By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
Well sports fans, it’s hard to believe that the month of September has already come to a close, but here we are nevertheless. It seems like I was just recounting all of the best sports stories from around the web, and all of a sudden it’s time to do it all over again. Last month, we covered the behind scenes world of sports media, the messy legal battle for the soul of the NFL, some technical aspects of the game and a healthy dose of hard nosed, good ole fashioned journalism. This time around we’ll hit a few familiar beats, but make a point to explore some new territory, as well.
Get ready for a thrilling journey through all the top scoops, interesting perspectives and fascinating stories of the best sports articles that the web had to offer over the past month. Without further ado: The Best of Sports in September.
Starting us off with something fun, Jared Dubin wrote about the fascinating and incongruous career of Tony Romo for Grantland’s sports blog, The Triangle. “Learn How to Stop Talking About Tony Romo,” Durbin pleads to Cowboys fans, football fans and fans of rationality. His basic argument is that it’s pointless, impossible and inaccurate to make reductionist statements concerning Romo such as “He sucks,” or “He’s good.” He then proceeds to lay out a bullet pointed guide on how to avoid trying to make sense of Romo’s career in which he presents statistics that suggest, despite his overall lack of success, Romo has accomplished some pretty impressive feats. It’s a very fun and clever read. And yes, it will drive you mad if you, like me, are a Cowboys fan.
Also at Grantland was an ace served up by tennis/soccer/Oklahoma City Thunder/ miscellaneous writer Brian Phillips. Phillips has been consistently cranking out great work for Grantland since the site’s inception in summer 2011. His work is usually insightful, occasionally poignant and always wildly entertaining. Between his imaginative metaphors and colorful descriptions, Phillips’ prose often reads more like creating writing than sports writing. And he’s one of the funniest writers in sports, if not in all of writing. This month, Phillips wrote another tennis odyssey about his experiences at The U.S. Open, but my favorite piece he wrote was about the calm brilliance of Mesut Özil and the state of Arsenal. Even if you don’t read it, you should definitely click on the link to watch Özil’s attempt at rapping.
Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru Wada have been doing some of the best and most important investigating for ESPN’s Outside the Lines brand concerning the NFL and concussions. In August, they dug up some interesting information on the doctor who served as head of the NFL’s concussion program. This past month, they broke down the specifics of the NFL’s concussion $765 million settlement with over 4,000 former players. In this piece, they meticulously explained how a good chunk of older players are being shut out of the deal. The details are shocking and sad, and certainly not all that fun to read. But it’s important.
After his 8,000-plus-word mega-piece on The Battle of Sexes, long form journalism virtuoso Don Van Natta Jr. returned with a pair of shorter pieces. First, Van Natta and William Winebaum followed up the Bobby Riggs match-fixing story with a reaction piece that explained all of the feedback that he’d gotten since the original piece was published. The wide range of reactions show how Van Natta successfully captured the attention of the public and struck a nerve with some involved in the story. Then, Van Natta and ESPN Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter Mike Fish reported the latest on the never-ending performance enhancing drug saga between Alex Rodriguez, Major League Baseball and well-known sports physician Anthony Galea. It’s nice to see that Van Natta is still hustling and staying hungry between publications of his earth-shattering long reads.
Last month, I referred to Van Natta as a “long read master” and said, “There currently isn’t a better sportswriter or storyteller than Wright Thompson.” I definitely meant that, but I apologize for leaving Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams out of the discussion. Abrams is just about as good, if not as good, and definitely on that tier. This past month, he wrote a gripping and heartbreaking profile of a fallen prep-to-pro NBA prodigy named Korleone Young. It alternates between telling the story of Young’s hoop dreams of his past and scenes from what his life is like now. It’s a cautionary tale, filled with what-if’s that will haunt Young for the rest of his life.
Jordan Conn’s Grantland piece on the mysterious death of multi-sport athlete Kendrick Johnson is more of a crime story than a sports story, but it’s too compelling and well written to not include on this list. Kendrick Johnson was a 17-year old who was found dead rolled up in a mat in his high school gymnasium on January 10 of this year. His death was ruled an accident, but the circumstances and the evidence (or lack thereof) didn’t quite add up. The story is that of his parents, family and friends, who have been tirelessly fighting for justice. A second autopsy contradicted the first. Kendrick Johnson was almost certainly murdered, but there’s so much more to the story than that. It’s an illuminating read.
Mary Pilon of the New York Times wrote another fascinating sports/crime story about a low-level MMA fighter, who died tragically in a car accident… or did he? Charlie Rowan died in a car accident in February, but a little over a month later he became a suspect in a robbery (and assault) at a gun store. Unlike the Kendrick Johnson story, this mystery was solved. This is the story of how he improbably faked his own death, and inevitably got caught. It also includes some pretty cool illustrations and animations that make the crime even more vivid.
The last story of the month is my favorite. Paul Kix of ESPN.com wrote a tremendous feature called “Breaking Good” about the incredible story of former rising football coach Joe O’Brien. “Breaking Good” outlines O’Brien’s rough upbringing by a biker dad and a rough-around-the-edges mom that resulted in him becoming addicted to meth. Despite his athletic abilities and promising coaching career, he was never able to kick the habit until he got caught. Ten years ago, O’Brien was arrested for distributing meth. After a stint in prison, O’Brien has been trying to rebuild his life and break back into coaching. It’s a surprisingly heartwarming story about second chances and redemption. It’s Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy and a Disney sports movie all rolled into one. Once again, crime is a major element here, but there’s a lot more to it than that. All the sports stories this month concerning crime, legal issues and mystery suggest that sports are at their most interesting when you examine what happens beyond the field. A multifaceted sports story is the best sports story.
That wraps up this edition of The Best of Sports of this month. See you again at the end of October. Happy reading.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.