Meditations on 21st Century Sports Writing

•2015/02/19 • 1 Comment

I joined Bleacher Report to cover the AFC South on August 1st, 2014. As of August, 1st, 2015 — the day my one-year contract runs out — the position will no longer exist. (You can read more about that here if you’re inclined.)

I know you’ve probably read plenty of horror stories about Bleacher Report by now. Even if they aren’t recent, there’s still a perception gap they’re trying to catch up on. This isn’t one of those. My editors were friendly and understanding. (To the point where they gave me several in-season days off as I struggled with bronchitis.) The support group was nice, and the programming people I worked with had a terrific grasp of where things stand in the industry.

In fact, looking at it through their lenses, I actually concur with their assessment of their own situation. My role was expendable. I could feel it happening as people above me in the pecking order — national writers, and sometimes video guys — pecked away the big angles I was supposed to cover. I probably wrote as much about Allen Hurns as I did about J.J. Watt this season. And, as awesome as Allen Hurns is, nobody is planning a website with advertising quotas around Allen Hurns pieces.

I’ve been in this game for a while now. I signed on at Football Outsiders in 2011, but I’ve been laboring solely as a sports writer since about 2009. If I have a regret, it’s that I’ve been too coachable. It’s that I’ve let other people control my writing and mold me into what they want me to be.

Felix Salmon’s recent piece was so buzzworthy that it even infiltrated Sports Twitter for most of last week. The main crux of the piece is that journalism jobs are disappearing left and right, and the majority of those that remain are going to be “cog in the machine” jobs, as he puts it. I will be honest with you, I pulled some of the resumes of the people who applied for the editor job I got at Football Outsiders. There were probably 20 qualified applicants for that job. Fangraphs recently tried to hire one writer and wound up hiring five. Dave Cameron said he probably could have hired 20. Entry-level writing jobs in this profession aren’t easy to come by, and barely pay subsistence wage. Salmon is right, to an extent.

But the problem I am beginning to see is that by taking a cog job, you also trap yourself in cog work. I believe strongly in the idea of Pareto’s Principle. I certainly see it in how I read about football. The top 20 percent of football writers get my reads. The top 20 percent of new ideas, information, graphs, and so on draw most of my attention. Unless it hits one of those intersections, I’m probably not going to read it.

Having done this for an NFL season, I have a lot more respect for beat writers than I used to. I didn’t do half of their job. I don’t go to games for quotes. (I’d love to come back though, Texans PR staff!) I didn’t watch practices. In other words, I skipped most of the bullshit that doesn’t actually matter. But it is extremely hard to gussy up cog work, no matter how good you are. Unless you have inside information, sources, and the like, there’s not really much need to pay attention to a writer working in that 80 percent field. I didn’t have those. I had what I thought was well-reasoned analysis and enough tables to open my own IKEA. The target audience enjoyed it, but I wasn’t boosting my stock or anything.

Despite the best intentions of both sides, I was put into a job where I couldn’t really elevate myself by people who didn’t really need me to do that job. It’s kind of funny, looking back on it.

***

More often than not, I agree with the sentiment that past performance is our best indicator of future production. Admitting this means admitting that I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet. While I’ve been proud of things I’ve written individually, I haven’t done it consistently yet. I am still learning. Still trying to do my best on a daily basis. On everything from writing to functioning like a normal human being.

I’ve shared this before, but both of my parents died rather suddenly on me. My dad passed away in 2010, and I was 25 when my mom died of a stroke in 2011. What I probably haven’t gotten into before is what a non-functioning zero of an asswart I felt I was at that age. I sponged hard off my mother’s kindness. I was entitled and felt owed something by the world (over things I won’t get into here) that set me into depression for most of my teenage years.

When my mom died, that net was gone, and I fell hard. I’d never rented a place before. Never cooked anything more complicated than eggs. Never shopped for my own groceries or clothes that weren’t jerseys. Never paid my own taxes or managed money. So, for the last four years, I’ve been learning a lot about this whole “life” thing. To do this, I’ve had to put a lot of my life on autopilot at different points. For instance, I haven’t really given myself much of a chance to grieve — that still comes out at strange times. And, more importantly for the purposes of this post, I’ve mostly tried to follow orders at work. I haven’t fought hard enough on subjects I’m passionate about yet. I haven’t completely devoted myself to the crafts I know would improve my writing and football acumen. I can and have done well enough with what I know, so perhaps this is a case of impossibly high standards I’m setting for myself, but I think it mostly comes down to time. I’ve learned so much over the past four years, but there’s still so much more to learn. I honestly don’t even know how to swim. Or ride a bike. I feel like a slothful Ned Flanders.

I’m 29 years old now. 30 in June. I don’t really know where I go from here, and I probably won’t have a solid idea until I take a vacation and get some distance from the situation. Obviously the goal is to keep writing about football (maybe other sports?), but how I get there is … well, it’s a story still waiting to be written. Do I write only what I think is important and see where that gets me, regardless of the short-term effects on my income? Do I find my way into another job where I’ll be writing about the fifth-highest 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine because nobody believes in me punching above that class? Is there a middle ground somewhere (editing?)? Do I take the Chase Stuart model and turn this into a hobby while pursuing some other career?  It’s kind of all on the table at this point, and I feel extremely fortunate that the ticking clock on that is still a ways in the distance.

