On September 21, some of the most distinguished names in sports journalism gathered at the Carpenter-Winkel Centennial Room at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin for the presentation of the second annual Dan Jenkins Medal for Excellence in Sportswriting.
The winning story—Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard’s profile of NBA coach Monty Williams after the death of Williams’s wife in a car accident—is a stunning piece of deep, nuanced writing. It’s exactly the kind of story that the award, given by the University of Texas’s Center for Sports Communication & Media and named after legendary Texas sportswriter Dan Jenkins, was created to honor. And while there isn’t a shortage of thoughtful, graceful writing that uses sports to help us gain a better understanding of the world around us and our place in it, the field of sportswriting faces challenges in 2018—both the same challenges that other kinds of journalism face, and additional ones unique to the form.
To explore why sportswriting matters in 2018, we caught up with Mike Butterworth, Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media; Michael MacCambridge, Jenkins Medal co-chair (along with Washington Post reporter Sally Jenkins, who is the daughter of the award’s namesake); and Kevin Robbins, who teaches sports journalism at the University of Texas.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Texas Monthly: What are the challenges that sports journalism faces right now?
Michael MacCambridge: Journalists everywhere are under more pressure, so that makes everybody’s lives more difficult. The challenge for sports journalists, as distinct from when Dan Jenkins was at Sports Illustrated in the sixties, is one of access. Back [then], when SI was coming to town, that was big news. Teams made sure that their athletes were available, that their coaches were available, for one-on-one exclusive interviews. Jenkins drove Darrell Royal around Fayetteville before the Game of the Century in ’69. Now, because of ESPN, because of TV, because of everything from The Players’ Tribune to Twitter, players can communicate more directly than going through print media outlets, so sports journalists have a real challenge in being able to tell those stories. But the ones who still do it well stand out. And I would argue that, because there are all these other bells and whistles around it now, there’s still something valuable about sportswriters who can tell the story. Because being able to speak to why, of all these excellent athletes and elite talents, this person is able to exceed everyone else is fascinating. It’s fascinating in business, when you’re telling it about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or it’s fascinating in sports, telling it about Michael Phelps or Tom Brady. So I still think there’s a value in it.
TM: Has the nature of what qualifies as sports journalism changed?
Kevin Robbins: It can come in any manner of forms. Sports journalism to me isn’t so much delivery as it is substance. I teach sports reporting classes at UT, and I encourage people who don’t like sports to take the class, especially the entry-level class, because you use the same journalistic skills. Data mining, public records, dogged research. Sports happens to be the occasion for the journalism, but it doesn’t have to be a specialty. Wright Thompson, who won last year [for this piece on Tiger Woods], isn’t a big sports fan, but he likes people. [Those people] happen to be athletes, because he works for ESPN and not National Geographic. But I think sports journalism, and excellence in sports journalism, is incredibly inclusive. The kids in my classes who don’t like sports, they have to write a final, just like the kids who love sports do. And I tell them that my definition of sports is very broad. If it has the whiff of sports, we’ll find a way.
MacCambridge: It’s broader now than it was 25 years ago. I can see a time in the future where a blogger who writes about when the Cleveland Browns finally qualify for the playoffs or something, that could be a piece that would be eligible for Best Sportswriting. I think the real exciting thing at this time is that there’s an old guard with what was, and we’re in the midst of the transition to what is. And there are a lot of people who’ve fallen by the wayside, but there are also people who are making their way through nontraditional media, and still writing, and people still love great writing. There’s talk radio, there’s podcasts, there’s 24-hour NFL, but people still want to read a great piece.
Mike Butterworth: We’re at a transitional moment, not just in terms of what’s happening in the industry and digital platforms—the nature of how we think about great writing is evolving with that. People can not only distribute stories in different ways, but they are accessible to different kinds of audiences. I think that while that longform, mythic framework still characterizes a lot of great writing, we’re probably in the midst of some kind of a change there.
TM: Are there encouraging signs for the rest of journalism based on what’s happening in sports?
Robbins: I’m going to watch The Athletic. I want to see what happens when the money runs out, because they’re all in. And I hope that this works. I think that could mean something good for us. So we’ll see. The Athletic‘s model is promising while it has all this initial funding. We’ll see, once that’s gone, what the subscription rate looks like, and whether that’ll pay for all the expenses they’ve committed to.
TM: Sports journalists these days are often tasked with covering things outside of their wheelhouse because of the way things are connected. An NFL beat writer in Tampa may have to cover sexual assault allegations because of who their quarterback is. Most sportswriters have had to decide how to cover protests that occur during the national anthem, or to decide not to cover them. How do they ensure they’re not in over their heads?
