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Why 2016 was a seminal year for outspoken athletes
2:53 | Sports Illustrated
Why 2016 was a seminal year for outspoken athletes
Tuesday January 3rd, 2017

As I wrote in this space last year, choosing the best writing and reporting in a given year is an impossible task, as well as an entirely subjective enterprise. Below, are 150 or so pieces that impacted me as a reader, but I honestly could have chosen hundreds more.

I’m sure I left out many great pieces out and I intentionally did not include pieces from my Sports Illustrated colleagues. No doubt some will complain, but it’s not a competition. The pieces below are a reflection of the publications I read and publications people I follow on social media read. The stories are not ranked, nor categorized. Sports and non-sports stories are listed below. I hope you find something that impacts you, too.

• This will haunt you for a long time. Writing for the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Christina Frangou wrote a stunning piece on what’s it like to lose a spouse in your 30s.

• This oral history of Air Force 1 on 9/11 by Garrett Graff of Politico was brilliant, spellbinding reporting.

Incredible work by Monica Hesse of the Washington Post on a Texas doctor who works to identify migrants who died trying to cross the border from Mexico.

• One of the best reads of 2016 was this true crime classic from Los Angeles Times writer Christopher Goffard on a PTA mom’s dangerous intersection with a well-to-do couple.

• From Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly: Fifty years ago, when Claire Wilson was eighteen, she was critically wounded during the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting—the first massacre of its kind. How does the path of a bullet change a life?

• An amazing, sobering read for The New York Times opinion page: How to tell a mother her child is dead.

• “My four months as a private prison guard.” An extraordinary piece by Shane Bauer, writing for Mother Jones.

• Cracked’s David Wong wrote the best explanation I read of Donald Trump’s rise.

• A remarkable piece by Deadspin’s Dave McKenna on the late sports writer Jennifer Frey. Maybe the best sports profile of the year.

• From the terrific New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe: Meet the London’s police officers with a preternatural ability to identify human faces.

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• From Buzzfeed: Here is the powerful letter the Stanford victim read aloud to her attacker.

• An incredible story from The Guardian on the day a pair of young men who discovered their parents were Russian spies.

• From Ta-Nehisi Coates: My President was black.

• Via New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, a remarkable profile on an attorney fighting revenge porn.

• From Jennifer Percy of The New York Times: Five years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, a husband is still searching the sea for his missing wife, joined by a father looking for his daughter.

• From Jezebel’s Jia Tolentino: An interview with a woman who recently had an abortion at 32 weeks.

• Via John Woodrow Cox of the Washington Post: After a flawed sexual assault investigation, a Naval Academy instructor fights to prove he has done nothing wrong. But did he?

• The Power of Will: Brilliant work by the Boston Globe’s Billy Baker.

• A brilliant Dan Barry story on a baseball prospect-turned-hitman.

This piece by Jayson Green on losing his 2-year-old daughter—she was killed when a piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother—will not leave you soon.

• ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz wrote a terrific feature on openly gay NBA referee Bill Kennedy.

• Susan Schneider Williams, the wife of Robin Williams, on the terrorist inside her husband’s brain.

• This PBS Frontline documentary was the single best thing I saw on television on the background of Clinton and Trump.

• Yisrael Kristal lived through both World Wars and survived Auschwitz. At the age of 113, he had his bar mitzvah. Great piece on a survivor.

• Frank Main of the Chicago Sun-Times witnessed a woman kill herself in a very public manner. Sobering, but worth your time.

Tech & Media
Student journalists discuss the future of sports media

• Via the Los Angeles Times: What life is like behind bars for O.J. Simpson, Prisoner 1027820.

• This New York Times photo series on African migrants attempting sea crossings was heartbreaking.

• The Undefeated senior writer Mike Wise wrote a powerful and courageous first-person piece on being a survivor of child sexual abuse.

• Via The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur: A dead man, and an embrace. In conclusion, the Olympics are a land of contrast.

• One of the most remarkable NFL-related stories in 2016, via Buffalo News writer Tim Graham.

