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Archive for February, 2021

The Magazine That Used To Be Sports Illustrated

Perhaps it was the cigarette ad that clinched it. After a couple of years pretending that it was the same Sports Illustrated I’d grown up with, even in its diminished state, seeing an advertisement for cigarettes was like a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. A sports magazine that accepts cigarette ads! After separating from most of its long-time writers, dropping to every other week for a time before becoming a monthly, SI was hanging on to its reputation by the thinnest of threads. Still, writers had come and writers had gone over the years. Maybe there could be life as a kind of Esquire of sports.

Nope. A full page cigarette ad stamped the “time of death” seal on the editorial side of what was once the best sports periodical in history.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Sports Illustrated in the world of sports. All sports. SI was the window into a sporting world that extended beyond the boundaries of American soil. Serious sports. It was rare for Sports Illi to stumble. So rare that most long-term readers can recall individual stories (usually the last, long essay in the issue) that failed to measure up. Or worse, that attempted to elevate a trivial, fringe, hobby-like activity that few would consider sport. Even there, though, the writing was strikingly , arrestingly good. You read about chess or bridge or billiards, even if you would gladly die on the “not a sport” hill for each of them, just to enjoy the pure joy of reading the writing.

At the moment I’m reading a nice little book by the retired NYT columnist Harvey Araton in which he tells a bit about how he came to be a sportswriter. He, like I and so many others in our generation, rushed to the mailbox each Thursday to get first shot at that week’s Sports Illustrated. Araton received his first subscription as a gift from his sister. Our family shared a subscription at home, but each of use was gifted our own when we headed off to college. In the student union in college, multiple homes as a resident, and finally my inbox at work as a grownup, Thursday meant Sports Illi.

You already knew the results. The scores. Who won and who lost. You looked to SI and its stable of thoroughbred writers to help you understand how and why, and sometimes what it meant in some larger picture. Layden and Deford. Reilly and Rushin. Zimmerman, Mack, even Plimpton. Dr. Z and his protege and successor Peter King. The writing in SI made you care about the sports more than you cared about the standings. You learned about the men and women, the girls and boys who played the games. You learned why they played, for whom they played, and what it meant to them to play.

If you grew up with words, like I did as the son and grandson of teachers, you also marveled at how these writers worked at those words. Each one was a different flavor of excellence, but each was excellent in their own way. When the magazine arrived you had a plan. Everybody seemed to read a new issue in a slightly different way. While Rick Reilly was writing “The Point After” I started at the back of the magazine. Then it was the cover story, and then on to page 1. When I discovered that one of my favorites and I had attended the same tiny liberal arts college in the northeast, I looked to the Contents to see if he had a piece in that week’s edition.

Tim Layden never disappointed.

It seemed as if nothing could derail Sports Illi. Even the ill-fated, however wonderful it would have been if it succeeded sports daily “The National”, barely dented the Sports Illustrated experience. Started by Frank Deford, arguably the most famous sports writer in America in the ’80’s, “The National” came and went faster than the hopes of that year’s sure-fire Triple Crown winner. Deford and Jenkins left, but their legacy of a literate treatment of sport remained at SI.

And now? I’m completing this little essay toward the end of February. 2021 brought us an epic Super Bowl. One that was chockablock filled with interesting story lines in addition to the obvious: Tom Brady, aka Methuselah, vanquished his upstart rival Patrick Mahomes to win his 7th Super Bowl and a 4th Super Bowl MVP. Without Bill Belichek. By this time in prior years we all would have read and digested a very long article that replayed the important parts of the game, along with various commentaries on the significance of the outcome, and now we would just be waiting on the arrival of the Swim Suit Issue (capitalized, of course). My monthly SI hasn’t even been delivered yet.

When it does arrive will it contain a replaying of the important events of the game, pointing out a big play we might have missed? And now who will comment on the game and the stories it launched? There is no longer an NFL “voice” to whom we would turn at SI. No Jenkins. Zimmerman is deceased. Peter King left and launched an “e” property, a man ahead of his time. Even Tim Layden, who wrote about football in prose that reminded one more of Hemingway than anything typically seen in the Sports pages, even Tim has left the world of print for new televised adventures.

The Sports Illustrated I knew and loved, the weekly magazine that everyone in my family read cover to cover and then discussed for days afterward, has been gutted by its new owners. It is a shell of its once formidable self, its editorial soul hollowed out by the publishing side of the business. Every week my SI gave me both the news and nuanced commentary. I once heard the ghosts of favorite writers who’ve departed our world in the words written by next generations of men and women who gave us sports as literature. Every week. Now I get a monthly magazine with nothing that could remotely be considered news, and “insights” so late in arriving that they may as well be historical commentary, run by a publisher so craven that they print cigarette ads.

The magazine that used to be Sports Illustrated.

Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch

“When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.” –Leigh Alexander

Nature abhors a vacuum. In all ways and in all places. While I have never seen this immutable law applied to group culture, that only speaks to my own lack of imagination and insight, and by extension Alexander’s surfeit of both. I use “spaces” a bit differently, preferring the term as a reference to internal or personal geography (timespace, brainspace, emotionalspace). Alexander’s choice of “space” rather than “place” adds to the brilliance, the “aha”-ness of the insight in that it specifically includes the virtual as well as the physical.

Some people exert, or could exert, enormous influence over very large spaces by either actively tending to the culture or by standing aside and simply observing what fills the vacuum. The CEO of our local medical behemoth has imposed his will at a very granular level on an organization that employs 10’s of thousands. Rules and regulations abound there. In the world of CrossFit, a space I spent much of my free time for years, the culture arose primarily from the founder’s philosophy and worldview. Pretty freewheeling, rough and tumble, with few, if any guardrails.

At this moment in historical time one is left to wonder if spaces such as Twitter or Facebook have arrived at their present place because their algorithms curated or declined to curate the culture in their space.

Think for a moment about your own spaces, maybe looking initially at the ones over which you might have a bit of control or influence. Work. Home. CrossFit Box, whether owner or member. What has your role been in the creation and ongoing curation of the culture of those spaces? It’s a rather Taoist proposition, I think: to act is precisely equal to not acting, because one or the other course must be chosen. At my day job we actually did go about the task of creating a culture (A Tribe of Adults), and we knowingly curate that space by culling the tribe of those who don’t, won’t, or can’t acculturate.

In the end this is probably just another entreaty to consciously examine your own spaces, your world, and seek to exert whatever control you can wherever you can in order to live well. Whatever “well” means to you. Again, the Tao te Ching gives us some useful vocabulary, imagery we might reference. In the end we are all more like the pebble in the stream than the reed in the field. We may aspire to live as the reed, flexible and ever able to flow with whatever breeze may blow through. The reality is that an untended culture surrounding us flows so powerfully that it, like the water in a stream, eventually reshapes us as it inevitably sculpts the stone in the stream.

The difference, as both Lao-tse and Leigh Alexander teach us, is that you have the ability to control the flow.

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