Every so often, some crank will write something suggesting that sportswriting is in decline. The argument goes that due to ease of publishing, a general lowering of standards, the reading public's divided attentions, and millennial narcissism and careerism, an entire art has been lost, subordinated to witless jostling on social media and television.
Unfortunately for those of us who are by temperament disposed to believe that everything is sliding down an incline into the gutter, there's more good sportswriting than there ever has been, the best of which is every bit as good as the best of what came before, and much of which couldn't possibly have been written or published without the use of modern digital tools. It would take a pretty serious quantity of liquor to get me to even listen to an argument that Zach Lowe's investigations of the inner workings of the NBA or Brent Brookhouse's iterative reporting on a jiu jitsu cult are the products of a fallen world.
The fact is that standards are now higher than they ever have been. As wonderful as Gay Talese's stories about Floyd Patterson were, his reporting techniques wouldn't make the grade today even at a shop as sketchy as Deadspin. Ready access to public records has made it easier, by orders of magnitude, to expose abuse of the public trust. And the sheer amount of good work being done consistently pushes writers away from obvious and overly covered subjects and toward quirkier and more obscure ones. American sportswriting today is more accurate, more confrontational, and far broader in scope than it has been at any point I'm aware of, and the result is more good work than anyone can keep up with.
I still haven't read Brian Phillips's piece on the Iditarod, or Pat Jordan's piece on Tom Seaver, or Flinder Boyd's piece on a streetballer making his way to Rucker Park, and those are all writers I really respect working on subjects that fascinate me. I'm sure you have your own similar list. Drowning in stories you want to read is not the worst problem to have.
There's definitely something gratuitous and undisciplined in a lot of the long stories that run today, and in the general fetish for them, but this is just part of the price paid for the ready access we all enjoy to an astonishing depth and variety of quality work. Anyway, the list below isn't any kind of best of, but it is a list of stories I loved and that you should read if you haven't, or even read again if you already have. You could easily make a list twice as long and just as good without doubling up on anything or anyone, and so could I, and that's the best sign of how good things are right now. Saying otherwise is just a sure way of showing how little you're paying attention.
Flinder Boyd—"When Smush Parker Saved The World"
For reasons that should be obvious if you think about it, there's a line of great sportswriting done by excellent athletes who were just a step below the elite, and Flinder Boyd, a veteran of European basketball who's written some amazing stories about the game, fits right into it. This one, which involves a Greek yogurt company, the possible collapse of the world economy, and a fat, washed-up Smush Parker, is ridiculously fun.
Brin-Jonathan Butler—"Requiem For A Welterweight"
Boxing has famously inspired more good and great writing than the sport comes close to deserving, and Brin-Jonathan Butler has been doing his part to keep up the tradition. The old stories about the great fighter who spent all his money or the salty trainer aren't anything new, and yet they remain just as compelling as ever when properly told.
Brian Costa—"The King Of The Accidental Phone Call"
This isn't actually a long story, but it might have been my favorite of the year. It's an investigation of New York Mets public relations guy Jay Horwitz's habit of butt dialing people, and in its way it tells you more about life in the majors than anything else this year did.
Bryan Curtis—"Friday Night Tykes"
Bryan Curtis—"He Is Not A Prospect"
Bryan Curtis—"Miami's Blue Period"
I could have thrown more Curtis pieces on this list; for my money he had the best 2013 of anyone in sportswriting. The keys might be his range and his willingness to write about subjects that aren't entirely obvious, like a football team full of 12-year-olds or a minor leaguer who never made it and never will. That's advice a lot of writers give and a lot fewer take.
The girl who either did or didn't strike out the greatest one-two punch in baseball history is a story that should have become an infamous part of the game's folklore, but didn't; digging it up is a way of getting at all the stories baseball tells about how it tells stories.
Kate Fagan—"Owning The Middle"
Staying out of the way of a fascinating subject is surprisingly difficult, as any number of stories in magazines will show you, and so the thing I most appreciate about this Brittney Griner piece is that it simply tells her story, and lets everything that story suggests work by implication.
Steve Fishman—"Chasing A-Rod"
The whole tortured Alex Rodriguez saga was done justice here in an almost unbelievably straight faced story that introduced a cast of Florida lowlives and fully confirmed your sense that Rodriguez is, in fact, living a Charles Willeford novel.
This is just a classic work of muckraking, exposing the horrible truth about a story that every baseball fan vaguely knew about and few wanted to know about in any detail, and with any justice it would have led to some baseball executives getting hauled up in front of Congress.
