Sports Illustrated: Why the Back Page Isn't the Same Without Rick Reilly
I love Sports Illustrated, but it is becoming a little high brow for me.
The main weakness of the magazine used to be its strength: the back page.
Let me explain.
I’m a rare person in that I have read each and every issue of SI, cover to cover. I have done this since my sophomore year of college (2010). Some of my favorite writers are from SI and nothing—not ESPN The Magazine, Grantland.com or any other website—comes close to the level of writing they have in that magazine.
The problem is that the back page should be what sells the magazine. After all, most people do not have time to read through all of the feature stories, but almost anyone can peruse a 900-word column on the back page. And if the column in the back is worth reading every week, people will subscribe to the magazine.
In the Rick Reilly days, people used to buy SI just to read the back page. Before he left for ESPN in 2008, Reilly spent 23 years writing back page articles for the magazine.
He had humorous columns:
He devoted an entire piece on how bad Seattle sports are right before the Seahawks and Steelers met in the Super Bowl. "Okay, Seattle,” he wrote, “grab a grande, skinny, no-foam, half-caf Espresso Macchiato and let me explain why the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to grind you up like a Sumatra blend in Super Bowl XL.
“You suck at sports.”
He went on to list three reasons why they suck:
People in Seattle are too nice: “Your sportswriters are more forgiving than Hilary Clinton. If they covered Jeffery Dahmer, they’d refer to him as a ‘people person.’”
They’re too geeky: “Look, your average Seahawks fan drives a Prius. Your average Steelers fan drives a Ford Excursion, which has Priuses in its tire treads.”
And it rains too much in the city: “No wonder most great athletes leave. Ken Griffey Jr. left, basically saying, ‘I want my kid to be able to play outside once in a while.’”
Yeah, you have to be a jerk to rip Seattle like that, but hey, his humorous columns were funny and they sold magazines.
Reilly’s strength was that he wasn’t pigeonholed as a humorous columnist.
He could do touching human-interest stories as well:
In the 2006 Swimsuit Issue he wrote a feature on Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova.
This was his lead: “Petra Nemcova was drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. On a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was.”
There is no way that anyone could read the lead to that article and say, “Yeah, it looks cool, but I’ll read it later.”
It doesn’t matter that it’s the swimsuit issue.
Reilly also made a name for himself by picking on popular athletes:
His dislike for Barry Bonds was notorious. “In the San Francisco Giants clubhouse, everyone knows the score, 24-1,” he wrote. “There are 24 teammates, and there’s Barry Bonds.”
His writing earned him 11 Sportswriter of the Year awards.
But since he left SI, he has won that award as many times as you and I have:
Zero. Zip. Nada.
He continues to irk people. His piece about how Notre Dame football sucks certainly stirred the pot, but it brought nothing new to the table: It did not reveal that ND was breaking rules or that they were hiding a scandal or even that there was a quarterback argument in the locker room.
It just stated the obvious, that the Fighting Irish haven’t won anything significant lately and still get a lot of air time. In essence, it was a call for attention…from a guy that has space on the front page of ESPN.com.
Rick Reilly is still well read, but soon after he left SI, he fell from grace, leaving a void at the top of the sports world.
Bill Simmons filled that void.
Simmons doesn’t sit in the press box. He attends games in the stands.
Simmons doesn’t need access. He can quote his friends.
Simmons doesn’t need to be objective. He loves his Boston teams and if you don’t like it you’re just going to have to deal with it.
In essence, Bill Simmons is to sports writing what Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore is to golf.
Gilmore is the hockey player that has a knack for hitting the long ball, but can’t putt for dough. He is a misfit on the highfalutin' golf course, eschewing the collared shirt for a hockey sweater.
Simmons is the frat boy that has a knack for writing, but can’t construct an 800-word feature to save his life. He is a misfit in the stodgy world of old-school journalism, eschewing the button-down shirt for jeans and a Larry Bird jersey.
Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison and Big Daddy were all hilarious movies, but soon Sandler became pigeonholed as “the kid that never grew up” and his act wore thin.