• Felix Hall was lynched at Fort Benning in 1941. The US government never solved the murder. A recent Northeastern journalism graduate wrote this piece. Remarkable work.

• Via Tampa Bay Times reporter Claire McNeill: One Florida family risked everything to treat their son with medical marijuana.

What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.

• A fan with autism explains her view of soccer.

• Vice’s Aaron Gordon examined how we often look at the Olympics from a U.S. prism.

• Sensational reporting by New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir on manicurists being exploited and abused.

• The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington on what does it mean to share a name with the victim of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history.

• From Anna Clark of Elle: 11,431 rape kits were collected and forgotten in Detroit. This is the story of one of them.

• Barry also wrote a remarkable piece on a Latina hotel worker in Nevada.

• From Eli Saslow of the Washington Post: Three children confront America’s opioid epidemic.

• Via The New York Times: The lawyer who became DuPont’s worst nightmare.

• From Lauren Duca of Teen Vogue: Donald Trump is gas-lighting America.

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• Via GQ’s Caity Weaver: A superbly written profile of Kim Kardashian that will leave you feeling like Jimmy McNulty and Bodie Broadus in The Wire episode, “Final Grades.”

• This is the best book review I’ve ever read. By Michiko Kakutani.

• From 1843 Magazine: How I used math to beat the bookies.

• The New Yorker republished Lillian Ross’s amazing 1950 profile of Ernest Hemmingway.

• From Foreign Policy: A 25-year-old American traveled to Nepal to volunteer after the earthquake. She found a friendly host on Couchsurfing.com. She was never heard from again.

• From Chris Arnade of The Guardian: What I learned after 100,000 miles on the road talking to Trump supporters.

• From New York Times Magazine’s Wesley Morris: Why pop culture can’t deal with black male sexuality.

• Hardball Times writer Stacey Gotsulias wrote with poignancy about her relationship with her dad and how baseball brought them together.

• The collected works of Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, including this first-person piece on how a rally in Iowa and a campaign manger falsehood set the stories in motion his stories.

• If your team has lost, which means all of you, you will appreciate this multimedia effort from The New York Times.

• Via Rembert Browne: The black conversation around Larry Wilmore’s ‘n-----’ remark was really about something much bigger.

• From Wired’s Kevin Poulsen: The Ukrainian hacker who became the FBI’s biggest weapon—and worst nightmare.

• Via Eli Saslow of the Washington Post: A story of a mother and daughter facing heroin addiction.

• From NYT’s Sarah Lyall: A triathlete is accused of cheating.

 

Writer Rex Sorgatz returned to his remote hometown of Napoleon, North Dakota — once isolated, now connected.

If cancer has hit your family, read this piece about a boy’s cancer journey.

• For more than a year, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein worked on uncovering the secrets of New York’s mass graves on Hart Island.

• Law enforcement logged nearly 16,800 calls in one year to Walmarts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis. That’s two calls an hour, every hour, every day.

Brilliant work by ESPN’s Wright Thompson on Tiger Woods at 40.

• From Lisa Rab of Charlotte Magazine: A working mother fights to give her kids a better life in a city where that’s next to impossible.

• Fantastic piece from Alex Tizon of The Atlantic on missing persons in Alaska.

• With the passing of the Dutch master, Johan Cruyff, this Guardian piece is worth reading.

• From NPR: 30 years after explosion, Challenger engineer still blames himself.

• Also from NPR: Your letters helps Challenger engineer shed 30 years of guilt.

• Former U.S. figure skating champion Debbie Thomas is bankrupt and living in a trailer. Remarkable story from Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post.

• From The Guardian: Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder.

• Really enjoyed these Players Tribune pieces from Damon Stoudamire and John Scott.

Read this from Janine Talley, the wife of former Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley.

• From Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post: Broadcaster Debbie Antonelli didn’t see limits in son Frankie, who has Down syndrome. She saw potential.

On loss and grief, a year after the death of our son. From ESPN’s Ivan Maisel.

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• From Kathie Dobie of The New York Times Magazine: To catch a rapist.

• From Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales, something eye opening and scary as hell for a parent.

