This is slowly becoming an annual tradition over here. These were the best pieces I read this year, starting with the honorable mentions and finishing with the top ten. I openly admit a certain bias towards the pieces chosen. The best pieces of sports writing, to me, involve one of two things. The first is a personal element between the writer and the content. The second is that the story involves a single piece of information that is so fascinating, so uniquely brilliant, that it vindicates the countless hours of life devoted to sports, the vast majority of which pay no dividends. To the list…
The Trouble With Johnny – Wright Thompson [ESPN the Magazine]
Just a banner year all around for Wright Thompson, who asserted his place as the top longform sports writer on the planet. You’ll see his name again on this list. Thompson somehow talked his way into the Manziel family circle at the height of Johnny’s fame, before the disappointing season and close loss to Alabama. It’s an interesting look at one of the most fascinating college football players of all time at his peak notoriety. The reader walks away with a great understanding of why he is the way he is (hint: bloodline).
Jason Taylor’s Pain Shows NFL’s World Of Hurt – Dan Le Batard [Miami Herald]
We’ll always remember this point in history for the world finally waking up to the dangers of professional football. This was the best story I read all year that delved into the topic. It’s the kind of piece that is born out of years of covering a team and building relationships. Le Batard has of course gained more fame for his on-air gigs at ESPN, but he reminds us all that he’s one hell of a writer too.
Man Up – Brian Phillips [Grantland]
Phillips’ declaration of war on NFL locker room culture is magnificent. The diction and tone is likewise perfect. There were several pieces written on the Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito conflict. Phillips’ was easily the best.
Auburn Should Be Dead, Because We Watched It Die – Spencer Hall [Every Day Should Be Saturday]
Hall is the best college football writer and best sports blogger in the country. There was no one better to write about the greatest ending to a college football game ever. Hall’s wit, humor, and knowledge of the sport make him the perfect person to capture that perfect moment.
The Sports Cable Bubble – Patrick Hruby [Sports On Earth]
Hruby delivers with a superbly-reported piece on the reason this country’s cable bills have spiked so high in the last five years. Can it last? Will consumers somehow force the industry to change? Hruby has all the details.
Qatar Chronicles – David Roth [SB Nation]
A five part series dealing with FIFA’s seemingly bizarre decision to award the World Cup to the wealthy Middle Eastern country. If you don’t have time for all five parts, be sure to at least catch the first and the last parts which perfectly capture why the country was awarded the prized sporting event and just what it means to be Qatari. Roth just absolutely crushed this.
Lost Soul – Chris Ballard [Sports Illustrated]
Perennial candidate on my lists. He delivers with another great piece involving basketball, the sport that he loves. Bison Dele, formerly Brian Williams, left the game during the prime of his career to explore other interests. He then died under mysterious circumstances. Dive into this story and see if you can figure out what happened to him.
Nick Saban: Sympathy For The Devil – Warren St. John [GQ]
Nick Saban just wants to coach football and doesn’t understand why we’re all so obsessed with cracking his code. The way St. John uses the Rolling Stones to explain the enigma that is Coach Saban is perfect.
The Match Maker – Don Van Natta Jr. [Outside The Lines]
Was one of the most famous matches in tennis history actually fixed? Yes. Definitely yes. Read about how Bobby Riggs put the fix in for The Battle of the Sexes.
(tie) 10. Nightmare In Maryville: Teens’ Sexual Encounter Ignites A Firestorm Against Family – Dugan Arnett [Kansas City Star]
This is a well-reported look into the evil side of sports. A young girl is raped and abandoned on her own porch to freeze to death. It seems an open-and-shut case until you learn that the accused is a football star in a football-obsessed town. He also has political connections. And somehow a helpless victim is characterized by her community as a dirty slut who had it coming to her. Her family is driven out of town and her house mysteriously burns to the ground. Travel to the dark side and feel the rage. It’s amazing how those that we are supposed to trust can so thoroughly screw up in protecting the innocent.
(tie) 10. A Perfect Marathon Day-Then The Unimaginable – Kevin Cullen [Boston Globe]
Just the absolute perfect column on the tragic events that befell the city of Boston the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. It captures everything wonderful about that city and its identity along with all the horror and tragedy that took place that day. Boston Strong.
(tie) 10. Why NBA Center Jason Collins Is Coming Out Now – Jason Collins with Franz Lidz [Sports Illustrated]
One of the best sports stories in years. This story merits a place solely for its courage and bravery. Collins took a huge risk with this and he deserves all kinds of praise for being the first active player in one of the four major sports to out himself. Bravo to him and Sports Illustrated for doing it the right way and completely owning the narrative.
9. When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough – Chris Jones [ESPN the Magazine]
Jones is one of the top magazine writers in the game and I continue to love that ESPN convinced him to write for their magazine. This piece on Japanese youth baseball gives a thoughtful look into the demands and pressures of youth sports through a lens we’re not at all familiar with. If you ever played youth baseball or if you’re a parent who struggles with the demands modern youth sports place on children’s bodies, you cannot miss this one.
