It’s impossible to separate the story of The Rally Caps and the Joey’s without talking about Sports Illustrated. I had always read SI growing up, actually reading the stories instead of just looking at the pictures, which made me an alien to most of my friends. A few months after the first edition of these Joey Awards came out, I was sitting on my bed pouring over the latest issue (LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu was the week’s cover star) when I turned to a story by Chris Ballard. It was called “Mourning Glory,” and it was about a high school baseball team that overcame tragedy to win a state title. When I finished it, I was bawling crying. It was about sports, but it was about something more than that, too. It had scenes, characters, dialogue. It was like reading a novel.

I marched down the hall into my parent’s bedroom and demanded they read it. Mom also cried (which was rare) and Dad did too (which wasn’t). We talked about the story, how different parts had moved each of us, and I decided then and there those were the types of pieces I’d like to work on. You can scroll down the archives of this website and see the effects almost immediately. The first Joey’s were stat heavy repetitions of the facts. The year after reading that story, I chronicled the LA Kings’ rise from mediocrity to Stanley Cup champions. Was it good? Not really. But it was a step closer. I updated the “about” page of the website to say that my dream in life was to land a cover story at SI.

SI gave way to ESPN: The Magazine, and there, Wright Thompson, Chris Jones, and JR Moehringer taught me sports writing. Through the last decade, there was hardly a better place for magazine writing (not just about sports) in America. I mean, here is how Seth Wickersham’s 2014 profile of YA Tittle begins. It’s perfect:

You remember the picture. Y.A. Tittle is on his knees in the end zone after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Swollen hands on his thigh pads, eyes fixed on the grass, he is helmetless and bleeding from the head, one dark stream snaking down his face, another curling near his ear. His shoulder pads make him seem hunched over, resigned, broken down. The black-and-white photo was taken in 1964, the final year of Tittle’s career. It hangs in a silver frame at his home in Atherton, California, not with the prominence befitting one of the most iconic pictures in sports history but lost among many mementos from a Hall of Fame career. The picture is now 50 years old, and Tittle is now 87. He does not remember much anymore, but that photo is seared in his mind. “The blood picture,” he calls it. He hates it.

Next came Grantland, the website that taught me that you could translate all the things that make that passage about Tittle great—the eye for detail, the sense of discovery, the empathy, the literary bent—could be applied to any type of writing. It did something else, too, showing that the grandness and prestige of a magazine could be transferred to the web. There was Brian Phillips’ deep dives into the Iditarod and sumo wrestling, Molly Lambert on Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wesley Morris on movies (but really on a whole lot more than that). I checked that site at least a half dozen times per day.

None of those three outlets exist anymore. Well, Sports Illustrated technically does, but it’s become a hollowed out, private equity version of itself that former staffer Andy Staples described as, “some kind of zombie” ESPN: The Magazine printed its last issue in the fall of 2019, and while great feature writing still exists at The Mothership, much of it is now in the form of a polished TV package called a “Cover Story.” Grantland shuttered shortly after Bill Simmons left ESPN, but even though many staffers started The Ringer, that site typically forgoes literary flourishes for Internet humor.

The losses in sports media have piled on over the past decade. Deadspin died a quick death last year. Bleacher Report folded their prestige “BR Mag” vertical. SB Nation got rid of their longform series. In a particularly crushing blow, this year marked the final edition of the annual collection of Best American Sports Writing. For the first time in nearly three decades, the publisher decided there wasn’t enough of a market for the title.

You might now be getting an idea as to why most people react with that strained, “Oh, that’s cute” when I tell them I want to go into sports writing, and I’d be kidding if I said that I didn’t think the same thing too sometimes. But at the end of the day, it comes down to something like this: Maybe the written feature story is harder than ever to produce, but The Last Dance was still more impactful than any sports contest in 2020. Maybe there aren’t as many newspaper columns getting eyeballs, but the top figures in sports media right now—Mina Kimes, Dan LeBatard, Bill Simmons, etc.—all come from writing backgrounds. Podcasts are booming, and good podcasts are just writing. The sports documentary has never been hotter. Athletes are finding ways to share their stories directly to consumers, and they need storytellers to help them do that. Everywhere you hear about content, content, content. Why wouldn’t people want good content, then?

A few months ago, I was talking to an SI staffer who was recently laid off, and he told me that during his exit interview, he was told, “You want to be Gary Smith, but nobody wants to read a Gary Smith story anymore.”

To that, I declare: Bull. Shit. People don’t want a creatively told, beautiful morality tale wrapped in the theme of sports? Anybody who actually believes that just doesn’t know where to look.

So what’s my goal now? Maybe it’s not to land an SI cover anymore, but I’m still going to help tell those types of stories. What, exactly, that looks like is still up in the air.

The 10th Annual Joey Awards

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