Monday, December 22, 2014

Dreams Of Sports Illustrated Still Dance In My Head

I remember, growing up, having the covers of Sports Illustrated on the wall.

Growing up outside of the county, Sports Illustrated for me was a vital link back home, to America.  It allowed me, a stranger in a country not my own, to stay connected to the sports I otherwise would have lost contact with.

Back then, I pored over the weeks-old issues, reading accounts of games that were long in the past.

I'd read pieces by Frank Deford and Rick Reilly - my only link to an active sports culture back home.  (That and Armed Forces Radio on the short-wave made me feel American.)

They kept me engaged, connected, in a world where American football was just that - American - and sports in general had a different emphasis.

Those days feel very far away, coming up into this Christmas season - an era away.

And my boyhood dreams of appearing one day in Sports Illustrated, too, still seem very far away - and different.

As someone who considers himself a sportswriter of sorts, the series Everybody Loves Raymond has several I-can't-breathe-I'm-laughing-so-hard episodes.

"Aren't you happy for me, Ray?"
One of those episodes, which you can stream for free on Netflix, is "The Article".

In it, Raymond's junior sportswriting friend and contemporary at Newsday, Andy, gets asked to write something for Sports Illustrated, a fact that makes Raymond crazy.

It's such a great episode because it describes the dynamic perfectly when it comes to this type of sportswriting life.

Theoretically, you're supposed to feel good for friends, colleagues, and acquaintances that get opportunities like writing for Sports Illustrated, but deep down there is this human reaction of jealousy and bitterness that is rife for comic exploitation.  Why him?  Why not me? 

Everyone in "the life" knows someone like this, someone they have met, tweeted at, or read, who gets offered something huge that they themselves would have been liked to have been offered.

When the episode originally aired, that was a one-off article in Sports Illustrated.   Now, it could be something else, like a blog on Grantland, a featured spot at SB Nation, or YardBarker.

It's useless to try to blow it off as a feeling that only happens to someone else, too.  Everyone feels this way - you, me, everyone.  It's something human that happens inside, something that anyone in the writing life has experienced.

When your art is also your livelihood, the relationships between fellow sportswriters get even more complicated.

I am not a the place right now where my sportswriting is my livelihood - something that I'm sure my wife and son go to bed each night and thank the Big Guy Above is the case.  But I know enough people that do have it as their livelihood and their life's work to deeply respect those that do.

Whether professional or not, we all share the same dream, which causes further strain.

Personally, I think back to my days cutting out Sports Illustrated covers and taping them to my wall. At that time I wasn't thinking about making a living, feeding myself with profits from stuff I've written, or a wife and kids, for that matter.  The dream was to have something published in there that everyone would read.

It is hard to imagine today the power Sports Illustrated had for a long time over the form and shape of sports.

To a generation of people, if it didn't happen in Sports Illustrated, it may as well had not ever happened.

The longform pieces in many of those Sports Illustrated articles were pieces that stood the test of time - because it had to.  Many, many of their readers were like me, getting dog-eared copies sometimes a month after the events actually happened, re-living the moment vicariously that I couldn't experience live.

Over time, the power shifted from Sports Illustrated, in print, to ESPN, the sprawling network that went from a shoestring to the most powerful broadcaster of sports in the world.

After a while, there was no need to live vicariously through longform articles, because ESPN delivered the action live, or at least through SportsCenter clips, to whomever wanted it - all over the world.

To this you can add so many other, different factors - the growth of the internet, first in print, then in audio and video.  The rise of Twitter, where you can comment and engage on any sporting event anywhere, whether you actually attend the game or not.

Hated "The Boz" Enough to Tape This To My Wall
Then there's the growth of sports subcultures.  In the Sports Illustrated heyday, there was one "sports culture", and it encompassed pretty much everything.  You started reading Sports Illustrated for coverage, of, say, the Oakland A's, and you stuck around for Brian Bosworth, the New York Giants, and Michael Jordan's Bulls.  They all were linked.

Today, everyone's "sports culture" is different, probably one that you've carved out for yourself, like I have.  Love FCS-level football?  There's a subculture for that.  Lehigh/Lafayette banter, no matter which sport?  There's a subculture or two for that.  The US Men's Soccer team?  The New Orleans Saints?  The Boston Red Sox?  The Chicago Blackhawks?  The Royals?  (Which sport?) The Hartford Whalers?  The Montreal Expos?  Subcultures galore.

It doesn't even matter that the Whalers haven't played in the NHL since the 1990s.  The subculture is still there, available to relive vicariously whenever you want it.

The other thing about "sports culture" today is how much ESPN has influence over all these little micro-kingdoms it to some degree.

When I look for information on the Saints, I end up on ESPN, as do millions upon millions of other people each year, across the world.  It doesn't give me everything, for sure - I tend to look at the sites closer to the heartbeat of the team, like NOLA.com, who recently had this excellent obituary for the 2014 Saints - but ESPN is there.  It's present.  I don't think anyone who cares about the Saints purposely avoided all of ESPN's coverage all season.

I imagine the future sportswriters of today looking at ESPN as the Sports Illustrated of today - the taste-maker, the keeper of sports culture of today.  And I understand it, because in my wilder thoughts of sportswriting, I dream of being ESPN's subject-matter expert on all things FCS.  Who wouldn't?

