5 lessons from the Best American Sports Writing Stories of 2014

I said it last year, and I’ll say it again:

One of my favorite fall traditions is opening the annual anthology of the Best American Sports Writing series.

In this space alone, I have spoken of its influence on my career, interviewed a writer whose work has been featured in the anthology, and thanked one columnist whose entry more than a decade ago touched my heart.

Now, the fall has arrived once again, and so has this year’s collection.

And, much as it did last year and every year, the 2014 edition of the Best American Sports Writing anthology provides both inspiration and valuable journalistic lessons.

Here are five such lessons from five stories that made this year’s cut:

THE STORY: The Gangster in the Huddle, by Paul Solotaroff with Ron Borges (Rolling Stone)
THE LESSON: Grip the reader early, then dig deeper.

By the time this article graced the pages of Rolling Stone, nearly anyone who follows the news already knew the story of Aaron Hernandez.

The former tight end for the New England Patriots had dominated the headlines that summer, after he was arrested and indicted on three murder charges. The story shocked the sports world and then transcended it, its coverage overflowing onto network and cable news.

That overflow extended to Rolling Stone, a magazine that rarely dips its toes into sporting waters.

So when Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges crafted this story, they did not hold any major reveals for the end. They did not tell the story in chronological order, ending with the grisly details by which Hernandez’ associate, Odin Lloyd, was killed a month earlier.

Instead, they put those details at the top. They recounted the murder with horrifying specificity, setting the stage for the following deconstruction of Hernandez’s life. Make no mistake: these two writers did their homework. Their story is a vivid portrait of Hernandez, from childhood to manhood, that sustains the momentum it develops early on. But it captures the reader’s attention right away, and it doesn’t hold back.

THE STORY: When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough, by Chris Jones (ESPN: The Magazine)
THE LESSON: Don’t impose your values upon your subjects.

The topic immediately lends itself to judgment.

A Japanese teenager, we are told, is absolutely overusing his arm. He is throwing hundreds of pitches in just a few days, more than most Major League baseball pitchers throw in a month. He is doing all this in the name of honor, both personal and communal, as he competes in a baseball tournament that captivates the country.

How silly, we might say.

What honor, we might ask, could one possibly gain from sacrificing his body for a trivial cause?

But most of us would not allow for an answer. Most of us would turn that question into a judgment and move on.

Chris Jones does the opposite.

In this story, Jones explores that question and winds up with a multi-layered portrait of a culture in flux. He develops powerful characters and explores their values. And in one brilliant paragraph towards the end, he contrasts the Japanese view of baseball phenoms with that of America:

If he were an American kid, if he really were Stephen Strasburg, he would be that almost mythical brand of prospect whose gifts are appraised by baseball jewelers looking at him through loupes and locked away in a vault. Instead, Anraku was born Japanese, which means he is a different commodity, measured by different values. Anraku is not from this place; he is of this place. He is this place. He is his high school and prefecture and Japan.

THE STORY: 20 Minutes at Rucker Park, by Flinder Boyd (SBNation.com)
THE LESSON: Don’t be afraid of unhappy endings.

I cannot think of a single journalistic trait more valuable than honesty.

We are relied upon to present stories without bias, get the facts right (and admit when we get them wrong), and use our access to provide snapshots unavailable to others.

Here, in this story, we find a journalist named Flinder Boyd who is tasked with following a highly touted street basketball player. This player, TJ Webster, cashes in his life savings to travel across the country and compete at New York City’s famous Rucker Park court.

Coming from a life of poverty, Webster sees this one game as his one shot.

And then he blows it.

The plot of this story comes right out of 8 Mile, except the ending veers in the opposite direction.

Boyd is unafraid to veer along with it, and that’s why this story is so powerful.

Boyd succeeds at all the usual storytelling techniques, but he does a particularly masterful job of refusing to hold back when Webster falls apart. The athlete’s life is now in shambles, and through his incisive writing, Boyd makes clear the consequences of taking such a major life gamble and then falling.

THE STORY: Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend … Is a Hoax, by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey (Deadspin)
THE LESSON: Make clear what you know, and what you don’t.

Speaking of honesty — or at least transparency — few do it in such a straightforward manner as the web site Deadspin.

I do not read Deadspin often, nor do I particularly care for much of what they produce. But I, like most journalists and readers, had to tip my cap to their investigation into the hoax of Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend.

It was so thorough, so astounding, so impressive — and so transparent.

Writers Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey tell the reader exactly what they did, who they called, and how they pieced together this story. They occasionally present evidence that does not meet traditional journalistic sourcing, but rather than hide it, they explain its questionability and let the reader decide.

That approach does not work for me in every case, but it does here, where the topic is buried in the murky waters of deleted Twitter accounts and stolen identity.

And by presenting their story in such a transparent way, Burke and Dickey ensured it would be unforgettable.

THE STORY: You Can Only Hope to Contain Them, by Amanda Hess (ESPN: The Magazine)
THE LESSON: It all starts with a hook of a story.

Finally, Amanda Hess reminds us that all the storytelling tricks in the book are powerless without a great topic.

Her topic? Breasts.

More specifically, how female athletes deal with them.

Sports journalism largely covers — and is covered by — men, and it often results in an extremely male perspective. Even with this story, one could perhaps frown at the fact that such a compelling, fascinating piece is relegated online to ESPN’s “women” site, ESPNW.

Hess goes into revelatory detail here about how female athletes battle their bodies. This is no sexual matter — and certainly not a laughing one. Hess’s first paragraphs focus on UFC fighter Ronda Rousey’s apparent wardrobe malfunction during a recent fight. That malfunction, naturally, got turned online into GIFs and caustic comments. Hess discusses the moment’s vulnerability, and in doing so she provides powerful, necessary context.

I am in no way surprised her story wound up in this anthology, another great example of the finest in sports journalism.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Leave a comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

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