My Own "Best Of" List, With a Twist
Now is when we all get sucked into year-end lists. The best movies. The best books. The best albums. The best sportswriting. Of course, being a sportswriter myself, I'm especially interested in this last one, the various lists sending readers to the most interesting sports stories of the year. And as a female sportswriter, I can't help but notice how these lists are dominated by men. Sure, men write a lot of really great stories. In fact, one of my favorite pieces of the year was Man Up, by Brian Phillips of Grantland. It's a pitch-perfect takedown of the NFL's warrior culture, and it includes dozens of money lines like this one: "It's as if we're a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who've retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We're Klingons, but only on Sundays."
For my own year-end list, though, I'm sharing some of the best sports pieces written by women (at least the ones I've read and enjoyed), along with a few non-sports stories, too. I'm singling out female writers because not enough female writers get singled out. Part of this is because, statistically speaking, there are so many more men writing about sports. But I also believe there tends to be more showmanship -- more look at me, I'm writing -- on the part of the male writers who frequently tout each other's work on social media. The lopsided nature of most of these lists is because sports media is still a boy's club. Very few women work in executive, decision-making roles on the editorial side, so cultivating and growing female voices is still less of a priority than it should be, as is attaching female writers to impactful, meaningful topics -- and not just stories about women or subjects that need a "softer" touch.
All "best of" lists should be taken with a grain of salt, obviously, because one person's great read is another person's snoozefest. The problem is, the paucity of women on these lists, year in and year out, delivers a specific message to young female sportswriters: Yes, the door is open to you, but just barely.
Before diving in, I should also note that I tend to notice stories and essays that are about more than just sports -- themes that exist at that crossroads where sports and social issues meet. So if you think I've missed something really good, a piece that deserves more love, hit me up on Twitter.
And now, in no particular order …
*Trial By Twitter by Ariel Levy
"After high-school football stars were accused of rape, online vigilantes demanded that justice be served. Was it?" I will now read every piece of writing that Levy puts out into the world. On that note, her essay Thanksgiving in Mongolia, about how she lost her baby, was the most beautiful and gut-wrenching piece of writing I read in 2013. There are almost too many heartbreaking lines from which to choose, but this is one of the best: "The truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody's mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen."
*Fallon Fox: The Toughest Woman in Sports by Nancy Hass
Fox is one of the most interesting women in sports, and this absorbing profile is filled with smart observations like this one: "Arguably there's no safe place in the world for a woman who was born a male, but some places are safer than others. You can head for an anything-goes enclave like San Francisco or either of the Portlands, or maybe a Vermont hamlet where people keep to themselves. But here is one destination you probably want to avoid: an octagonal metal cage with a sweat-slick canvas and 3,000 testosterone-jacked ticket holders yelling for your blood."
*Do Svidaniya to All That by Katie Baker
This was a fun, accessible, extremely well-writen story about Baker's trip to check out the pro hockey scene in Russia, which happened to overlap with the end of the NHL lockout. Of course, the piece was also about a foreigner navigating Russia. On the adventure of ordering at a McDonald's, Baker writes: "You wait in the not-quite-a-line, and when it's your turn you ask, 'English?' and a few sets of eyes settle sideways on you. You're given a giant laminated picture-rich menu that looks like it was developed for cognitive studies on children or dolphins." (This feature also resonated with me because I had just returned from my own trip to Russia, where I was reporting a story on the Spartak tennis academy in Moscow. It was a fascinating week, but I'm sad to say I won't be going back anytime soon, as long as Vladimir Putin continues to push for laws discriminating against gays.)
*Still Moving Reflexively in the Rubble by Bonnie Ford
This was the definitive column about Lance Armstrong's fall from grace, from one of the best sportswriters working today. The line that stuck with me all year came about three-quarters of the way down: "I find Lance Armstrong reprehensible for having passed off fiction as documentary. Two dear friends of mine had their bodies sliced up, pumped with chemicals and radiated, but they still wasted away before my eyes and died, the disease feasting on their bones like soft fruit, flooding their lungs, robbing them of their voices and keen intellects and finally stopping their generous hearts."
*You Can Only Hope to Contain Them by Amanda Hess
Five years in, ESPN The Magazine's annual Body Issue still has a knack for surprises. And yes, I'm talking about the stories, not the photos. David Fleming is a master of body reportage, as he proved in 2010 with It Happens and 2012 with Call of Booty. And this year, Hess stepped to the plate in a big way with her entertaining look at breasts. A sample line: "And in the rare case that a breast is on full display, all hell can break loose. Even as Carmouche was threatening to break her neck, Rousey felt as if her falling bra was a life-or-death situation too. If she failed to get a grip, 'I'd be morbidly embarrassed,' she says."
*Tomato Can Blues by Mary Pilon
Part of the allure of this piece is the illustrations, the graphic-novel style. But equally remarkable is the way that Pilon writes to fit that style. I love how she doesn't get in the way. She has a story to tell, and she doesn't get caught up trying to be a writerly writer. To wit: "He was what the boxing world used to call a 'tomato can.' The term's origins are unclear, but perhaps it's as simple as this: knock a tomato can over, and red stuff spills out."
*Failure Is Not An Option by Mimi Schwartz
This feature about former University of Texas track coach Bev Kearney, who was forced to resign, made several best-of lists, for good reason. Kearney is, to say the least, a complicated protagonist. "Dressed in faded sweats, her face makeup-free, Kearney had the plainness of a penitent," Schwartz writes. "But it wasn't in her nature to let grief take over; two iPads, a laptop, and an iPhone beeped and pinged around the perimeter of her chair, competing with the small, burbling serenity fountain a few feet away."
*The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap by Eve Pell
Admittedly, this one is only tangentially about sports -- the theme is finding love in old age -- but it packs an emotional punch in a tidy 1,000 words. "We followed our hearts and gambled," Pell writes, "and for a few years we had a bit of heaven on earth."
And here are some of my other favorite pieces of the year, the non-sports variety …
*An Open Letter to White Male Comedians by Lindy West
*Good Will Hunting: An Oral History by Janelle Nanos
*The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer by Sabrina Rubin Erdely
*My So-Called 'Post-Feminist' Life in Arts and Letters by Deborah Copaken Kogan
*How Jenna Lyons Transformed J. Crew Into A Cult Brand by Danielle Sacks
*Your Friends and Rapists by Sarah Nicole Prickett
*Depression Part Two by Allie Brosh
*That Sex Scene on Last Night's "Girls" by Emily Nussbaum. (This is wonderful reading if you watch the HBO series, and it paired nicely with Jezebel's day-after take by Tracie Egan Morrissey: What Kind of Guy Does a Girl Who Looks Like Lena Dunham 'Deserve'? There is something wonderful about a critique that points out the flaws in your own thinking and reactions.)