This Year in Writing: While We’re Waiting

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
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With the Cleveland Indians attempting to make us believe they’re once again strapped for cash (despite this), the Browns somehow regressing from a 1-15 season (despite this), and the Cavaliers somehow losing to the Sacramento Kings (despite this), rather than forcing some attempt to talk sports during a period where there is not much going on, I’m using this space to cover those who did the best at covering them throughout 2017.

Despite all of the headwinds and attacks on the medium through the year, it was an incredible year for journalism. While some outlets “pivoted” to video, others said “F that, we’re going harder than ever.” For every FOX Sports, there was an ESPN The Magazine. For every MTV News, there is a New Yorker. For every Newsweek, there’s a Washington Post. While so much was made about the outlets changing the way they were doing business, abandoning models they had utilized for years, not as much was made about those who did a damn good job at sticking to their values.

Given the climate throughout politics and pop culture, journalism and reporting are more important than ever. Much like Andrew’s list of albums, here are the pieces of written work that stuck with me through 2017, shared in award-like form. Many of these have been featured in #ActualSportswriting throughout the year, but this is my definitive list for the last 12 months. Do enjoy.

The “Investigative Journalism Transcends D.C.” Award:

Gaffes, TV Rating concerns dominated as NFL, players forged anthem peace” by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham (ESPN The Magazine)

Jerry Jones stood in a suite at Yankee Stadium, watching the Yankees play the Houston Astros in the ALCS but also, perhaps, catching a terrifying glimpse into his future. The Cowboys are what the Yankees once were: America’s most iconic team in America’s most iconic — and patriotic — sport. Jones was a man at the pinnacle of his profession that chilly night, the Hall of Fame owner whose power among his peers is drawn from a relentless skill at growing the NFL’s total revenues and the guile to outmuscle everyone. But those who have spoken with him sense a dull panic, as if so much of what the NFL has built — what he has built since buying the Cowboys in 1989 — is eroding. Jones and his fellow owners had arrived in New York that day like heads of state, setting up shop at the Four Seasons and in their own apartments with a clear agenda: Stop Trump from attacking our business. Find a way to persuade players to stop kneeling. Get the focus back to football.

The “Get Ready to Have Your Skin Crawl” Award:

A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghanzah (GQ)

When Dylann Roof’s mother fainted in the courtroom, a reporter from ABC and I called for a medic, and not knowing what else to do, I used my tissues to put a cold compress on her forehead and started dabbing it—before I felt out of place, or realized that I was too much in place, inside of a history of caretaking and comforting for fainting white women when the real victims were seated across the aisle, still crying. But even during all of this chaos, this pain that made the courtroom feel swollen with grief, Dylann Roof did not appear to look back at his very own mother.

After Roof was found guilty, they went up to the podium, one by one, when it was time for the victim-impact testimony, and standing near the jury box, they screamed, wept, prayed, cursed. Some demanded that he acknowledge them. “Look at me, boy!” one raged. He did not. Others professed love for him. He did not care. Some said they were working the Devil from his body. Feel it, they shouted. He did not appear to feel anything.

The ‘Get Your Shit Together in 2018’ Award:

What Happened When I Tried to Cut the Negative People Out of My Life” by Michael Graff (Success)

I went into this month thinking that I’d need to cut people out of my close circle to make a better me. There’s a movement sweeping the nation now urging us to get rid of things to achieve happiness. We have tiny houses and lines at the Goodwill drop-offs. In December, Netflix released Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. Laura and I watched the film, and within minutes, we stuffed two bags with things to get rid of.

Cutting back is good. But not when it comes to people. In Connect, Hallowell noted a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association that involved injecting 276 volunteers with viruses known to cause the common cold. Turns out, people who had six or more social ties were four times as likely to fight off the cold as those who had four social ties or fewer.

The ‘How Will This All End?’ Award:

Who in the White House Will Turn Against Donald Trump?” by David Remnick (New Yorker)

The reason that this White House staff is so leaky, so prepared to express private anxiety and contempt, even while parading obeisance for the cameras, is that the President himself has so far been incapable of garnering its discretion or respect. Trump has made it plain that he is capable of turning his confused fury against anyone in his circle at any time. In a tweet on Friday morning, Trump confirmed that he is under investigation for firing the F.B.I. director James Comey, but blamed the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, for the legal imbroglio that Trump himself has created. The President has fired a few aides, he has made known his disdain and disappointment at many others, and he will, undoubtedly, turn against more. Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer­—who has not yet felt the lash?

The “Damn, I Wish I Wrote This” Award:

The NBA’s Secret Addiction” by Baxter Holmes (ESPN The Magazine)

It’s a tale of two diets in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs, courtesy of a partnership with fellow Ohio-based outfit Smucker’s, foist about a dozen of the company’s prepackaged Uncrustables PB&J’s on opposing teams every game night. (Both the Lakers’ and Celtics’ strength and conditioning coaches tell their players to avoid those processed, once-frozen snacks.) But the Cavs fare far better with their fare, serving themselves 20 artisanal PB&J’s prior to tip-off, with homemade grape and raspberry jelly, as well as almond butter-and-banana and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches — the power of the PB&J being wielded as a form of asymmetric nutritional warfare.

