For the Sake of the Sport
By Stone Hansard
With the Summer Olympics splashing in London this year, dormant sports fans around the world will dust off their caps and fly their flags high for the homeland. Television spectators will swell with emotion as Bob Costas narrates over an athletic montage, telling the usual Herculean tales of human endurance, hardship and beating the odds.
The Olympics and the World Cup draw in the rabid sports consumer and passive fan alike because they elevate the games above sport—they represent the pinnacle of finely honed craft, of national pride, and of, well, really elaborate and expensive opening day ceremonies. The point is these events don’t succeed only because they happen twice a decade. They succeed because they give people a sense that it’s more than just a game.
Of course, for the biggest fans, sports have always been more. Sport is culture, narrative. Sport stands in harmony with other cultural phenomena like art, literature and music, not in opposition.
Still, in traditional broadcast and newspaper media, sports are often reduced to talking shop—game recaps and commentary, statistics, scores. Little attention is paid to the larger cultural picture.
For a newer, web-savvy generation of sportswriters, though, the barrier between the Sports and Arts & Life sections is shrinking, if it exists at all.
Confronting the issue in a recent post, Hardwood Paroxysm blogger Eric Maroun said, “To the outside observer, sports are a simple game. Put a round ball in a round hoop. Take an oblong ball and run it over a line marked on the field… But reducing it to this simple of an observation is akin to saying that Van Gogh’s paintings are just some colors on a piece of canvas… obviously, it’s much more than that though.”
And many people agree. In late 2011, Kickstarter donors gave over $55,000 to launch The Classical, an online-only sports website dedicated to offering thoughtful essays and “a considerate, intelligent community for talking about sports.”
Pete Beatty, a founding editor at The Classical and an editor for The Bloomsbury Press, early on described the site as “post-punk sports journalism,” a tag that immediately reconciles two very different, though not mutually exclusive, cultures.
In The Classical, you may find a feature that discusses NFL trade rumors or provides a firsthand account of an NBA fan photographer. You may also find excerpts from an essay about skateboarding in David Foster Wallace’s Peoria, Ill. Or maybe you’ll flip through the site’s Art Annex, which highlights original artwork recently featured on the site.
The site’s do-it-yourself, “post-punk sports” ethos is reflected by the pedigree of its staff. While most have bylines with sports publications like Sports Illustrated, The Daily Fix and SLAM magazine, they also write for alternative press titles like The Village Voice, Pitchfork and Vice.
The Classical gives them, and their readers, a dedicated platform to move beyond simple reporting and deeply consider issues that are relevant to sports fans. Outside the mainstream, they don’t shy away from unorthodox approaches and ideas; if anything, they embrace them.
Bethlehem Shoals, one of the foremost writers in this emergent brand of sports journalism, serves not just as editor in chief of The Classical, but also as a lead NBA writer for Bleacher Report and a popular freelance writer. While best known for his basketball writing—he founded the popular and now-defunct FreeDarko blog—he has been recognized for his writing in other fields, earning a spot on The Verge’s roundup of the best tech writing of 2011 for a piece he contributed to The Awl.
Before The Classical launched, Shoals spoke with Hoopspeak.com about his intentions for the site.
“We have editors who look at pitches; we are all going to work with people who submit pitches through us…” he said. “We’re hoping the same people who will want to comment and be part of the conversation on The Classical will also be people we can end up getting pitches from.”
He continued, “The basic thing we want here is, we want people coming to us with things that we didn’t even know were out there. Whether it’s an angle on something everyone knows about, (or) a sport no one knows about.”
Though a recent example, The Classical is just one publication in the growing field.
2011 also saw the birth of Grantland, an ESPN-sponsored sports and culture site led by Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons. Unlike The Classical, which focuses solely on sports, Grantland features cultural criticism by Chuck Klosterman and others, alongside sports pieces ranging from MLB season previews to ‘Michael Jordan’s Tragic Style.’
Deadspin, a sister site of Gawker which briefly hosted content for The Classical during The World Series, has been offering irreverent and sometimes hard-hitting long-form sports journalism since 2005.
On the Internet, it’s always just a matter of time before a particular subset of the population finds its voice. For the cultured, literate sports fan, that time is now.