The dream?
But is this such a great dream after all?

If there's anything I've struggled with internally over the last year, it's what is the dream, exactly?

Is it to be a successful blogger?  (Done, I think.)  Is it to be an important voice on the Patriot League, or FCS stage?  (Done.  I think.)  Is it to help shape the arguments for allowing offering football scholarships in the Patriot League?  (Done, I think.)

Is it to goofily emo-tweet Lehigh sporting events?  (Absolutely done.  Check my Twitter feed for boatloads of examples.)

Is it to appear in an op-ed in a newspaper in the Lehigh Valley?  (Done.)  The Alumni Bulletin?  (Done.)  Is it to write a book?  (Done.)

But is it to have a regular beat on Lehigh football, or Lehigh sports?  Is it to make a living sportswriting?  Is it to explore more, different book topics?  Is it be in Sports Illustrated, or on ESPN?  Is it to attempt to be an even larger voice in the world of college football or college athletics?

This is where it all gets a lot harder, and I think it's a question that many people are asking, not just me.

I think there are many people who are writing about sports but also have a day job.  Some are OK, some are bad, and some are great.

But at some point, the needs of taking care of your family outweigh the love of doing sportswriting when your livelihood isn't sportswriting.

Sometimes, like this year for me, the day-to-day demands of the day job and supporting the family means that writing to get into Sports Illustrated falls by the wayside.

This year I was put on a work project that required me to routinely put in 60 hour weeks to deliver something critical for my day job.  With that said, somehow I was able to attend a lot of games and emo-tweet all of them, even if I didn't physically attend all of them.  (Not to mention work on a book to release.  Learning to go on a few hours of sleep a night helped a lot.)

But I also felt like I fell down on my "job" of being a beat person for Lehigh football, too.  I missed two game recaps, something I feel like I should never do.  In fact they're the first two recaps I've missed writing over the last nine years, I believe.

It's not something I'm paid to do, or paid to care about, but those two missed recaps have eaten at me.  I don't even know if anyone out there really cares if I missed writing them or not, but I know personally it eats away at me and makes me feel like I'm failing and falling down on the job.

I don't want to mention my day job or my book as an excuse for not finishing all the recaps, but the truth is balancing responsibility and sportswriting is the reality for a lot of us.  We like to think of ourselves as pretty good writers, publishing stuff that people will enjoy, reveling in the stories when times are good, searching for explanations when it's not so good, and throughout relating our crazy fan experience.  How did we get here?

I really enjoy being that guy.

But what I struggle with is, is it possible to be that guy and also be the guy that talks about the broader issues of the sport, or sports in general?

It's possible to be that guy and be the subject matter expert on many things Lehigh (and even Patriot League), and still operate out of your house.

But it's quite another thing to talk about (and care about) some of the broader issues that Lehigh folks don't necessarily care about, like bowls, or the richest schools of the NCAA making themselves their own subdivision, and making their own rules.

To have that bigger voice, you need to be a part of a bigger organization - ideally one with a big microphone without a conflict of interest.

One of the things I struggle with is the issue between pay and voice.

If I didn't get paid anything, but had a writing forum that would put me on the computers of millions a people a day, would I do it?

Pay, in a sense, ends up getting translated as a proxy for your relative worth as a writer.  If you're writing for "free", then inside, you don't feel the same worth as someone else who is getting paid to write.  But the key - or at least the key you tell yourself - is to reach as many people as possible.

But maybe that's just the wrong way to look at things.  Maybe reach really SHOULD be the final goal, getting your ideas in front of as many people as possible - or maybe just the ones that matter.

But do we really have either today?  Is there a media organization really trying to pay, or attract, the types of writers that are more than just humorists, entertainment beat writers, or shills for the system?

Is there really an outlet that pays for real creative expression or debate over what's wrong with, say, college sports, FCS football, FBS football or whatever, and how to fix it?

And does that outlet have the reach to make a difference?

Are there lots of idea people, toiling away at home with day jobs, pondering in the off hours ways to improve not just our own schools, but the whole system?

And do the idea people finally get discouraged, and go back to their jobs at Sea World, IBM, or Goldman Sachs?  Thus letting the same old tired voices give the same old lawyer-approved arguments for and against the same old time-tested fault points?

If I were independently wealthy with my own named hedge fund it would be easy to set up this sort of media organization to attempt to revolutionize the system.  Perhaps it would be a waste of money, but I don't think so.  I think something like this could be a great success.  Maybe some good might come out of it, too - perhaps the Big Ten and SEC conference commissioners might not, then, be able to subvert the will of 90% of the membership of the NCAA in order to settle their own lawsuits - at least without a fight.

But the truth is I'm just a guy with a day job who writes a lot about Lehigh and the Patriot League.   I have a point of view, and I have things I write about.  But they stop after an arms' throw from Georgetown's front porch.

Maybe that's enough - maybe that's all I should dream.  Maybe my dreams should involve getting my print book in a bookstore or three, perhaps, when I get some time, write another book or three, and just keep my blog rolling for another year.  Maybe my dreams should be to do a better job at reporting what's actually going on behind closed doors at Lehigh.

But for some reason, my dream about being published in Sports Illustrated is still strong.  Maybe not because of the actual print magazine from the 1980s, though.  Maybe it's more about what it represents.

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