I have a bit of a man crush on Wright Thompson.
If you don’t know who he is, don’t feel bad. He’s not exactly a household name. Thompson happens to be a brilliant, young writer for ESPN.com. But you never see him on TV, screaming and attempting to shove his opinion down your throat like many of his better-known sportswriter brethren. Best I can tell, he just writes features like this, this and this for the Worldwide Leader. And he’s damn good at it.
Thing is, I’m afraid Thompson might be among the last of a dying breed. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see too many insightful and provocative 5,000 word sports stories these days. Once upon a time, Sports Illustrated had that market cornered. But even SI seems to be rather disinterested in that form of journalism now.
Why? Is it because we’re an ADHD society and nobody’s interested in full-length features anymore? I, perhaps mistakenly, give us a little more credit than that. I think most everyone likes to read good stories, no matter how long they are. Certainly a riveting tale can be told in 2,000 words or less, but if you’re going to truly dig deep and get to the heart of your subject matter, you’ll typically need more space.
Besides, shouldn’t we expect more these days? Think about it, we live in an age of sports media super-saturation, yet for all the information available at our fingertips, 99.9 percent of it consists of nothing but superficial stories lacking both substance and soul. Heck, there are so many fluff pieces in the Houston Chronicle, you’d think the paper must be printed on cotton. And while that sort of journalism—if you even want to call it that—smacks of laziness, I don’t blame the Chron entirely. There’s something larger at work here; namely, access and availability.
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Pro sports have gotten so big now that many of today's athletes are no different than Hollywood celebrities. "Exclusive" access often means getting an opportunity to interview someone 1-on-1 for a mere 15 to 30 minutes. How much can one possibly glean from such a small sample? And if that’s all a reporter can get, who can blame newspapers and magazines for shying away from supposedly “in-depth” features? The inimitable Pat Jordan wrote an absolutely brilliant piece on this very subject for Slate recently.
Then again, it’s tough to blame the team, too. Sport is a billion dollar business these days. You do what you can to protect your assets. So given the choice between a story that shows off an athlete’s raw humanity versus one which paints the player with a God-like hue, which would you choose? Plus, if the subject happens to be quiet, reticent, shy, or simply speaks in clichés and platitudes, it only increases the odds that he's going to get misrepresented.
If we truly are witnessing the extinction of the sports feature, it’s certainly not the end of the world. We don’t really need to know what makes a legend like Jack Nicklaus tick. But animals aren’t necessarily placed on the endangered species list because they’re vital to life as we know it. We put them there because each of them, in its own unique way, adds vibrance and color to the world around us--much like Thompson and Jordan do when painting such vivid portraits of human nature with their words.
Let’s just make sure they’re not the last. - Jason Friedman