• From Gary Shteyngart of the New Yorker: My remembrances of the great, late Garry Shandling.

• MTV News’s Molly Lambert on Kanye West and the terror of going off SSRIs.

• The NYT’s Ian Urbina produced a brilliant series on lawlessness at sea.

• “As the only African-American covering the Cavaliers on a full-time basis, I felt an obligation to dive into LeBron James’s handling of the Tamir Rice case.” A must-read piece from Chris Haynes.

• Media junkies should read this Nicholas Schmidle profile of TMZ.

• From Miami New Times writer Tim Elfrink: A south Florida boxing rivalry leads to cold-blooded murder.

• From ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham: Inside story behind the NFL’s wild, bitter return to Los Angeles.

• The Miami Herald’s obituary for Fidel Castro.

• “I was raped at Baylor and this is my story.”

• From Vanity Fair: The celebrity surgeon would use love, money and the Pope to scam an NBC news producer.

• Terrific piece by NYT’s Robert Draper, who takes a road trip around Iowa to find its political soul.

• From Margaret Lazarus Dean of Popular Mechanics: Highest recommendation for this oral history of the Challenger disaster.

• From the staff of the Indy Star: A 20-year toll: 368 gymnasts allege sexual assault.

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• From Martina Hyde of The Guardian: Blame it on the IOC: Its profiteering Olympics has never looked more exploitative.

• A short account of living with depression and anxiety, from Janie McManamon.

• From Dan Barry: Two men entered the ring for their first professional fight. Then something went wrong.

• From The Boston Globe: Private schools, painful secrets.

• From Mitch Moxley of The Atavist: How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

• Via Indianapolis Monthly: Blindsided: A dream engagement turned nightmare.

• MTV News writer Brian Phillips on Prince.

• What caused the wreck of Amtrak 188?

• ESPN.com’s Mina Kimes on bat flips in Korea.

• Really interesting New York Times Magazine piece on refugee teens in Boise, Idaho.

• Drew Magary, writing for GQ, on the day after Election Day.

• From The Fader: Black life and death in a familiar America.

• The Ringer’s Jordan Ritter Conn on the disappearance of Justin Blackmon.

• Via Asma Khalid: What it was like as a Muslim to cover the election.

• From Huffington Post writer George Dohrmann: Inside the NFL’s relentless, existential, Big Tobacco-style pursuit of your children.

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• Via The Globe and Mail: Cancer made two men brothers under the skin.

World War Three, By Mistake. By Eric Schlosser of The New Yorker.

• The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald had a brilliant takedown of television news media stars abdicating their journalism roles.

The Guardian’s Chris Arnade on McDonalds restaurants as social centers.

• Monica Davey’s NYT story inspired Making a Murderer. A decade later, she headed back to Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

• From Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman: The 23 minutes that shook the hockey world.

• Jessica Contrera, on being 13 in 2016.

• How did a boring Nintendo game from 1987 become the most coveted cartridge ever? It’s a bit of a mystery. From Justin Heckert of ESPN.com.

• From the New Yorker: Where Germans make peace with their dead.

• Via Christina Xu: What the U.S. needs to understand about post-truth.

• A janitor felt invisible to Georgetown students—until one changed his life. From the Washington Post.

The American Conservative on Trump and poor white people.

• The New Yorker’s David Remnick spent time with Barack Obama before and after Election Day.

• From Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer: The boy Rae Carruth wanted dead plans to be at the prison gates when Carruth—his father—is released.

• Curtis Sittenfeld, writing for the New Yorker, pens a lovely tribute to a friend who has cancer.

• From FiveThirtyEIght’s Oliver Roeder: A plagiarism scandal is unfolding in the crossword world.

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• The Palm Beach Post on Generation Heroin.

• John Woodrow Cox of the Washington Post: A woman’s terrifying night in the Chesapeake.

• Via Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker: Greenland is melting.

• From The New York Times editor Michael Luo: “I wrote an open letter to the woman who told my family to go back to china.”

• Via David Maraniss: The middle-American voters who moved away from Hillary Clinton.

