days. You’ve probably heard plenty about the "Golden Age" of Television, tracing from Tony Soprano through Bunk and McNulty all the way through the "Ozymandias" episode of Breaking Bad that I’m still processing as we speak. But it’s not just television, it’s music too… we’re in a new "Golden Age" of hip-hop, classical, even music videos, depending on who you talk to. When it comes to literature, it’s the "Golden Age" of both traditional and independent publishing. No matter where you stand on all of this, I think we can all agree that it is, in fact, the "Golden Age" of declaring the "Golden Age" of things.
Plus, that TV On The Radio song is fantastic isn’t it?
Well, forgive me, because I’m about to add to the pile. I can’t help it really, because I’ve been so desperate to find something, anything positive after a string of news in and around the NFL that would have made Vince Lombardi reconsider his life’s purpose. It’s been a brutal stretch of wading through the cesspool, waiting for the latest piece of bad news, and stopping to examine the morality of football fandom itself. So what’s the silver lining? What’s the one thing we can point to amidst all this sports sadness?
We’re in the "Golden Age" of sportswriting.
Hyperbolic? Maybe a little. But I actually think it’s important to take a brief moment and appreciate what an important, transformational, and above all powerful time this is for truly excellent sports writing and opinion. You can look at all the bad behavior, and institutional rot, and just become sad, and cynical. Who could blame you? But for a second, I’d prefer to focus on the reporters who are bringing it all out of the shadows and into the light, and the thinkers and activists who are doing their best to make sure it gets better.
Will Leitch wrote an excellent column for Sports on Earth Wednesday, examining the way in which you, and me, the public at large, all of us, play a role in making sure that these stories are handled better than they were 25 years ago. I’ll go one step further, and point out that the work of Will, and so many others like him, is playing a monumental role in reforming a broken system.
Forgive the laundry list, but there’s a lot of work that deserves to be seen, and read. Over at Grantland, Louisa Thomas has written an important feature on how the NFL’s problem with domestic violence is anything but new. Meanwhile, at the Cauldron, Jim Cavan has written eloquently on how difficult it is for the NFL to somehow arbitrate its own culture of violence. Patrick Hruby’s latest piece for Vice Sports ensures that we continue to pay attention to the NFL’s long suffering retirees, even as the latest scandals unfold. For SBNation, David Roth has posited that the NFL’s problems are a consequence of its own power and coerciveness. And at Deadspin, an incredibly talented group of writers continue to hold the league’s feet to the fire for every misstep. And all of this has come in the last week! There’ll be more to see today, and tomorrow, and until our appetite for sports is sated, which of course will be never.
Maybe you disagree with some of the criticism. Maybe you aren’t entirely on board with some of what’s put forward. Maybe, like me, you simply have a hard time keeping up with it all. That’s ok. The important thing is there’s an abundance of thought provoking work, covering these important stories, from just about every angle imaginable. One moment, Michael Tracey is explaining why a boycott of the NFL is a moral imperative, and in the next, the aforementioned Leitch counters that we need not be ashamed of our fandom. I thoroughly enjoyed both pieces, because no matter where you come down on these complicated subjects, it’s phenomenal that so many great minds are adding to the debate.
And I’m not sure all these ideas would have reached the surface, five or ten years ago. The NFL, and for that matter, most professional sports leagues, have become massive, all-encompassing institutions that touch every aspect of American life. They cut deals with every company you can imagine. They are televised by every major broadcast network, (including yes, the one responsible for the site you’re reading right now). Their games, and the entertainment they provide, are the lifeblood of a multi-billion dollar empire. Expecting an organization that size not to throw its weight around, and exert a bit of influence, isn’t just unrealistic, it’s downright naive.
That’s not to suggest that great work can’t still come from places that do business with the NFL. Under this very banner, Alex Marvez asked why the Vikings so long to sort out the Adrian Peterson situation, Peter Schrager dove into the reactions and emotions provoked by Ray Rice’s misdeeds, and Katie Nolan issued a much needed call for women to be more central in the sports conversation. The NFL’s massive deal with ESPN hasn’t stifled the righteous anger of Keith Olbermann, and CBS’ brand new simulcast of Thursday Night Football made room for James Brown to talk throughtfully about domestic violence. Plenty of writers, reporters, and thinkers at big media companies are honest, and critical, and have bosses that will fight for their freedom and creativity.
But there can never be enough competition in the marketplace of ideas, and at a time when the NFL deserves criticism, it’s so encouraging to see independent media continue to grow and to thrive. Of course the platform, and the size of your megaphone still matters. But in 2014, more than ever before, if your idea is good enough, if you have something worthwhile to say, it will find its audience. Twitter, Facebook, "the blogosphere", are all too often seen as an unruly land where a mob mentality rules the day. But when you really take the time to dig deeper, listen, and learn, and see what’s out there, you realize that we’re building a better, smarter, more focused mob, one that can actually effect real change.
Like with so many "Golden Ages", we tend to romanticize a bygone era. When it comes to sports, and the way it is covered, we still celebrate the notion of a grizzled beat writer, probably smoking a cigarette, sitting in a press box, writing a poetic ode to Bobby Thomson. That’s all well and good, but I’ll take the modern day, and a sports media world filled with analytics, oral histories, think pieces, data journalism, podcasts, and long-reads. Sure, it doesn’t all measure up, but we sort through it, bring the best of the best to the forefront, and let it shape our sports culture for the better.
Sounds pretty golden to me.