8. Peyton Manning On His Neck Surgeries Rehab-And How He Almost Didn’t Make It Back – Sally Jenkins [Washington Post]
I’ve had my issues with Jenkins, most notably her continued defense of Lance Armstrong. There’s no denying the greatness of this piece, though. How a writer for a newspaper in D.C. finally got the full story on Peyton’s comeback is beyond me, but I tore through every single bit of information. I think we all had an idea that Peyton’s career was at risk, but reading about him barely being able to throw a football is shocking. Jenkins takes us all the way through each painstaking step in the recovery. This story is a must-read, considering the record-breaking season and the beginning of the NFL playoffs.
7. Inside Major League Baseball’s Dominican Sweatshop System – Ian Gordon [Mother Jones]
One of the most important stories of the year. It’s really kind of pathetic that most baseball writers in this country believe the great tragedy of that sport has to do with performance enhancing drugs. Take a look inside the darker side of America’s pastime, one in which a team can get away with gross negligence, immoral labor practices, and even death. Try to imagine everything wrong with the NCAA model and then amplify it times a billion and you’ll have an idea of just how poorly managed MLB’s relationship with the Dominican Republic is. The muckraking done by Gordon for this story is worthy of all kinds of awards.
6. Soccer Bleu – John Samuel Harphem [American Circus]
Most will probably skip over this article, given that it involves the sport of soccer and the country of France. I beg you to read it. It’s a great look at the danger of mixing sports and identity as told through the French national soccer team since their 1998 World Cup victory. Harphem constructs a Hemingway-esque setting in which to tell the story of his experience of being an American following soccer in Paris.
5. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax – Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey [Deadspin]
This was one of the most fascinating sports stories of all time. It’s kind of been forgotten about, given that the majority of Te’o’s games were played during the 2012 calendar year. This story did technically break in January of 2013, though, and thus has to be included on the list. That outlets like ESPN and the New York Times completely bought into the Te’o dead girlfriend story without fact checking is exactly why Deadspin has to exist. Their ability to complete knock this story out of the park in a limited amount of time was remarkable. The reporting, the writing–everything is just perfect here. Standing ovation to Tommy Craggs for building Deadspin into a force.
4. The Pain And Pleasure Of Spring – Pat Jordan [SB Nation]
Remember when I said the best articles involve a personal element or a single piece of information that makes being a sports fan all worth it? This one has both. Jordan is a legend in the world of sports writing. He recounts in detail his story of being a once prized baseball prospect who just didn’t make it. The story about him making love with an elder woman is beautiful, but stay for the unbelievable description of what made Hank Aaron Hank Aaron. I’m not qualified enough to critique a writer like Jordan. I do know that this piece about his love for spring training is beautiful.
3. The Book Of Coach – Seth Wickersham [ESPN the Magazine]
The biggest irony in all of sports is that Americans know almost nothing about the X’s and O’s of football. This is partly intentional as the game of football has gone to great lengths to prevent fans from that sacred knowledge (likely in an attempt to avoid criticism, but I digress…). So it’s really kind of awesome when we get a writer like Chris Brown over at Grantland or this story from Seth Wickersham which brought to light a book which almost no one outside of football coaches knew existed. Did you know legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh attempted to write a complete manual to everything that was necessary to be a great football coach? Neither did I. Apparently it is the bible for football coaches, with very limited copies in existence. Everyone from Bill Belichick to college graduate assistants profess its value. While Walsh never really felt satisfied, this article gives a great look into the long, difficult road it takes to be a great football coach. I love finding out about sports secrets like this book. I’m guessing you will too.
2. Stroke Of Madness – Scott Eden [ESPN the Magazine]
All apologies to Dan Jenkins, but this might be the greatest golf-related article I’ve ever read. Far too often the conversations in individual sports like golf comes down whether an athlete is “clutch.” It’s a sad reality that most of us don’t spend any time with golfers beyond the four majors. We know of Tiger’s dominance and competitiveness, but is it possible that the single greatest accomplishment in his career was that he changed his swing THREE times while never really losing his place as the number one-ranked golfer? It’s a worthy question and Eden does an otherworldly job of explaining just how difficult the process can be and why it’s so rarely attempted. This story is packed with nuggets on the history of golf and the evolution of Tiger Woods’s swing. Even if he never surpasses Jack’s major total, this article should do enough to explain why he is the greatest golfer who ever lived. His obsession with the mechanics of golf and always improving are only surpassed by the subject of the final piece on this list…
1. Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building – Wright Thompson [Outside The Lines]
Let’s end this list where we started it, with Mr. Wright Thompson and one of the single greatest years by a sports writer ever. This story on Jordan was all types of fascinating, dealing with his post-retirement life. It’s amazing how keenly aware Jordan is of himself and his image. Read his quote about his inability to go back to living a normal life and the expectations he now has because he’s Michael Jordan. You know the stories about the competitiveness, but I came away far more impressed with his ability to analyze. The most fascinating aspect of this piece, though, involves LeBron James. Jordan has a maniacal obssession to break down James and find his weaknesses. It somehow seems impossible to feel pity for a guy like Michael Jordan, but even he is unable to escape the nasty habit that history has of forgetting its elders. He’s determined to not let us forget.