Butterworth: What distinguishes competent work from important work is the ability to contextualize the choices that we make, and the understanding of the historical background, the recognition of critical identity positions that are at stake, being able to make those kinds of interpretations. Somebody who is trained in both the vocabulary of and the specific skills in a sport, they can make that transition and be equipped to know what kinds of questions to ask, to think about language choices, and why they’re interpreted the way that they are. I don’t think anyone can look at a career in sports journalism in 2018 and say, “I don’t need to know those things.” The old stereotype of the “Toy Department” of the newsroom wasn’t particularly fair in its origins, and it’s certainly inaccurate now. Sports are a place where these issues are not simply happening, not simply mirrors to larger society—they’re a place where those issues are being shaped. Some of our most important conversations are originating there. That gets right at the importance of not only the profession, but how we think about preparing people for that profession.
Robbins: The way to get good at it is to do something else first. I came up through three small newspapers where I covered education, county government, and cops. All that stuff became sort of helpful when I became a sports reporter. And for goodness sake, if you’re out of your realm, hand it off to somebody whose expertise is in that. They’re not always sports stories—they’re court stories, or crime stories. There’s an overlap, but a traditionally trained, came-up-through-covering-preps sports reporter should, at the very least, work in partnership with somebody from the city desk, rather than going at it alone. Sometimes they have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re going to [screw] it up and look stupid, and make the paper look stupid.
TM: We spend more time than ever talking about football, basketball, baseball, and, to a lesser extent, hockey and soccer. During Dan Jenkins’s time at Sports Illustrated, you might get an extended cover story on a relatively obscure sport. Now, it’s almost always an athlete in a major American team sport. What do we lose, and what do we gain, from going much deeper on fewer topics, as opposed to looking more broadly at sports as a whole?
Robbins: I like a liberally educated sports audience. I watch games casually. I don’t do fantasy leagues. I don’t care about the draft. I don’t care about advanced stats in MLB. I’m not a sports junkie, but I do like a well-told story. I miss that. If you’re gonna pitch me on another profile of who the Cowboys should draft next year, I’m not that interested. So we have different audiences we need to tend to. I kind of want to say, “Don’t forget about me.” Best American Sportswriting is for me, and people like me. The daily sports page is for a different audience. I care about them all, but I care more about the well-told story. I think that places like The Athletic and its satellite sites in cities fancy doing that, I think that SI still does it, but with less frequency. ESPN The Magazine still does it—people like Wright Thompson still do it. That’s all he does. It’s hard to say if we’re doing it enough. Enough for me might not be enough for someone else. It’s not enough for me, but I also understand why I don’t see it as often.
Butterworth: The last thing we need is another deep-dive analysis into the NFL draft in the middle of February. We have some of those things so well covered. But what you’re describing is also being felt in terms of local coverage. Increasingly, we’re very focused in larger media outlets on national stories, national stories are going to have traction that will speak to a large audience, and that’s going to reward the major sports. That’s a product of market dynamics. Sports Illustrated can’t afford to send someone to cover a badminton tournament. That was a beautiful thing of some classic sportswriting, and thinking about the inherent drama in sports that might be symbolized by a chess match, rather than by an NFL game. That’s harder to do at the moment, given the pressures of competing with social media delivery, the speed with which everything happens, the contracting of budgets … I’m curious to see how a site like The Athletic, for example, which is clearly making a major effort to recapture some of the local, can, in doing that, also capture some of those sports that are left in the shadows of the major sports. And the same thing is true of covering women’s sports in a landscape still dominated by male sports.
MacCambridge: Even recognizing all of these forces, and the ceaseless, remorseless need to get it first—and the people I know who work actively as sportswriters, that’s negatively affected the quality of their life—the good stuff that’s out there is really good, and I think it’ll stand the test of time. There’s room for all of it, because there’s so much more out there. Media in sports is going to continue to focus on verticality in the future—if you look at Sports Illustrated in the sixties, they’re covering 24 hours of Le Mans, they’re covering badminton tournaments, the lacrosse national championship. Now it’s just the big four sports. But I’m a Kansas City Chiefs fan. There are sites I can go to that are just about the Chiefs, that’ll have breakdowns of the All-22 coach’s tape saying what zone defense they’re trying to play, why it didn’t work, why they blitzed more in the second half. That level of minutiae and detail was unattainable a generation ago. Just as it’s a golden era for TV, it’s a really good time for sports journalism. People who are fans will want more and more of that, and it’s a really exciting time. There’s always the balance of this data—how important it is and what we can interpret from it—and the real story, which is human beings.
This post has been updated to correct an error; Kevin Robbins misspoke in saying he’d be keeping an eye on The Ringer; he’d meant to say The Athletic.