Modern Sportswriting: A Defense Of Objective Subjectivity

The Internet Age has spawned a new breed of writer, who DGAF about playing by your rules.


The following are things I’ve written about New York Knicks (soon-to-be former, hopefully) point guard Raymond Felton. In the interest of not typing until the sun explodes, I’ve culled these from the 2013-’14 season only:

Raymond Felton trails helplessly behind his man “like a piece of toilet paper on a stripper’s heel.”
Raymond Felton plays like someone who has taken to “much imbibing in fatty meats.”
Raymond Felton’s drives recall “a condor that’s been shot out of the sky.”
Raymond Felton has “the ugliest mother fucking jump shot I’ve ever seen.”

A more self-respecting reporter might react to these flagrant abuses of authorial power with a simple, pointed question: “Don’t you feel bad about writing stuff like that?”

Nope.

The explosion of blogs—team-centric or otherwise—has completely transformed the world of sports reporting. For the better, I’d wager, ledger considered in full.

The profession’s upper echelon, however, remains mysteriously beholden to that most mendacious of monoliths: objectivity. “The view from nowhere,” a professor of mine once called it. I never forgot that. Which is more than I can say about most of the information I ostensibly learned between dorm-room bong hits.

Here’s the thing: You can have an opinion or a perspective—a view from somewhere—and still get your facts straight. Or the facts that can be universally deemed important, anyway. Let’s take statistics, for example. There’s just no earthly reason to write that Raymond Felton shot 2-of-19 with 11 turnovers if it didn’t actually happen. (Which it probably did, so…bad example.)

How a writer synthesizes those facts to include a personal perspective shouldn’t be seen as taking away from the power and poignancy of a piece. If anything, the resulting honesty—hostile though the tone and tenor may be—reminds the reader that these writers are a lot like them: sports Stalinists who demand perfection and punish even the smallest athletic missteps with unrelenting prosaic damnation.

The suggestion here isn’t that reporter subjectivity is somehow being subjugated. The most obvious example — the seemingly never ending success of Bill Simmons — proves there’s a market for the unabashedly biased. That we have given forums to a billion different biased voices is a boon, not a burden, to the case for reporter plurality. And that fantastic growth of sports websites—many of which celebrate those biases—the case can be made that objectivity for the sake of itself is finally, mercifully in retreat.

Consider your typical NBA arena. Every seat, from first-row folding chair to that guy with an entire section to himself huffing glue in the rafters, has its own view. No two people can possibly see the game from the same perspective. Everyone has (gasp) their own take on how things played out.

This logic applies just as easily to reporting. The arena angles, in this case, are our own preconceived biases that inform the way we think and feel about a given game or specific team.

“Yes,” one might say, “but it’s the reporter’s job to try her best to subjugate those subjective instincts for the sake of the reader.”

Is it? Some writers and reporters will heed this dictum, often to brilliant, bombastic ends. After all, the degree of difficulty in rendering what is rigid to appear engaging —of letting facts and quotes submerge whatever poetry lies below—is inherently higher. The limited lexicon demands as much.

The question is why we limit it to begin with. Objectivity makes some semblance of sense in the political sphere, where the societal stakes are so much higher. To the extent that the goal is to give the public the most information possible (heavy, heavy emphasis on “the goal”), bringing personal biases into the discourse only works on the farthest fringes. Although at it’s Hunter-Thompson-best, it can do more to elicit change and engagement than any upper-fold fodder from the New York Times.

Sports, at their core, are pastimes, our respite from the rancid rancor of politics and the monotony of daily life. It’s an outlet—social, emotional and psychological—through which we exercise our innate competitiveness in an arena that isn’t nearly as rancorous as Washington or as frustratingly mundane as our living rooms are. Watching the Knicks, for me, is a chance to frolic in a fucked-up alternate universe where nothing makes sense. Where nothing is supposed to make sense. So why must so much of the attendant sports analysis—this writer’s included, no doubt—read like a dispatch from a Department of Agriculture subcommittee hearing?


Why, then, do sports media’s most widely-consumed outlets—your ESPNs, your daily papers—continue to act as if objectivity is what the masses want? It’s easy to see Simmons as a sign of sports subjectivity’s rise. In reality, his role on NBA Countdown feels more like a token gesture than a genuine bellwether—a way for the industry elite to say, “See, the bloggers have a voice!”

Style and substance aside, “The Sports Guy” has helped cleave open a long-neglected niche. Still, there remains a very real stigma against cavalier reporting, particularly on the beat. Which, it must be noted, remains a steady source of inspired prose in its own right. I would name names, but even mini manifestos on subjectivity aren’t beyond 5,000 word limits.

The propagation of biased content—compelling, well-conceived biased content—is doubtless a wonderful thing. But how many of the most nationally renowned writers regularly take the kind of risks that have become commonplace within the greater sports blogosphere? They can’t. They’d literally be fired. And that’s as much a reflection of print media’s existential struggles as it is the sad product of policy.


Even beat reporters have their biases, of course. They just come through in different ways—in their sources and subjects, in whom they choose to focus on and why. But it’s the commitment to objective reporting, rather than the impossible accomplishment thereof, that remains the last, staunchest obstacle to a full-blown sportswriting revolution.

That it’s a buyer’s market for perspectival sports journalism isn’t a secret: With a seemingly limitless supply of content and only so many eyes and minds to consume it—and only so many advertising dollars going to an exclusive few outlets—the craft remains, for most, an unpaid passion.

But, as with any rising sea change swelling against generational breakers, it’s only a matter of time before the wave takes the shore. Because it’s only reasonable to believe the fans that crave creativity from their favorite athletes will eventually demand some semblance of same from those who cover them…Aaaaaand Raymond Felton once again reacts to his man blowing by him like a bigger kid just copped his cotton candy at a carnival.

@JPCavan is a sportswriter whose work has appeared at Knickerblogger.net, Grantland, Bleacher Report, The New York Times, The Classical and SB Nation.