Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith has won the National Magazine Award four times, which is almost as impressive as the fact that almost no one knows his name. Unlike his longtime friend and associate Rick Reilly, Smith keeps a low profile, writing his four in-depth, massive character studies a year, living in Charleston, S.C. and staying off television. He also just released a book through SI's publishing arm, Going Deep, a collection of his best SI stories. I talked to him for about 20 minutes yesterday. Here's the transcript, with all my stutterings edited out, of course. You, like Mr. Daulerio over here, are a graduate of La Salle. How about that football team? They don’t have a team now. They weren’t very good. It’s probably for the best. I remember a piece you wrote about the home run chase in 1998 that I loved, though history hasn’t served that time too well. You usually don’t write stories that are that timely. That was a nice change of pace, though everyone feels differently about that time now. That’s the other side of me, having fun, doesn’t have to be all serious. That was throwing a change up. Not everything has to be all high-falutin. Your work seems decidedly removed from the day-to-day rigors of the world of sports. Do you watch a lot of day-to-day coverage of sports? Do you watch Around The Horn? I catch a piece of “SportsCenter” here or there, and keep my hand in a bit, but I think a certain amount of distance. I kind of have one foot in pretty deeply, and one foot out of it. I’m much more interested in the person involved than what’s actually going on. My subjects just happen to be in sports. So much of sports reporting anymore seems based around the notion of reporters just trying to build up their own brand. (I am guilty of this as well.) But it’s rare anyone ever hears from you, and you’re never on TV. Is what you do a refutation of that? That has its place. All this stuff has its place. Hopefully enough people will want to sit back and think and chew on something and make a connection in a more human way through what I do. But to just get on a laptop and riff on something, that has its place too. I do consider that journalism. Working in sports is a contradiction anyway, with the triviality and meaninglessness of it, reveling in that, but also be able to step away from it all and realize these people are human beings. There’s a whole palate of stuff that they go through that are the same things you and I go through every day, going through the same hopes and dreams and insecurities and anxieties. I try to touch both with my writing. I usually hate interviewing athletes. They’re either impossibly dull, or so media coached that they just say nothing. We want athletes to say something interesting, and when they do, we punish them for it. It’s a bizarre cyclical effect there. You can understand why they’re gunshy. How do you get the teams to go along with your stories? You get unprecedented amounts of access. It’s 90 percent of the battle sometimes. Everyone has to be consenting adults. Everyone has to be on board to do one of these things. I try to explain to them ahead of time that it’s going to be a lot more time-consuming than anything else you’ve done, and it’s going to be detail-driven. I try to make sure that everybody knows what they’re in for. How often do people beg out? It happens here and there. As soon as I feel that static, I pretty much pull away. The person has to want to be in Sports Illustrated in depth. Particularly when you’re one of the few people who do this anymore. Have you seen Sports Illustrated recently? You’re kind of the only one. How involved are you with what goes on over there? I pretty much operate in my own orbit. The magazine has been so good to me. I’m just lost in each of these successive worlds, the four worlds I dive into a year. But you’ve noticed how different the magazine is now. Definitely. You’re pretty lucky to not have to deal with how dramatically sports coverage has changed in the last few years. You’ve at least seen what's happened. It’s a shame. I don’t know how to stop it. Obviously, the economy is a factor, and the habits of people. I’m lucky enough, for now, to not have that effect what I do. I hope what I do, in some ways, can be more valued because there’s a need for someone to sit down with something, and feel something, rather than just the quick hits all the time. I see it happening. It’s sad. I think the interchange of what I do just wouldn’t work as well on the Web. You go to the Web for information, and quick opinion, but you’ve got your trigger finger on the scroll-down button. That’s not the place for the interchange that I’m trying to partake in. Do you fear you’re the last of your kind, sports-wise, in a sense? Oh, sure, it’s a fear. There are young people coming up who want to do what I do, and it’s so much harder to find a forum for it. There’s no way around that, and it’s a real shame. I feel bad that the opportunities to do this are shrinking. I think something’s being lost. I’m not detached from it. Do you read blogs? You’ve been talking to me for 20 minutes and you haven’t gone Bissinger on me yet. I don’t read them. If I’m researching something that takes me there, that’s when I end up looking at them. But to go and peruse them, I don’t. But I have no ax to grind with blogs. I read about the Bissinger thing, but I haven’t seen it. Actually, I just now realized that was you. Do you think your work loses impact when it’s on the Web? Well, what do you think? Do you think long pieces can work well on the Web? You have more experience in it than I do. I think ESPN’s E-Ticket does a pretty good job. The Atlantic Online made David Foster Wallace’s footnotes easier to follow. But a lot of that is based in multimedia and distraction, making it easier to get through and hop around. Yeah, that seems like it would work against what I’m trying to do. It has its place, don’t get me wrong. But for what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to keep my reader right here. Every word choice I make involves keeping the reader on a short leash, right in front of me. Anything that mitigates against that is eroding or undermining what I’m trying to do. I don’t think online is the ideal place for what I’m trying to do. OK, last question: What did you think of the movie Radio, which was based off one of your stories? I thought there was a danger of it being too sentimental, but when you see what becomes of most mainstream movies, having seen it, I felt somewhat relieved. It could have been a lot worse.


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