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Best 'Sports Writing' Shows Athletes At Their Limits

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died after losing control during a training run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Jane Leavy opens <em>The Best American Sports Writing 2011</em> with John Powers' piece about the accident.
Ricardo Mazalan
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died after losing control during a training run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Jane Leavy opens The Best American Sports Writing 2011 with John Powers' piece about the accident.

The best sportswriting forces us to confront wonder, horror, disappointment and joy. But these days, those stories are more likely to appear in magazines and on the Web, rather than on the sports pages.

According to Jane Leavy, editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2011, sportswriting is in the midst of a "profound identity crisis." Leavy chose the anthology entries with the help of the series editor, who culled 10,000 stories down to 71 that he passed on to her for consideration.

She tells NPR's Neal Conan that while considering her colleague's picks, "I was stunned — being an old newspaper hound — that only two, three ... came from actual newspapers, from sports sections that people open up and crinkle in the morning."


Leavy ultimately chose 29 pieces to include in the anthology. She and Jake Bogoch — whose piece "School of Fight: Learning to Brawl with the Hockey Goons of Tomorrow" is included in the anthology — join Conan to discuss the new collection.

Interview Highlights

On covering the news versus telling a story

Leavy: "News writing and sportswriting have become synonymous. And it started with, you know, free agency, and now it's in the concussion debate. And the problem is, fans don't necessarily want to hear about that. They don't want to read that the sports that they love to watch can be lethal or disabling. ...


"It's the summer of suicides with three [hockey] enforcers having apparently killed themselves. ... The list of suicides in hockey is astonishing.

"I wrote a piece this summer about Mike Flanagan, the former Oriole ballplayer, a pitcher who I covered way back in the day for the Washington Post, who had a stint as a general manager that didn't work out, and he killed himself. Three daughters, wife — he killed himself. Why? Because these guys, if they're lucky enough to survive the violence of the sports they're in — baseball obviously doesn't fit in that ... as much — but they don't really know how to be after the glow disappears. And if they're disabled mentally by too many hits upside the head, their capacity to deal with those things is even more diminished."

On the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics

Leavy: "[He was] thrown over the wall of the luge ... going 90 miles an hour. Now, in Lake Placid in ... 1980, you went 20 miles an hour slower. Now, did the competition suffer from that? Does a fan see it differently? Believe me, as a writer, it's just still 'whoosh.' But I would wonder, and I would ask, why there had to be a course constructed the way it was at [Whistler]. Why couldn't there have been netting on the sides?

"Was it that it interfered with NBC's camera shot? I don't know the answer to that, but ... I'd like to ask the question. What made it necessary? And it's true in every sport. Football players are still hitting each other in the head, but they're faster and they're bigger and they're stronger — and it's the difference between hitting a car at 20 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour."

On the role hits play in hockey, and "protecting the goalie"

Bogoch: "The research that I dug up is you can actually win hockey games. There's a pile of research that showed that the more violent teams, the more fighty and hitty kind of style, that wins games. That wins championships. And it has for years.

"So 'protecting the goalie,' yeah, sure that's a euphemism, because maybe your goalie will come under attack. But it ladders up to a much bigger purpose. ... Let's say you're down two goals, three goals, and you're at home, on your home ice. And your fans are snoozing. They're not in the game. ... You look terrible, and your team looks sluggish.

"So what will happen is the designated pugilist will go out there, either by his own volition or from the coach, and he will drop the gloves, and he will fight somebody. And typically, that other somebody is another fighter or an agitator, certainly not a star player. And win or lose, that fight, it gets the crowd out of its torpor, and it gets them screaming and on their feet and going nuts.

"And that typically is the loudest cheering of any hockey game. It's not the goals. The goal, sure, it's a nice, sharp spike, but [the fight] makes people go insane. And when you have your fans on their feet, it can lift you — you, as a team — from your funk and get going and score goals."

On visiting hockey fight camp for kids

Bogoch: "So my own career as a hockey player, as lackluster as it was — I mean, I played relatively seriously and I was cut from an elite team. But I'd been in a couple of fights, and I just did not know what to do. ... One fight, I just got absolutely destroyed.

"And so I grew up believing that it was a totally random thing; that these guys would just go for these short, frantic bursts. And there actually is a technique to it. And when these guys slowed down everything and they broke it down bit by bit, there is a mechanic to it. And, yeah, it looks furious ... It doesn't have a script, per se, but there's certain moves that are recurring, and there are certain things that absolutely do work. ...

"It's acceptable at the highest levels, and kids imitate it. And there was a study that I found that showed that among the minor league players and children, that kids who fight are perceived to be better hockey players by their coaches."

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