The gutting of Sports Illustrated was pointless, needlessly cruel, stupid and thoroughly corporate. It is what we do now—from an agrarian society to an industrial one to an informational one and now to the strip-it-down-resealable-parts one. Hurray for progress! See you in hell!
But it was not the death of journalism. Nobody said it was. There’s lots of journalism out there, some of it even excellent. The Athletic rose up from the magazine’s slowly advancing ashes and filled some of that void, The Ringer can deliver plenty of goods (hello Katie Baker and Bryan Curtis) and ESPN hasn’t given up on words entirely yet. There are still newspapers that try, and this squalid little corner of the internet kicks in its share (though none will be found beneath this moron’s byline). Hell, there may even be some good journalism left in Sports Illustrated, though that probably isn’t the value bet.
The difference is, you can’t wait for it any more. You have to find it yourself, which is a worthwhile pain in the ass but a pain in the ass nonetheless. Sports Illustrated being turned into a title with nothing to support it has been seen as inevitable since Time, Inc. got out of the business, and this is simply the lousy next step. There will be others, and then it will disappear the way Inside Sports did, and before that Sport Magazine, and before that the International Herald Tribune. There will always be soulless brutes who buy, gut and sell things, and die as they lived, without value or memories. May their demises be slow, painful and filled with screams only they can hear.
This is mostly the story of dozens of women and men who devoted large chunks of their careers to keeping the value and meaning of Sports Illustrated’s legacy alive, and how cavalierly all that work was dismissed. Their names may not be legion, but we salute them all equally, for theirs was a collective of excellence.
It is about how transitory journalism is now in the currency of clicks, and the counting fetish that replaced the simple act of reading something and deciding on its quality without wondering if some despicable C-suite grease stain will call it insufficiently clickbaitable.
And even more than that, it is about the way people think writing is dying because reading is dying, even though neither actually are. When my daughter Dulcinea (not her real name because I’m not telling you human slugs her real name, which is Algonquina) was in high school, two of her friends stayed over for a night. I rose in the morning, fetched the Sunday paper, re-entered the house and offered them the sports section. Horrified, they said in proud unison, “Oh, we don’t read,” which told me where all this is heading. Of course they still read, because they’re not quite as stupid as they seem, but they prefer the words coming to them.
Sports Illustrated lived on the effort you put into finding the words. For those whom SI mattered, the anticipation was part of the value. A Tex Maule story, or a Frank Deford, or a Rick Reilly, or a Gary Smith, or a Scott Price, or a hundred others I lack the time, space, and energy to reference, was the value of Thursday delivery. Even the wretched stupidities of the swimsuit issue, in which great writers were tasked with writing 8,000 words about the devastating beauty of Macedonia because some rock outside Skopje could enhance the lounging skills of a largely naked model, were a staple at one point of the magazine’s utility. ESPN The Magazine went clothing one less with its gender-inclusive Body Issues, but once you’ve seen Prince Fielder arse-out, the game is pretty much done.
But even rampant bits-out photo spreads didn’t undo Sports Illustrated. The end of anticipation did. Once you could get a quick fix immediately, the value of the extra stuff that took a couple of more days diminished and eventually expired. The gift of waiting for the definitive explanation had been lost, an unintended corpse in the slaughterhouse of the new technological order. That, frankly, is how Sports Illustrated fell out of popular favor and eventually descended into the nightmare of corporate chum.
I want to be more depressed and affected by what seems to have happened to Sports Illustrated, but it is the fate that awaits everything. Some corporate lamprey is coming for every generation’s best and brightest, dimmest and thickest, because you can count money and clicks but not curiosity and discovery. Others will have to provide those last two things now, and will have to do so while knowing that it’s a finite world out there. We will lament its passing too late because we have come to accept the mortality of things we thought would never die, and watch with a shrug as the monuments of our formative years are demolished and turned into Stalin’s Finest coffee stands, and eventually into parking lots.
But there will be journalism, and there will be writing because there will be reading. Because if we don’t have that, the asteroid may as well come and turn this society into the smoking charcoal briquette it deserves to be.
Of course, if you’re a reader, you’ll know it’s coming ahead of time and can make plans.
Ray Ratto went to read something, just to jam two metaphorical middle fingers knuckles-deep into the eyes of the bastards who gutted SI. Their agony is a small price to pay for his momentary pleasure.