Simmons currently is the most read sportswriter in the world, but he’s been called the “Peter Pan” of sports fandom. “As a cultural phenomenon, Simmons is a member of the new class of man-boys,” writes Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times, “defined most famously by Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips, who make movies about men who can’t or won’t grow up. They got rich staying true to their 17-year-old selves and, along the way, helped make losers sort of cool.”
The problem is that Simmons, like Sandler, is limited to his shtick: the over-aged sports fan.
He can only write one type of column: humor.
And eventually we’re going to get tired of his act.
“With the Sports Guy gimmick, having the kid was the beginning of the end,” Simmons told SI’s Chris Ballard in 2006. “I hit my mid-30s. We're at the end of the line. I don't want to be that 42-year-old guy sitting on a barstool, saying how hot Anna Kournikova is. I never want to be that guy. Maybe it could evolve into something different, not called the Sports Guy.”
Simmons is 42.
Let’s use Simmons’ bar scene as a jumping off point for Posnanski.
If Simmons is the 42-year-old guy sitting at the bar stool, telling everyone how hot Kournikova is (or was), then Reilly is the guy that walks into the bar, bumps into a large, intoxicated man with a Tim Tebow Broncos shirt and says “Hey, Tim Tebow sucks.”
The man goes, “Hey, shut up!”
Another chimes in, “No really, he does suck!”
The two men start a ginormous fight that results in six casualties, six figures worth of damages and the removal of the bar’s liquor license for six months.
Reilly ducks out, unscathed, before things get real bad. It doesn’t matter that he wrote that he believed in Tim Tebow a couple months back, he got the attention he craved.
Posnanski wasn’t at the bar that night. He had a cup of warm milk and fell asleep at 9 p.m.
He is 45 going on 90.
You get the impression that he’s this sage old man that sits up in the attic of his home and writes his columns on a typewriter. Just look at his profile picture.
He claims to be from Cleveland, Ohio. It’s more likely that he was born in the Ottoman Empire.
I want to see a birth certificate.
But don’t get me wrong: He’s a great fundamental writer.
His Olympic coverage was phenomenal.
He had a great story about Icelandic handball player Olafur Stefansson—a man he claimed was the coolest guy at the Olympics.
“Who the heck is this guy?” he asked rhetorically.
Five minutes ago, he was throwing a little ball into a net, and suddenly he sounded like he was preparing his Nobel Prize speech. He talked about how, though he was a team handball player and could not do anything about it, he felt guilty when the Iceland banks collapsed. He talked about how he wants to be a student, not of one thing but of all things in life.
Here’s where he separates himself from Simmons.
Simmons’ strongest piece was on handball as well (London Chronicles Vol. 2), but it was not the handball coverage, where he admitted he didn’t know anything about the sport, spent a paragraph telling his readers that he jumped on the Swedish women’s team bandwagon because one of their players was really hot and finished the article by offering five suggestions on how to change a sport he knew nothing about.
No, the strength of the article was the beginning, where he put the reader into his shoes and described how he ended up at the handball game.
“That's all anyone does at the London Olympics. You walk. You walk, you walk, you walk, and then you walk some more,” he writes.
Armed with a mack-daddy pass and the determination to catch as many events as possible, you'd be surprised how many decisions hinge on these four words: ‘Oh, it's right there.’ No different from ending up on some amusement park ride that you never expected to try, only you did because the line wasn't that long. Proximity trumps anything else.Jeff Gross/Getty Images
That's how I ended up ripping off a women's handball doubleheader on Saturday afternoon.
That’s what you want a writer to do: to put you there. Not all of us can get that mack-daddy pass to the Olympics, so those that can cash in by doing their best to replicate the experience on paper.
Posnanski acknowledged that and wrote an entire piece called "A Day in the Life of the Olympics."
“One of the themes of covering the Olympics is that it is all-consuming,” writes Posnanski.
It’s just so big, so impossible to get your arms around it all.
And, of course, in the middle of it all, you’re trying to figure out how to get from one place to another, you’re looking at the crumpled London Underground map you’re carrying, you’re waiting for a bus, you’re looking for a bathroom, you’re trying to find a Band-Aid or an aspirin, you’re walking along streets and staring at the map on your phone and wondering why the little red dot that signifies you is moving AWAY from the target.
This is where good writers separate themselves from the rest of the pack: They can put you there.
