Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.
It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny. I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports. Why? Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.
The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad. Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware. But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis. I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it. Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.
Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate. It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR. This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society. There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines. If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news. While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting. The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events. The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading. While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.
A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports. Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today. He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity. These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete. It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.
30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series. It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series. If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot. The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching. There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth. There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.