The “Damn, This One Stings” Award:

Losing the Part” by Geoff Edgers (Washington Post)

With Season 42 approaching in a wild election year, Hammond was told the Trump gig was no longer his. But it wasn’t Michaels who would deliver the news to Hammond. The SNL boss outsourced that detail to longtime producer Steve Higgins. Higgins and Hammond were old friends, both arriving at Studio 8H in 1995. They worked closely on some of Hammond’s best material during his then-record 14 years in the cast. The pair had also managed what couldn’t be seen on TV, behavior that would have shocked viewers, including Hammond’s backstage self-harming incidents that left cut marks on his arms and the 2009 drug binge that landed him in a crack house during his final season as a cast member.

The “Takeouts Are Still the Best” Award:

He May Have Lost the Fight, but Conor McGregor’s Rollicking Afterparty Lit Up Las Vegas” by Ben Baskin (Sports Illustrated)

It’s about four hours after the UFC champ was beaten by Floyd Mayweather—the best boxer of his generation— in a 10th round TKO. If you had missed the fight and just showed up to the after party at the Encore Beach Club, the only clue you’d have that McGregor may have lost that night would be the black-and-blue shiner that he is sporting on his left eye, which is swollen, but only slightly. Besides, it matches the green, blue and beige three-piece paisley suit he is wearing.

He is handed a microphone. His disciples quickly quiet.

The “I wish Cleveland Papers Did This Kind of Work” Award:

Seven Days of Heroin” by Enquirer and Media Network of Central Ohio staff (Cincinnati Enquirer)

This morning, as on most mornings, one in four felony cases on this Hamilton County court docket is directly connected to heroin.

There’s a 70-year-old Army veteran who stashed a bag of syringes in a basement crawl space. A Taylor Mill woman who tried to hide needles in her vagina after shooting up. A St. Bernard woman who overdosed when a friend injected her with heroin.

The woman from St. Bernard looks confused, as if she’s unsure how she got here. She was on the floor of her friend’s house, barely breathing, less than 12 hours ago.

Now she’s standing before the judge, eyes sunken and hair tangled, leaning hard against the table.

Celebrity Profile of the Year:

Dwayne Johnson for President!” by Caity Weaver (GQ)

When Dwayne Johnson meets you (and I can assure you, he would love to), the first thing he will do is ask you six thousand questions about yourself, and remember the answers forever. If you are a child, good luck getting past Dwayne Johnson without a high five or some simulated roughhousing; if you’re in a wheelchair, prepare for a Beowulf-style epic poem about your deeds and bravery, composed extemporaneously, delivered to Johnson’s Instagram audience of 85 million people; if you’re dead, having shuffled off your mortal coil before you even got the chance to meet Dwayne Johnson, that sucks—rest in peace knowing that Dwayne Johnson genuinely misses you. For Johnson, there are no strangers; there are simply best friends, and best friends he hasn’t met yet.

Sports Profile of the Year:

The Search for Arron Rodgers” by Mina Kimes (ESPN The Magazine)1

It’s an oppressively warm afternoon in Los Angeles, and I’m sitting in my living room, looking at Rodgers looking at my stuff. The night before, his agent had sent me his phone number, suggesting that we meet at either his place or mine. A couple of hours later, Rodgers texted me and told me he’d come here. So now he’s sitting a few feet away from me on my sofa in a black T-shirt and jeans, Stan Smiths tapping on the floor, his arm — maybe the most valuable arm in the world — resting on a throw pillow.

Typically, writers meet their subjects at a neutral location — somewhere a publicist has chosen to reveal something about the celebrity, like his taste in food or hobbies or charitable work. Exposition by way of description. But Rodgers wanted to meet here.

Sports Column of the Year:

Is This the End of the NFL?” by Will Leitch (NY Magazine)2

A few weekends ago, at a seersucker-in-November southern horse-racing event I attended with some lovely and friendly people who will nevertheless be the first ones taken out when the revolution comes, a family friend, an older white man, asked me what I, the one sportswriter he knew, thought of the kneeling NFL players. I told him that while I stand for the anthem myself, I supported the players’ right to express themselves politically and encouraged him to worry less about the kneeling and more about what the players were trying to say. He snorted and said he was done with the NFL until “they stand their ass up.” We then drank some bourbon and found something else to talk about.

Have a wonderful New Year, you guys. We’ll catch you on the other side.

  1. KVV’s story on Eddie Lacy was 1A to this story. Tremendous work by the folks at The Mag this year. []
  2. Your final reminder of 2017 that columns too can be #ActualSportswriting. []