Nancy Hass—"Fallon Fox: The Toughest Woman In Sports"
Fallon Fox, a transgender fighter, is interesting enough on her own that any serious profile of her was always going to be good, but what makes this especially memorable is how it deals with the events Hass covered subverting what would have been the story's natural narrative arc. It could have killed the story, but in the end just made it richer and, honestly, better.
Amanda Hess—"You Can Only Hope To Contain Them"
You can get a good story asking an athlete about their dead girlfriend, but you can get a better story asking them about their equipment, and an even better one asking them about their body. This story is its own punchline—ha ha, boobs—but it's also about how, as much as we abstract them so that they're about emotion and strategy, sports are really about the body in play.
Jonah Keri—"Grand Theft Baseball"
Jonah Keri did a lot of great work this year, my favorite being this piece in which he gets Coco Crisp to explain exactly what was happening as he stole several bases and so takes the reader deep into the often acclaimed and rarely explained inner inner game of baseball.
Jeré Longman and Taylor Barnes—"A Yellow Card, Then Unfathomable Violence, In Brazil"
In investigating exactly how and why a referee could possibly have been decapitated by a vengeful mob during a soccer game, the New York Times went pretty far past the lurid details of the story itself to explore Brazil's contradictions and the assumptions Americans make about other cultures.
Probably there was nothing the world less needed than a Skip Bayless profile, but in its accumulation of bleak, harrowing detail, this one managed to make him out to be, if not sympathetic, at least fascinating, a sort of real life Bernard Malamud character.
Eric Nusbaum—"Beso De Los Exoticos"
Mexican professional wrestling is perhaps not the most obvious place to site an investigation of the evolving role of class and gender identity in professional sports, but that's what Eric Nusbaum pulled off here in a piece that's sweet and funny and takes you to a place you probably didn't know was there.
Brian Phillips—"Soccer's New Match-Fixing Scandal"
Ask me tomorrow and I might put a different Brian Phillips piece here, but it's hard to go too wrong with a story with this lede: I am a midlevel Hungarian gangster. You are a Finnish referee.
Mary Pilon—"Tomato Can Blues"
If the angle is "this is the story of a low level pro fighter who faked his own death" and it's written in a way that more than lives up to the promise and it's presented in a way that suggests intriguing possibilities for online cartooning, what more does anyone want?
Stephen Rodrick—"Serena Williams: The Great One"
This story got a lot of attention for how it depicted Serena Williams saying appalling things, but the more interesting part was how masterfully those quotes were used in service of a broader point about how profoundly alienated truly great athletes can become from the normal lives that normal people lead.
David Roth—"Qatar Chronicles"
Sending David Roth—who works best in an observational and discursive mode—to Qatar was an inspired idea, and he more than lived up to it with a five-part series that was less about Qatar or the World Cup than about the idea of Qatar and the idea of the World Cup, the only approach that could possibly match the irreality of the subject.
Brandon Sneed—"The Prospect"
Having done some reporting on fake ballplayer Montaous Walton for a piece I never wrote, I was thrilled to see how Brandon Sneed nailed everything that's important about this story. It's about aspiration and identity in the digital era and other important sounding things, but mainly it's a funny and sad yarn about a charming liar who wants to be anything other than what he actually is.
Warren St. John—"Nick Saban: Sympathy For The Devil"
One theme that runs through a lot of my favorite stories from this year is how they show out their subjects to be, in some ways, not recognizably human. Nick Saban is for various reasons perhaps ideally suited to such an approach.
If there's one thing sportswriters don't do enough of, it's talking to athletes about sports. This is a great example of what can happen when they do: Chael Sonnen, a notorious loudmouth who's nearly always in character as, essentially, a pro wrestling heel, drops the mask and gives you a guided tour through the intricacies of wrestling in MMA that works, by extension, as an explanation of what the sport actually is.
Wright Thompson—"Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building"
This was so widely and rightly acclaimed that it seems almost pointless to say it, but this was an exceptional story, one that somehow managed to both confirm every suspicion you'd always had about how Michael Jordan would live out his days and make you see him in a new and different way, as someone with something approaching an inner life.
Don Van Natta, Jr.—"The Match Maker"
You can go on about what an extraordinary piece of reporting this is, but what really matters is what a great piece of storytelling it is, and what justice it does to an outlandish and irresistible premise: One of the most famous results in 20th century sports was, quite probably, fixed by the Mafia.
Anything you especially liked this year? Let us know in the comments below.