Both writers have their own sites: Simmons started Grantland a while back and Posnanski is working on getting his site, Sports on Earth, up and running in the near future.
Both of their sites will hinge on if their shtick will pass the test of time.
For Simmons, the writer that made a name for himself by taking the Internet route—cracking jokes on AOL.com and ESPN’s Page 2—the fear is that his role as the kid that never grew up wear thin on readers.
For Posnanski, the journalist that made a name for himself by taking the old-school route—writing for The Charlotte Observer, The Cincinnati Post, The Augusta Chronicle, The Kansas City Star and finally Sports Illustrated—the fear is that he has grown too old too soon and will eventually isolate his younger fanbase.
Posnanski had a few back page columns for SI, but he didn’t stick.
After years of rotating the role in the post-Reilly era, the magazine went with Phil Taylor, who joined SI in 1990 after stints with The National, the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald.
Taylor’s strength is the “overlooked story,” if you will. For example, his best piece to date is on Eric Dompierre, high school senior with Down syndrome that was not allowed to play his senior season because the Michigan High School Athletic Association found out that he was 19 years of age.
It is a story that wouldn’t have been told to a national audience if Taylor had not used his platform to write it.
Unlike Simmons and Posnanski, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Taylor—he was a guest in a sports journalism course I took in college. During the course he stressed the importance of having “multiple tools in your belt.” In essence, he says that in order to be successful as a columnist, you can’t just have one type of story that you lean on.
The problem is that Taylor has trouble venturing into other types of stories. Let’s use his columns during the 2012 Olympics as an example.
SI released their first Olympics issue on July 23. Instead of writing about happenings in London, he wrote about the Dwight Howard saga. At the time Howard was not yet a Laker and Taylor wanted to poke fun at his indecisiveness.
“Now, you’ve isolated just about everyone,” Taylor writes, pretending to be LeBron James leaving a message for Howard.
Nets fans are mad at you because you could have signed with Brooklyn as a free agent. Lakers fans are mad at you because you don’t want to seem to want to go west. And Orlando fans, well, let’s put it this way: People in Cleveland burned my jersey after I left, but folks in Orlando will burn yours if you stay.
You get where he’s going with it. It’s a funny concept. But it’s not good enough to make someone want to pick up the magazine if they’re bored at the airport.
Sportswriting legend Roy Blount Jr. got the back page of the July 30 issue so Taylor’s first Olympic column came in the August 6 addition.
He went back to the old well, the overlooked story, and nailed it with a piece on how Team Japan was trying to bring joy back to the homeland after a tsunami.
Not the Petra Nemcova story, but it was a good read.
A week later he had another story in the same format where he profiled London mayor Boris Johnson, or BoJo. His attempt at humor fell flat (“You remember FloJo? Hizzoner is named BoJo”), but it was another solid piece.
By August 20, SI was moving on from the Olympics and into football season, but Taylor had one more Olympics piece in him. It was a good idea: he wanted to provide a wrap-up piece that would dovetail with the magazine’s theme of transitioning from the games in London to football in America.
The problem is that he ventured away from his strength and came off as a snob.
Before I break down his column, I’ll put it in perspective.
This was about the time that Reilly wrote his Notre Dame football piece. It would overshadow a better article he wrote about how women are treated unfairly in golf.
Simmons led his final London Chronicles (Vol. 7) by saying:
Narrator: "Hey, Bill Simmons, you just covered your first Olympics, what are you gonna do now?"
Me: "I'm going to Mailbagland!!!!!!!!!!!"
Disney probably coaxed him into doing it.
Posnanski nailed it, providing a scene to take away from the games. He wrote about Ryan Bailey, an overlooked runner at the games, and his race against ubiquitous star Usain Bolt:
So, he and Bolt got the batons at the same time, more or less, and they began to run the final leg of the 4×100 meters. And for two seconds or so, three or four strides, they ran together. And that’s my goodbye. Those two seconds.
So Reilly caused trouble. Simmons used a cliché. And Posnanski left us with a possible harbinger for the 2016 games: that Bailey would shine sans Bolt.
Well, he went with a conversational piece.
“Hey, I'm back from the Olympics,” writes Taylor. “London was brilliant, as the Brits like to say.