But as I sit here reflecting on the ride, I just wish I’d been able to take more agency in my career path sooner. My advice to young writers? Don’t let anyone tell you what you can do if you can avoid it.

200-Word Reviews: Final Fantasy III (DS)

•2014/11/24 • Leave a Comment

Final-fantasy-iii-ios

For Final Fantasy Completionists Only.

This game is what happens when you decide that instead of fixing any game play problems with your remake, you could just give it pretty graphics. Because you don’t really get to keep abilities, certain job classes (Red Mage, Geomancer, Dragoon, Summoner, Sage) are clearly superior to others, to the point where it ruins any potential replay value. The game also very overtly warns you which classes you should be at certain times by the equipment it gives you.

The game suffered from very quick difficulty spikes, which was one reason I gave up on it on first purchase. Nothing bothers me quite as much as being forced to grind levels to survive. Additionally, because the game’s battle timing system is essentially random outside of a few job classes, you’ll just have no way to beat some bosses if the RNG decides you’re eating the two best attacks in a row before you can heal. It’s cheap, and it almost made me surrender before I remembered that I’m a completionist.

By acknowledging that this game had a story, I put more effort into the review of the story than the developers put into the story.

200-Word Reviews: Tenth Of December by George Saunders

•2014/11/04 • Leave a Comment

250px-Tenth_of_December

It’s impossible for me to read a George Saunders book and not recommend it to you. This one tended to be a little less absurd than most of his short-story collections. Instead, Saunders focused on a few main themes: drugs and altered consciousness, people breaking out of established social norms in the name of kindness, and the illusion of kindness in general. In the world Saunders created in most of these short stories, the world quashes your desire to be kind at  every turn. Usually through situations or people who make it impossible to do so without punishment.

The story that resonated most with me was the title track. An old sufferer of Alzheimer’s is trying to freeze himself to death, only to see a young kid bringing his discarded jacket to him. The boy falls through a frozen-over pond before he could get there. As someone who also had a father consumed with the dignity of keeping his suffering to himself, this passage was quite prescient to me:

He was a father. That’s what a father does.
Eases the burdens of those he loves.
Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.

 

New 3CD: Art of Baylor

•2013/11/18 • Leave a Comment

It’s up on Football Outsiders now:

Baylor’s starting quarterback checked out with 6:34 to play in the game, 63 points in hand. The Bears got off to a horrendous start, and were down 20-7 late in the first quarter. Two of Baylor’s three players with over 800 yards from scrimmage on the season, Lache Seastrunk and Tevin Reese, didn’t play. Their top receiver, Antwan Goodley, had 101 yards and a touchdown and it felt like he left about 150 more on the field. They committed 12 penalties for 108 yards. None of it really came close to mattering.

I took this in, live and in person, at Jerryworld in Dallas. (I resisted, for the most part, the urge to watch the gigantic TV screen in front of my face rather than the game itself.) What I saw was the exhausting, inexorable march of football being dragged into the future by Art Briles.

Read the whole thing here.

 

New ESPN Insider Piece: The Jets and The Sixth Seed

•2013/11/18 • 1 Comment

It’s (been) up on ESPN ($) for awhile. My apologies for not linking it earlier.

As weird as it would have sounded at the beginning of the season, the New York Jets are in the driver’s seat for the last wild-card berth in the AFC.

Yes, that’s a statement that is stripped of the depressing context that there isn’t really a worthy sixth playoff team in the AFC this year — but it still rings true. Through 10 weeks, the Jets are the only AFC team that isn’t the Denver Broncos or a division leader to be over .500. And their closest competitors for the final spot, the Miami Dolphins, have plenty of issues on the field and off.

But can the Jets hold on and secure the AFC’s final wild-card spot?

Read the whole thing here, if you are an ESPN insider.

New 3CD: On Third-and-Long Play Calls and Anthony Castonzo

•2013/11/11 • 1 Comment

It’s up on Football Outsiders.

So we said last week that coaches were trading about 20 percent of their success rate on roughly 25 percent of third-and-longs to go conservative. After looking at the upsides of conservative coaching, what they are receiving in exchange is less downs with a replacement-level sack rate (about 2.4 percent difference) and about an 0.5 percent less chance of throwing a pick.

Yes, I’m aware that some of this can be chalked up to game theory. I’m also aware that some of this conservative coaching is coming in field position areas where gaining a few yards can set up a long field-goal attempt rather than a short punt or a fourth-down decision

Still, I can’t help but feel like some coaches are sacrificing a few too many third-and-longs to conservative thinking. There are specific instances where it may make more sense — immobile quarterback, leaky offensive line — but even if we say the Adjusted Sack Rate should hit 20 percent on those sorts of plays, it’s a stretch to say that it’s not smarter to throw the ball past the sticks.

Read the whole thing here.

New ESPN Insider Piece: Biggest Weaknesses For Contenders

•2013/11/11 • Leave a Comment

It’s up on ESPN ($) now:

At this point in the season, no one is surprised that the Seattle Seahawks’ defense is dominant (except against Mike Glennon, of course) and no one is expecting the Jacksonville Jaguars to make a miraculous playoff run.

But even contenders like the Seahawks aren’t without problems. We’ve previously examined a potential problem area for the Bengals, but let’s take a look at the biggest weakness for the other top contenders in the AFC and the NFC and how each team can solve the issue before the playoffs.

Read the whole thing here if you have ESPN Insider.

 
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