• From Eli Saslow: The white flight of Derek Black.

• The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos offered a sobering and reported look at a potential Donald Trump first term.

• Via Washington Post: Inside Bill Clinton Inc.

• Via The Atlantic’s Molly Ball: How political consulting works—or doesn’t.

Great piece by NYT reporter Julie Bosman on how seventh graders in a social studies class at DeLong Middle School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, were dealing with the election.

• From Terrell J. Starr of The Daily Beast: If you want to understand Putin, watch The Wire. He is, essentially, Marlo Stanfield.

• The Ringer’s Jon Favreau, on what goes into a great convention speech.

The house that Cam built, by Eric Nusbaum of Vice Sports.

• What the post-Trump debate over journalism gets wrong, from The Brookings Institute.

• From John Branch of The New York Times: Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors coach, was touched by terrorism in the most personal way.

Hollywood Reporter writer Rebecca Sun writes an open letter to Tilda Swinton.

• Via Washington Post: An oral history of how Trump won from Trump insiders.

• From Outside Peter Frick-Wright: What happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 980?

• The Marine Corps taught Sam Siatta how to shoot. The war in Afghanistan taught him how to kill. Nobody taught him how to come home. Brilliant work from C.J. Chivers.

• Why chess upsets religious fundamentalists.

• Ramona Shelburne, on Kobe Bryant’s next life.

• The Charleston Gazette Mail’s Eric Eyre, on the trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields:

• Ian Frisch of Vice Sports went inside the WWE’s business.

• From Chico Harlan of the Washington Post: 7,000 miles to salvation.

The Columbus Dispatch obituary on John Glenn, American hero, aviation icon and former U.S. senator.

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable stories)

1. Far be it for anyone to feel sympathy to ESPN—which often puts the H in hubris—but the company was dealt a terrible hand with the College Football Playoff. The New Year’s Eve dates for the CFP semifinals were always part of the framework of a 12-year, $5.6 billion deal, but network officials pushed hard to move off the date last year and were rejected. Why? Unlike the executive director of the CFP and his cronies, ESPN officials understood that making fans choose between NYE plans and college football was a catastrophe for viewership. And the larger point: They should never have to make such a decision if you care about your consumers.

As with last year, the public spoke again and the semifinals produced a second straight flop compared to 2014. While ESPN p.r. has to play the narrative that this year’s games drew big increases over last year—which was inevitable—Saturday’s semifinals remain way down from the 2014 games, which were played on New Years Day.

The breakdown:

2016:

Alabama-Washington: 19,344,000 viewers
Clemson-Ohio State: 19,236,000 viewers

2015:

Clemson-Oklahoma: 15,640,000 viewers
Alabama-Michigan State: 18,552,000 viewers,

2014:

Oregon-Florida State: 28,164,000
Ohio State-Alabama: 28.271,000

In short, college football lost nearly nine million viewers from 2014.

The CFP in July announced it would amend some of the dates to alleviate this mess, though they have not fixed in total. The semifinals will be played on New Year’s Eve in 2021 and 2022. “Obviously, Saturday is a traditional college football day,” Bill Hancock told USA Today last July. “We feel Saturday works.”

You just saw how Saturday worked.

1a. Top-rated TV markets for Alabama-Washington:

1. Birmingham
2. Columbus
3. Knoxville
4. Seattle
5. Atlanta
6. Greenville
7. Nashville
8. Dayton
9. Cleveland
10.Memphis

1b. Top-rated TV markets for Clemson-Ohio State

1. Columbus
2. Birmingham
3. Greenville
4. Dayton
5. Knoxville
6. Cleveland
7. Atlanta
8. Nashville
9. Cincinnati
10. Jacksonville

1c. The Orange Bowl between Florida State and Michigan drew 11,461,000 viewers on ESPN.

