‘The Best American Sports Writing 2017’: The Power of the Pen in a Year of Unquiet Americans

"We sometimes project our problems onto sports," Louisa Thomas notes. "But sports can also be ... where we start to work them out."

The Best American Sports Writing 2017
Howard Bryant, Ed.
Oct 2017

“Sports has never quite known how to stay in its lane,” notes Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and editor of the Best American Sports Writing 2017 (BASW 2017) anthology. In a watershed moment for journalism, the best sports stories give shape to competitions in context, connecting prep sports and human trafficking, or taking a knee and the Bill of Rights, and lead the vehicle of sports to drift from its lane. Never before, though, have athletes and sportswriters found in the oncoming traffic the motorcade of the President of the United States, straddling the double-yellow line, hell-bent on a high-speed, high-stakes game of chicken.

This game of chicken is largely discursive, of course, but it has real effects. (Colin Kaepernick is currently without a paycheck. The Houston Texans, some claim, are currently without a quarterback.) Bryant and his fellow sportswriters remain committed to the notion that words have meanings and, in turn, consequences. As Bryant notes in his introduction, sportswriters strive for clarity as they articulate the connections between coaches and players and fans. It’s why they write. It’s why we read. Still, as Bryant notes, those connections appear fragile in this historical moment.

Social media offers new immediacy to athletes, writers, and fans alike, but it also limits the writer’s ability to form bonds of trust with baseball coaches, for example:

“No longer in his office, as in the old days, [manager Terry] Francona fields questions from a podium, with a public relations man nearby … and, when it’s over, the manager slips out the door. Gone are the days when the camera lights shut off and the writers and manager just talked, off the record, pens down, recorders off. [That’s when] the players became people and the writing process actually began.”

Bryant’s conclusion is a tempered lament. After all, “It’s supposed to be hard.” This series—and this volume, especially—are a testament to their labors and their craft as wordsmiths. Still, is it supposed to be so difficult that BASW 2017 includes only one contemporary story about baseball? Perhaps it’s fitting, since baseball long ago ceded its claim to “the great American pastime” to football, which is presently in crisis-management mode, countering its concussion problem with a kids-oriented branding campaign that evokes the deceit of big tobacco (George Dohrmann’s brilliant “Hooked for Life”).

With the esteem of baseball and football in question, sportswriters turn their attention elsewhere and, in turn, challenge our notion of what constitutes a sport. Competitive sports typically entail aerobically-intensive, zero-sum contests between teams or individuals. In this category, then, cheerleading qualifies (Jeff Maysh’s “Why One Woman Pretended to be a High-School Cheerleader”). Maysh’s portrait of Wendy Brown, 33, is largely a contest of between truth and deceit, but it’s American to the core: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ [Jay Gatsby] cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!'”

Notions of American identity also inform Bryant’s concern for the country and its athletes. “Where we are now is a scary time,” Bryant warns. “We’re not just living in a dangerous world but in an America that isn’t quite sure if America still means what we once collectively believed it did.” Are we a nation of immigrants or human-trafficking profiteers? See Luke Cypher and Teri Thompson’s heartbreaking piece on dreams deferred in “Lost in America”. Do convicted criminals deserve even a fleeting illusion of freedom? See Jesse Katz’s “26.2 to Life”, on the annual marathon at San Quentin Prison. Can we give strangers the benefit of the doubt, or are even minor confrontations destined to end in manslaughter? See Sean Flynn’s “The Shooter and the Saint”, on a fender-bender of well-armed linemen on the streets of New Orleans.

Befitting 2016 and 2017, feel-good stories are in short supply. Most of the 27 stories here, from 17 publications, narrate the temptation of human vices (greed, power, drugs, violence) and the occasional triumph of human virtues (compassion, generosity, equity). Many, too, involve actors from elsewhere: prep athletes from Cameroon. The Connecticut single mom from Nepal who’s the most decorated climber of Mt. Everest. Dutee Chand and gender verification in Delhi. Ex-pats from South Sudan competing under the standard of the Refugee Olympic Team.

My favorite feel-good stories here include Roger Angell’s “Almost There”, after game five of the 2016 World Series, and Louisa Thomas’s “Serena Williams, Andy Murray, and a Political Wimbledon”. Angell, the dean of American baseball writers, here describes his switching affinities mid-series, from the Indians to the Cubs, hoping it might prolong his distraction from another fall contest, describing game five as “three hours of floodlit opium or fentanyl that can almost erase all thoughts of Donald Trump’s angry slurs or Hilary Clinton’s long travails.” Thomas’s tale, also from The New Yorker, celebrates the Wimbledon final of Angelique Kerber and Williams, writing affectionately about the haplessness of returning Williams’s serve:

“With a relaxed motion and gentle toss, Williams struck an ace out wide. On the next point, Williams began with an identical movement and hit the toss in an identical spot—but this time her serve sped down the T, another ace. Kerber swung her arms in an exaggerated shrug of frustration.”

Thomas, too, captures the resonance of Kerber and Williams in a sustained embrace at the conclusion of their final: “It was no more a political act than an ace. And yet there was something powerful to it. We sometimes project our problems onto sports. But sports can also be, in some small but real ways, where we start to work them out.”

This past year, too, we lost Muhammad Ali, and essays here by David Remnick and Dave Zirin honor his legacy—a massive canvas upon which white America, in some small but real ways, projected many of its problems, and largely came to love Ali. It’s been 50 years since Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title, and denied work for four of his prime years as a pro. Like Ali, Kaepernick took a public stance against the state’s monopoly of “legitimate violence”, embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, and he’s presently in year one without employment. In “Kaepernick Is Asking for Justice, Not Peace”, Romani Jones reminds us in plain terms the stakes of taking a stand:

“The whole point of a stand is to put [social fissures] on display, to ask the world to confront and examine their hypocrisies … Protests that don’t offend aren’t worth the effort. The ones that do are the ones that can change the world.”

Will Kaepernick change the world? Stay tuned. Like Ali, Kaepernick stands over six-feet tall, speaks openly about his faith, and is, in Ali’s words, “so pretty”. Kaepernick, though, has recently opted to explore the power of silence—not Ali’s strong suit. The sportswriter’s job just got a bit harder, which is fine. It’s supposed to be hard.

RATING 9 / 10