How 'The Best American Sports Writing' Could Be Even Better

How 'The Best American Sports Writing' Could Be Even Better

From left: Sportswriters David Halberstam, Frank Deford and Peter Gammons

SourceComposite: Sean Culligan/OZY. Image: Getty

Why you should care

It’s high time that sports writing’s most-celebrated anthology celebrated the diversity of the industry. 

For some writers, it’s the greatest — and most perennial — honor of their careers: being included among the list of names in any given edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

The sports writing series, which debuted in 1991 as part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American series, is edited each year by Glenn Stout. It is Stout’s job to collect the best stories he reads in any given year and send 75 of them to each edition’s guest editor, who selects those pieces that will appear in each volume. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Senior Executive Editor Susan Canavan oversees the series and selects the guest editor for each edition.

Look back through the annals, and you’ll see that some of sportswriting’s heaviest hitters have served as guest editors: David Halberstam (1991), Frank Deford (1993), Peter Gammons (2010). But there’s another standout trait that these individuals share:

The Best American Sports Writing has had 28 guest editors in its lifetime, 25 of whom have been White men.

It’s no secret that the demographics of the writers included in The Best American Sports Writing have also historically skewed heavily White and male. It’s not, then, a stretch of the imagination to conclude that these two truths are correlated. The guest editors might, consciously or otherwise, select the work of those who have had similar experiences — whom they’ve worked with, even, at various outlets throughout the years.

This year’s edition, published on Oct. 2, features 25 writers. Four are White women, two are Black males. The 2016 edition featured 30 journalists; 25 were White men. And so it goes, back 27 years.

Speaking to OZY about the series, Canavan reiterated that the submissions selected by Stout each year are read blind by the guest editors. However, guest editors also have the ability to bring pieces they read on their own to the table for consideration. Calling the process “a collaboration,” Canavan notes that the taste of the guest editor does come into play.

“We have made huge strides in trying to diversify the series,” Canavan says. “The bar for us is the quality of the writing and the quality of the pieces.”

In any given year, the anthology is never going to perfectly reflect the greater sports writing demographic. And while that demographic has gotten strikingly more diverse since 1991, it’s still not very diverse. The Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card evaluates sports media in its hiring practices and the stories it chooses to cover. In 2017, it found that 85 percent of the sports editors, 76 percent of the assistant sports editors, 80 percent of the columnists, 82 percent of the reporters and 78 percent of the copy editors and designers surveyed were White. This year, 90, 70, 83, 89 and 80 percent of those positions, respectively, are held by men.

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The guest editor of this year’s Best American Sports Writing, Jeff Pearlman — author of multiple New York Times best-selling books across the sports landscape — calls it a “thrill” to be selected. “I was so proud to be named editor of that book,” he tells OZY. And yet, when he looked over the list of those who had held the post before him, he was shocked. “Jane Leavy is the only woman to ever edit this thing?” he remembers thinking. “That is insane.”

When exploring why the anthology, historically, has failed to highlight diversity in the industry, it begins with hiring practices.

“When you’re reading, you’re looking for generally these meaty stories, detailed profiles,” explains Pearlman. “The truth of the matter is most of those stories are being written largely by experienced writers who have been around a long time, and hiring is just now starting to catch up with experience. Regrettably, too large a percent of those were written by older White writers.”

Mike Freeman, a veteran NFL scribe who now writes for Bleacher Report, echoed those sentiments. Freeman, who has made it into the series as an honorable mention, says that he appreciates the hard work of both the writers and the editors involved, “[but] its weakness has long been its lack of diverse voices.”

But he doesn’t point blame at the editors. “The overall pool of voices of color is ignored or small throughout our business. But it often doesn’t even consider the limited diverse voices that do exist.”

Many of the outlets hiring diverse voices are digital media blogs and websites, and stories produced at these outlets have only recently started to appear more regularly in the anthology’s pages. Tyler Tynes’ SB Nation essay “There Is No Escape From Politics,” selected for inclusion in the 2018 Best American Sports Writing, stands out as an outlier in so many ways — Tynes is Black, 24 years old and writes for a new media outlet.

“Just a young boy from Norf Philly, and now one of the youngest and one of the only Black people included in The Best American Sports Writing,” Tynes tweeted. “Hopefully my momma somewhere proud.”

“We’ve been proactive about expanding our reach beyond the daily newspapers to the websites that have cropped up over the past two decades,” Canavan says. “There’s no bias as to what format it’s published in or who’s writing it.”

Pearlman stands by the work he selected for this year’s edition. “The stories I put in there, in my opinion, were really, really good,” he says. “But there needs to be a greater effort at diversity, and it starts with hiring.”

The Best American Sports Writing emerges from the soil of the sports industry as a whole. It can only grow out of the environment surrounding it, and for too long, that environment has been homogeneous. Moving forward, the editors and hiring managers of the publications putting out these features and profiles must realize the responsibility they have for being representative in their hiring practices and in the stories they choose to publish. The Best American Sports Writing will blossom into better American sports writing as a result.

Our Future Guest Editor Dream Team:

  • Sally Jenkins
  • Jackie MacMullan
  • Jemele Hill
  • Christine Brennan
  • Greg Howard

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