2. Per Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp: ESPN averaged 11.39 million viewers for its 17 Monday Night Football telecasts, the lowest MNF viewership since 2007, when the net averaged 11.23 million viewers. Karp said the package was down 12% from last season. The numbers would have been even lower of not for the 18.6 million viewers who watched the season finale between the Cowboys and Lions, the most-watched MNF game since Redskins-Cowboys in Week 8 of the 2014 season (18.8 million viewers). Karp said that was ESPN’s best MNF season finale since Saints-Falcons drew 19.1 million viewers in 2010

2a. An example of the power of the Dallas Cowboys: The SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt after the Cowboys-Lions game averaged 4,418,000 viewers, up three percent from the postgame SportsCenter from this week one year ago. That’s a huge number given declining MNF ratings.

2b. NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher on Rex Ryan: “I think they hoped he would learn from his first time around with the New York Jets. But when he went up there I think it became evident in the second year, with Rex, instead of tempering expectations, he wanted to build results. He got too involved in his own situation. I don’t see him coaching again in the National Football League as a head coach.”

2c. Amateur hour by the Eagles organization.

3. Episode 96 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features longtime ESPN columnist and on-air reporter J.A. Adande, who was named in August as the director of the new sports journalism program at Northwestern’s Medill School. Previously, Adande wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times.

In this podcast, Adande discusses his move to academia and what he hopes to accomplish at Northwestern; how he would evaluate the quality of student entering Medill; how much impact the 2016 Presidential election will have on journalism heading forward; what was unique about covering sports in Los Angeles; getting a newspaper column job at a major paper at age 26; his relationship with Kobe Bryant; the importance of an agent in negotiating with companies such as ESPN; how he would evaluate the sports media industry when it comes to voices of color; why writers and broadcasters should not “clean up” quotes; what you might be missing about Around The Horn; criticism of his friend and mentor, Michael Wilbon; what he learned from Scottie Pippen in a urinal, and much more.

 

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. This week’s pieces of note:

• Lou Dubois on struggling with weight gain.

• Vice Sports put out a list of its best sports pieces in 2016. So did Deadspin. So did The Ringer and FiveThirtyEight.

• A detailed report from The New York Times on a Russian insider who said state-sponsored doping fueled gold in Sochi.

• Tony Rehagen, writing for espnW, on an MMA cutwoman.

• From Ben Dryfuss: “Carrie Fisher was sweet to me in a time of crisis. And I had a nervous breakdown & was in a mental institution.”

• She accused a Stanford football player of rape. A panel majority agreed with her. Twice. He’s still playing football.

NYT reporter John Eligon embedded with Chicago gang members to find out how so many have died, and for what.

• From Michael Powell: In Navajo Nation, a basketball elder earns respect.

• Seller-financed deals are putting poor people in lead-tainted homes.

5. Bill Finley, writing for The Thoroughbred Daily News, offered a thoughtful tribute on Russ Harris, a legendary horse racing writer who passed away at age 93.

5a. Longtime UFC announcer Mike Goldberg called his last UFC card on Thursday. UFC president Dana White told Sportsnet in December that he wanted to get analyst Joe Rogan a new partner.

5b. Want an interesting sports television rating: NBC Sports Network’s airing of Mecum Auto Auctions on Christmas Day drew 377,000, topping everything on ESPN2, FS1 and even beating a bowl game (Hawaii-Middle Tennessee in Hawaii Bowl).

5c. Usain Bolt calls into a Manchester United chat show.

5d. First Take, the lone show on sports television that both threatened Kevin Durant and questioned Robert Griffin III’s blackness, moved to ESPN this week after a long run on ESPN2. The reason is cratering ratings. One example: From Labor Day 2015 to Nov. 20, 2015, First Take averaged 469,000 viewers. During the same period in 2016, the show averaged 306,000.

ESPN management hopes the increase in viewership from ESPN2 to ESPN (which will happen because ESPN’s ratings are much bigger than ESPN2) will provide the show with a better external narrative following the ratings dropping and the departure of Skip Bayless. Second, the show makes money (you already have the studio; just talent costs) and they need a good ratings story to continue to do so.

What’s been interesting to watch is how much marketing ESPN has put into the First Take re-launch. If you are a staffer at say Outside The Lines, E:60 or espnW, you have to wonder what it would take to get the same kind of external push.

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