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Blitz!

How sports journalists learned to go for the hard tackle.

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Illustrated by Jacob Thomas  

The three-part series that the New York Times published last week on the life and death of 28-year-old hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard was remarkable on more than one level. First was the sheer scale of the undertaking, for which the paper gave reporter John Branch six months to assemble the story of how the player went from mild-mannered Canadian boy to bare-fisted brawler to overdose victim, then gave him a New Yorker–esque 15,000 words to tell it. But even more significant was the way the project shows how much this corner of the media world has changed. Sports journalism has now fully arrived in a new, crusading era and is hustling like it’s making up for lost time.

This more aggressive approach can be seen as a corrective to the old mode of sports journalism, when sportswriters mainly looked the other way as ballplayers bulked up to Brobdingnagian proportions and cyclists raced up mountains at inhuman speed. While daily beat reporters may have groused with their fellow hacks about dirt they saw in clubhouses, they were loath to report it, wary of losing access to their subjects. But since the steroid scandals, sports desks have added muckraking to their mandates.

At the Times, the Boogaard series—with its blistering account of the risks hockey poses to its players’ bodies and brains—followed the paper’s ground­breaking exposés on head injuries in the NFL. Much of that coverage was the work of Branch’s colleague Alan Schwarz, who was hired by the paper in 2007 from the magazine Baseball America and soon after began looking into reports of broken bodies and early-onset dementia among former NFLers. His investigation led to more than 100 articles about the sport’s brain-trauma problem and ultimately to congressional hearings and a major policy shift by the league, which had for years denied the health threat. The Times has also turned its sportswriters loose on the use of steroids in baseball and the performance enhancer EPO among pro cyclists. And on December 3—the day before the first Boogaard story ran—it published a front-page interview with alleged pedophile Jerry Sandusky conducted by investigative reporter Jo Becker, who’s been reporting extensively from Penn State.

Other outlets have similarly added journalistic muscle to the sports beat. 60 Minutes did its own part to shatter the omertà around cycling’s drug problem, through its interview with Lance Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton this spring. In October, The Atlantic published a cover story by historian Taylor Branch that documented how big universities and their corporate sponsors exploit the young athletes who have turned top-level NCAA sports into a multibillion-dollar industry. Online, A. J. Daulerio transformed Gawker Media’s Deadspin into a tabloid with a sleuthing bent. In August 2010, the site obtained financial documents that showed how some Major League Baseball owners use dodgy accounting maneuvers to increase profits.

In the past, critical sports coverage was mostly directed at individual owners and coaches, for boneheaded decisions, and individual athletes, for their alleged greed come contract time. The critical change is that reporters and commentators are now asking tough questions of the leagues and executives who hold the real power. In the emerging Dickensian narrative, players are merely cogs in an industrial machine, used up and spit out. Pieces like the Boogaard series are laying bare the human costs of that arrangement.

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