I saw Prince Harry at beach volleyball, Paul McCartney at the velodrome, and William and Kate just about everywhere. I discovered that sprinter Usain Bolt is so fast that if you photograph him with a cheap camera when he's running in the green and yellow of Jamaica, you'll wind up with a blurry picture that looks like guacamole.
Okay, let’s put him in the Simmons’ bar scene.
If Simmons is the kid that never grew up and is still talking about busty blondes, Reilly is the old-timer that can’t give up his glory days and Posnanski is sleeping in a stocking cap and a onesie, Taylor is coming off a little like Cliff from Cheers discussing his vacation to Florida.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with Cheers, Cliff is a man in his 40s that works for the postal service, lives with his mom and claims to be an expert on everything.
Cliff’s first time outside of Boston, where the Cheers bar is located, is a vacation to Florida that he can’t stop talking about. Eventually all the patrons get fed up with him.
But, maybe I’m being unfair. Continue Phil.
One thing I knew before I even arrived was that every day of the Games would feature emotional, deeply moving competition…. As touching as it all was, I'm sure there has been equally powerful stuff going on back in the States all this time, hasn't there? I'll give you Olympic tales and you can fill me in on American ones.
OK, Phil, you’re coming off as a little bit of a snob…
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
I'll go first. The opening ceremony featured 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkani, the first women ever allowed to compete for Saudi Arabia. It represented an important step toward gender equality, and though neither woman came close to medal contention—Attar, 19, finished last in her heat, and Shaherkani, 16, lost her first match—they will be remembered as pioneers.
That’s interesting Phil. I’d like to know more about that.
Your turn. While the two women were marching in under the Saudi flag, one of the big stories in American sports was what? I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. I thought you said the hot topic was Tim Tebow jogging shirtless after practice at Jets camp.
Wait, what? I didn’t say that. You just put words into my mouth. I didn’t even know he did that (although, I’ll be honest, he’s a good looking man and a virgin…might be a good fit for Lolo Jones if basketball non-star Morris Jones doesn’t “corrupt her world”).
Let's try it again. On Day 8 the host country enjoyed what many observers called the greatest day in the history of British sports. In the space of little more than an hour, the Brits won three gold medals—by Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon, Greg Rutherford in the long jump and Mo Farah in the 10,000 meters. With each victory the home crowd in Olympic Stadium grew louder and prouder. As I watched, I tried to imagine a greater feeling for an athlete than winning Olympic gold in his home country. I couldn't.
OK, I knew all that because I have a TV and watched the Olympics…
You say that while that was going on, the Dwight Howard rumors were starting up again? I see they traded him to the Lakers. Finally. I'm trying to imagine a sillier saga than Howard's bizarre effort to get out of Orlando. I can't.
Wait. What? Didn’t you write a column about Howard for SI’s first Olympic issue?
Am I missing something here?
I'm grateful to the Games for cleansing my palate.
Now, bring on the chips and beer. Preseason football's on, and my fantasy draft is coming up.
Hell no! Get out of the bar!
You can go sit in your smoking jacket and sip whiskey on your own deck!
Why Write This?
I worry that SI has turned their writers into James William Bottomtooths out of fear that if one gets loose, like Reilly did, and is able to write virtually unfettered for the back page that they will turn on them and join the monster that is ESPN. (I’m also fairly certain that if I ever get to take a tour of SI headquarters, I’ll probably take a poop beforehand).
I write this because I love SI and I’d hate to see it go down the drain, but, more pertinently because I’m not sure where to go as a journalist.
My fear is that the Internet route will turn me into the kid that never grew up.
My fear is that the newspaper route will turn me into an old man at a young age.
I’m 22 years old and have only written “officially” for three years.
Right now I want to write edgy, fun articles, but 40 years from now I’d like to be able to write old man articles.
In between there, when I’m 40, I still want to be able to attract young readers as well as earn the respect of those who have come before me.
Rick Reilly had a lot of faults, but what he did so well is that he was himself when he wrote, flaws and all, and that sold magazines.
A writer like that will always perform well on a big platform.
The problem I have is the powers that be do not want writers to be themselves.
And expressing yourself is what writing should be all about.
All quotes were obtained first-hand.
Tom Schreier writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.
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