Every year, the sports media produces hundreds of thousands of stories covering everything from the games we play to the people who play them. Those stories tell us who won and who lost, who was better and who was best, who deserves our praise and our scorn. And because sports, as I’ve argued plenty of times before, have the power to frame the major issues that face our society in a unique light, those stories often tell us something about ourselves and the world around us.
The following 10 stories all do that in some way. Some focus on race, some on gender, some on basic questions of fairness. Some tell the story of human triumph, some tell the story of human failure. They all, however, are marked by excellent writing on timely and important subjects that explain how sports fits into and affects the world we live in. It’s not a comprehensive list by any means — I chose long-form pieces that focus on the cultural side of sports, and I’d love to see what you’d include on your list in the comments — but here, in no particular order, are my 10 favorite pieces of sportswriting from 2013:
Why Jason Collins Is Coming Out Now, Jason Collins with Franz Lidz, Sports Illustrated: In April, Jason Collins shook the sports world when he came out as gay on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In the piece, he explains why he chose now, a time when he was a free agent hoping to continue his career. “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” Collins wrote. “Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.”
When The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly, Wright Thompson, ESPN: Thompson’s piece on racism in Italian soccer dives deep into the roots of the problem: an anti-immigrant history, a burgeoning neo-Fascist ideology among supporters of its biggest clubs, a slumping economy that had worsened the trend, and the rise of black superstars who were bringing attention to the racism and, hopefully, helping bring it to an end. “Italy is in crisis,” Thompson writes of the racism. “I think that’s safe to say. Something new is arising out of something old. I don’t know whether it’s a first breath or a last gasp. James Walston, the professor, thinks all the racial abuse is a sign that Italy has changed, and this is a defiant last stand before a multi-cultural society emerges. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know.”
20 Minutes At Rucker Park, Flinder Boyd, SB Nation: Boyd carries readers on the journey of Thomas “TJ” Webster Jr., a kid from a broken California home who spent all his money on a bus ticket to New York City. “Each year, one, maybe two players, at most will be good enough to be granted a jersey and, in essence, a pass inside the halls of the cathedral of street basketball; a chance to feel the nearly religious power of Rucker Park – the same court that has hosted some of the greatest players to ever play the game,” Boyd tells us before winding through the emotional journey that is Webster’s attempt to become the ultimate streetball success story.
Owning The Middle, Kate Fagan, ESPN The Magazine: Fagan’s profile of Brittney Griner, the first overall pick in the spring’s WNBA Draft, tells the story of an immensely complex character who was just realizing her powers to destroy cultural norms both inside and outside of sports. “She has long exuded a gender-bending vibe, yet the player who led her team to a national championship and dunked her way into the highlights was merely a muted version of her true self,” Fagan writes. “Now, the real Griner is appearing as if in Technicolor 3-D, shouting her truth to the rafters.”
Kansas’ Ben McLemore Fights Through Poverty To NCAA’s Center Stage, Eric Prisbell, USA Today: Prisbell digs into the past of Kansas basketball star Ben McLemore, an out-of-nowhere freshman who became the Jayhawks’ best player and nearly the national player of the year in the 2012-2013 season. What results is a tear-jerking story about the extreme poverty McLemore has overcome: “He won’t forget the feeling of waking up knowing there was no food or beverage in the refrigerator, with none on the way those days. He says at times he would go one or two days with no food,” Prisbell writes. “‘Sometimes we would not have food so we could keep our lights on and have hot water,’ (McLemore) says. ‘She had to sacrifice for that.’” Months after it published, McLemore’s story had a happier ending: the Jayhawks didn’t win the national title, but the Sacramento Kings made him the seventh pick in the NBA Draft.
You Can Only Hope To Contain Them, Amanda Hess, ESPN The Magazine: Part of ESPN’s Body Issue, Hess’ piece examines the challenges breasts present to female athletes — and to the researchers studying how to address those challenges in healthy ways. While it may sound like humorous topic, it’s not. As Hess explains, breasts pose health, image, and competitive concerns to women and girls at all levels of sports. “Gymnasts push themselves to the brink of starvation to avoid developing them. All sorts of pro athletes have ponied up thousands of dollars to surgically reduce them,” Hess writes. “For the modern athlete, the question isn’t whether breasts get in the way — it’s a question of how to compete around them.” Another benefit of this piece: it has, via ESPN editor Megan Greenwell, the best headline of the year.
Inside Major League Baseball’s Dominican Sweatshop System, Ian Gordon, Mother Jones: Gordon uses the story of Dominican baseball player Yewri Guillen, who died on the day he was supposed to leave the island for the United States, to look into Major League Baseball’s Dominican development system. What he finds is troubling: “Guillén’s death is the worst-case scenario in a recruiting system that treats young Dominicans as second-class prospects, paying them far less than young Americans and sometimes denying them benefits that are standard in the US minor leagues.”
The Sports Cable Bubble, Patrick Hruby, Sports On Earth: Hruby gets to the center of one of the biggest issues in the economics of sports this year: how much cable customers are paying to watch sports, even if they don’t watch sports at all. “Add it all up, and big time sports are taking a minimum of $84.90 out of my pocket, year after year. Before I buy a jersey. Or a licensed video game. Or even a single game ticket. Just because I have pay television,” Hruby writes. He goes onto explain why this happens — and whether it’s a model that can last for companies like ESPN.
Failure Is Not An Option, Mimi Swartz, Texas Monthly: Swartz delves into the story of Beverly Kearney, the former coach of the University of Texas women’s track team who was fired, supposedly, over an affair with an athlete that happened a decade ago. “But what looks to be a familiar story of an illicit romance is in fact more convoluted, encompassing matters of gender, race, and the state of college sports. And at the center of it all is a highly gifted woman whose internal complexity threatens each and every thing she’s won,” Swartz writes. It’s a compelling, complex story that keeps twisting all the way to the end.
The Forgotten Phenom, Jonathan Abrams, Grantland: Abrams tells the story of Korleone Young, once considered a can’t-miss NBA prospect who ultimately saw only 15 minutes of playing time in his lone season in the league. Young is now 34 and trying to piece his life back together while dealing with depression and other issues. “Where is Korleone Young now?” Abrams asks. “Right where he started, still trying to get started.”