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Is Wilbon right? Has volume of great sports writing declined?

There was some interesting reaction to Michael Wilbon’s comments about sports writing in Wednesday’s post.

Wilbon, who edited Best American Sports Writing 2012, said: “There’s not as much good stuff as there used to be. Don’t get me wrong. I turned down some good pieces. But I know what it used to be. There’s not enough stuff that compels me. The volume (of quality writing) is not close.”

Several people disagreed with his assessment. Tweeters cited excellent writers and work being done at Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, Yahoo!, Grantland, etc. This week’s issue of SI has an excellent long piece on Rams owner/billionaire Stan Kroenke by L. Jon Wertheim. It is in the tradition of Frank Deford and the other SI greats.

There are several online platforms producing some excellent work. Much like Grantland, the new SportsonEarth was created to feed the demand for good sports writing.

Yet Wilbon also has good reason behind his comments. Clearly, newspapers do less than they did 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. You don’t see the takeouts or the long profiles. I remember doing 800-1,000 words for routine game stories during my days on various beats at the Chicago Tribune in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Now that’s almost like novel length compared to what you see today.

Naturally, the volume of what Wilbon terms as “good stuff” is going to be down. It has to be. Sports sections are much smaller, and writers are writing less.

Wilbon admitted that “90 percent” of what he read is in newspapers and periodicals. So perhaps he misses some of the quality work that is coming out of those websites. Maybe he needs to change his reading habits.

However, Wilbon is right when he says the writing isn’t the same. Or perhaps so much of the quality work gets drowned out by the shrill voices that demand to be heard on so many of those same websites. For many, it’s more about what you say than how you say it. There isn’t as much of a premium on the written word.

Wilbon said many times during our interview that the times “are different.”

“I’m not saying better,” he said.

Indeed, he is right. Yet I think the book he edited shows the profession still can produce a quality of work that would measure up in any era.

Last night, I read a piece in Wilbon’s book by Robert Huber in Philadelphia on Allen Iverson. He went to Turkey to find the former Philadelphia 76ers star in the last days of his career.

Huber writes of attending one of Iverson’s games:

Iverson’s scaled-down posse is easy to spot in the stands: two large black guys, one with a diamond earring, and one with a deeply lined face and a baseball cap pulled low, with a gorgeous eye-blinking biracial woman in tow, and a mixed-race buddy with a red ponytail, diamond-shaped earrings, and heavy silver chains. I point out these particulars because it is impossible not to stare at them, which is a dangerous thing to do even in Turkey.

Their standout presence is so at odds with both Iverson’s careful controlled first game and the crowds’s careful, nervous solicitation of him.

So Wilbon might be right. There might not be as much good stuff these days. But good stuff still is pretty damn good.

Let me know what you think.

 

 

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