A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing
The quick story of American sports writing is a series of turns, leading to a form of dehumanizing, black-and-white moralism: the "hot take."
The hot take is ruining sports writing. If the hot take is a foreign phrase to you, don’t worry, you’ve read one before. They are published en masse after any seemingly scandalous sports story. They are usually written on tight deadlines with little research or reporting, and even less thought.
Writing a hot take is simple. Start with an easy target—any athlete accused of doing anything “bad” will do—channel the aggrieved, paternalistic wails of your least favorite news anchor drunk on paranoia and privilege, dismiss nuance and insight at every opportunity, and close with some nonsensical pap about tradition, or responsibility, or America.
A recent apex example of the form came via Jeff Passan, the lead baseball columnist for Yahoo! Sports. The easy target was Ryan Braun, an all-star and MVP outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers who was suspended 65 games by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. The extent and specifics of Braun’s presumed cheating remain, at best, vague, but Passan still wrote about him with the same level of humanity Hunter S. Thompson afforded his obituary of Richard Nixon.
Among the highlights: Ryan Braun is a “serial doper,” “liar nonpareil,” “raging narcissist,” “self-preservationist,” and “cockroach.” All in all a stellar display of childish moralizing heightened by sub-childish insults—cockroach? really?—and delivered by one of baseball’s best writers.
So, why are we here? To really answer that, let’s step back about 90 years.
READING THE SPORTS WRITING from the supposed Golden Age of Sports Writing is an odd experience. Sure, there are words, and they can be read, and they are generally about sports, but the words read more like the product of a different reality than a bygone era. Grantland Rice was and remains the foremost example of that Golden Age spanning the '20s on through the '30s. Here is his most famous lede and, perhaps, the most famous lede in sports writing history:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
Here’s something worth knowing about this seminal piece of sports writing: No one would publish it today. The prose is laughably purple, the sort of grand mythmaking that gets kneecapped by any decent editor and reduced to red line edits. It’s the actual, literal antithesis of honest reporting—which was actually the point. As Paul Gallico, another Golden Age icon, wrote in his book Further Confessions of a Story Writer: "Daily, I was in contact with those necessary elements of drama-good against evil, suspense, frustration, climax and success. Every contest had its villain as well as its hero."
Remember, he’s talking about sports. Even the most good-faith reading possible makes clear that Gallico and his ilk were more interested in fabricating see-through parables out of what happened rather than actually writing about what happened. “The Golden Age of Sport was defined by a band of minstrels,” said Robert Lipsyte, a titan of post-Golden Age sports writing. “Hacks and cynics, they became maintenance men for the legend.”
The motivation for the Golden Age’s disingenuous approach was rooted in the belief that sports are a diversion meant to keep people from thinking about a shrinking world rotting with worries both familiar and unprecedented. America was coming off one World War, living through a Great Depression, facing another World War, and negotiating with social upheaval of every sort. Sports offered the illusion of a pristine meritocracy ruled by heroes liberated from humanity’s inherent flaws. Like all great lies, its enormity was matched only by its allure.
Thankfully, any tradition invariably meets its rebellion. Society’s upheaval made itself known as battles over civil rights and unionization spilled onto the sports page. The rhetorical smoke and mirrors that made the Golden Age what it was were no longer valid as hardline, no-nonsense reporting became more the ideal in the mid-20th century. The evolution, though, was not without its flaws.
ALONG WITH THE SHIFT toward straight reporting, the op-ed rose in prominence as more sports writers began to not just write about, but wrestle with the societal issues facing the sports they covered. However, sports writers are obviously not sociologists and are quite obviously white (often conservative) men for the most part, even more so then. Considered by many to be the best sports writer of this era—and not without good reason—Dick Young was as white and conservative as they came.
Fully chronicling the myopic views that routinely followed his self-righteous invocations of “My America” is an impossible task, but in brief: He mocked soccer as a “foreign sport” and heckled Pele at a press conference. He hypocritically branded pitcher Jim Bouton a “social leper” following the publication of Ball Four, a book that revealed many of the clubhouse secrets Young himself wrote about. He slyly floated the rumor that catcher Johnny Bench’s first marriage ended because he was secretly gay. He compared arbitrator Peter Seitz to a “terrorist” following a ruling that eliminated baseball’s reserve clause and opened the door to free agency. He referred to Muhammad Ali by his birth name of Cassius Clay well after the boxer’s conversion to Islam and subsequent name change. He started his career favoring liberal causes, but spent most of it making cruel jokes about everything from Latinos to the death penalty.
He is also, maybe, the most influential sports writer of all-time.
However, influence is not necessarily a good thing. In rebelling against the mythmaking puffery of the Golden Age, Young fashioned himself into no less a charlatan than the writers of old he railed against. Rather than manufacture heroes out of athletes, he applied the standards of heroes to athletes and promptly eviscerated anyone who fell short of his impossible ideal. Why bother making a hero when you can instead destroy a hero, and, in doing so, become one yourself?
The most obvious legacy Dick Young left sports writing is the idea that it’s a sports writer’s job to serve as the self-appointed moral arbiter of sports. The hot take was Dick’s baby, and it’s grown into the vile thing we now know it to be.
THE TRUTH IS THAT the hot take will never die. Too many writers have had too much success with the form, readers flock to opinion pieces—and many people still watch sports through the lens of that unrealistic good-or-bad binary, which so many hot takes are filtered through. That so much sports writing now resides online means that the hot take has become an immortal form of click bait.
Jason Whitlock has remained relevant at Fox Sports by penning genuinely perplexing hot takes that argue Jay-Z is to blame for the problems imposed on America’s black population, and not, say, institutional racism. Gregg Doyel is a CBS Sports national columnist and uses unproven allegations as kindle for telling a 20-year-old college football player who may have a drinking problem to leave behind his life and go play in Canada. Even Dave Zirin—one of sports’ best and sanest writers—can fall victim to the chase for absurd arguments, as he did in writing that he has a right to expect a public comment from LeBron James on the George Zimmerman verdict. It probably would have been best for the white guy not to tell the black guy what he should do about the situation.
There are countless more examples to cite, but the point is the same: The hot take remains. However, some of the most promising sports writing now comes in the form of the anti-hot take. Whether it’s a bizarro-obvious take on a recent UFC fight or a look at America’s greatest-ever soccer player that doubles as incisive commentary on our current sports discourse, the pieces meet the general standard of a hot take in that they are well-timed opinion pieces designed to provoke reader discussion. And they both have far more craft and humanity underwriting them than anyone is used to seeing in a hot take.
It would be difficult to imagine two more fundamentally opposed writers than Grantland Rice and Dick Young, but the reason their writing can be so problematic when viewed through a modern lens is the same: both writers—and the many writers like them—treated athletes like heroes. In terms of differences, the only real one is stylistic treatment.
The neo-hot take is not a totally unique approach—just as there has always been bad sports writing, there has also always been wonderful, transcendent sports writing. And the unifying element of the latter lies in how it treats the main players. Athletes are heroes to millions of people, and no sports writer is ever going to change that. What a sports writer can do is make athletes more interesting than a mythic hero.
ALL SPORTS WRITING DEBATES come down to the same fundamental question: How should we write about athletes? It’s a question that Bouton turned on its head in his second book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally: "Why can’t Mickey Mantle be a hero who has a bit too much to drink from time to time and cries into his glass that he will soon be dead, like his father and his uncle? Why do our heroes have to be so perfect and unflawed?"
In other words, why can’t athletes be human? It took an athlete to come up with the question more sports writers should have been asking themselves all along.