What's Wrong With Sports Illustrated
And how to fix it.
Despite all of itsmissteps, SI can still save itself. There is no shortage of sports journalism these days, but there's still a niche for a literate weekly sports magazine that doesn't talk down to its audience. There are millions of SI loyalists, like me, who want the magazine to succeed. In order to do that, Sports Illustrated must have a less rigid idea of what a sports magazine (and sports Web site) can be. It's fine to run the occasional story about what a great season Peyton Manning is having. But what about occasionally taking one of sports' many villains and knuckleheads to task? With its game stories and athlete profiles now indistinguishable from the competition, SI should distinguish itself by assigning more exploratory pieces on teams and players that haven't been getting relentless publicity. The one redeeming feature of SI's Players section is the small news stories that fill up space in between the athlete interviews: a coach accused of pushing Special Olympics athletes too hard, a $16-million horse that turned out to be a dud. These underdeveloped nuggets—and not the inner life of J.J. Putz—should be what SI is mining for feature material.
It's not enough for SI to rethink its editorial mission. It also needs to take the shackles off its writers or hire some new ones whom it trusts to pursue more daring stories. Damon Hack and Lee Jenkins, both new hires from the New York Times, have started off with smart, slightly askew pieces—Hack on how the increasing complexity of NFL offenses is to blame for the league's quarterback shortage and Jenkins on the league's underpaid, expendable practice-squad players. There's promise here, but the magazineneeds to keep pushing. The most lively, critical, unconstrained writing to appear in Sports Illustrated recently came in last week's NBA preview, wherein anonymous scouts weighed in on the league's top players. Their self-assured commentary—Antoine Walker "travels on almost every single play"—points up the bland, uncritical cheerleading on every other page. Editors take note: It's not a good sign when your magazine improves 1,000 percent when the copy is written by scouts.