Rick Telander’s ode to Sports Illustrated: Doing the write thing

Storied magazine used to be the paragon of sports journalism but has become another victim of digital pervasiveness

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A 1995 photo of Sports Illustrated writers in Orlando, Fla.: Chad Millman (front row kneeling, from left), Desmond Wallace; Rick Reilly (back row, from left), Rick Telander, Michael Silver, Teddy Greenstein, Gary Smith, Lars Anderson, Larry Burke (behind), Jaime Diaz and Marty Burns.

Provided

I have a photo that somebody took with a disposable camera of a bunch of us Sports Illustrated guys, standing bedraggled, sweaty, and parched in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven store in Orlando, Florida, from almost 25 years ago.

We had just finished playing pickup basketball on an outdoor asphalt court at midday somewhere in a jungle park, and if you’d said we looked like a wandering herd of Grateful Dead pilgrims who needed to be kept away from the cash register and helium balloons, I couldn’t have disagreed. But we were just happy, innocent dudes lost in the camaraderie and splendor of both covering sports at the highest level and playing them at the best-bud level.

Back then SI was rocking as the coolest sports magazine in the world, and we were embedded in the grandeur of its imprint like small stones in a championship ring. SI’s circulation in the early 1990s was around 3.5 million, with a pass-along rate (think multiperson families, dentists’ waiting rooms, airplane bins, health clubs and the like) of somewhere north of 23 million. Maybe way north of that. Being on the cover of Sports Illustrated was a proud feather in the ballcap of any great athlete or coach, and the amount of times a person was graced on the cover became a collectible number, like Pro Bowls or MVP awards. It should surprise no one that Michael Jordan (50, to date) and Muhammad Ali (40) are the athletes with the most covers (followed by LeBron James and Tiger Woods), or that dignitaries and stars such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, Chris Rock, and even Big Bird have been featured.

The people who worked at SI felt — no, knew — that they were at the top of the bubbling sports journalism field, with no serious competitors in sight and certainly no other quality, full-color, weekly sports magazine distributed anywhere in the world. We were proud to say we worked at SI because the mag was the best, and because the employee-selection process was tough-minded and skill-based, not to mention a meritocratic process. You thought you could write a 1,500-to 4,000-word story on a major event or character with insight, passion, history, entertaining prose, coupled with behind-the-scenes knowledge and as-yet-unrolled-out quotes on deadline — overnight! — then bring it on.

We knew that lots of young writers had not made the cut. In the 1970s I heard from an editor that Erich Segal, the author of the monster bestselling novel and movie, “Love Story,’’ had wanted forever to get something published in SI. “Just not good enough,’’ the editor had sniffed. Writers who did get published in SI included George Plimpton, James Michener, Kurt Vonnegut and William Faulkner. You didn’t see names like that in The Sporting News.

OK, we weren’t downright snooty about SI, because there obviously were many talented writers — and photographers and editors — who had no interest in its format or goals or business model, or just skipped past it for personal reasons. But we also knew that at some point in our careers we had hurdled a bar that meant a whole lot to our self-esteem and professional validation.

I, for instance, had had a subscription to SI from the time I was in grade school (of course, my parents paid for it), and iconic photos from the magazine were taped to my walls (in spots where Mom would allow), giving me that sense of inspiration and awe that could only come from studying a high-def photograph of a hero for days on end. I did that. You bet. It was kind of a thing for guys, to have some SI photo on your wall, to help propel you through adolescence with a touch of fantasy and athletic yearning.

To actually be employed by this place that had created or enhanced so many of my youthful dreams (later, as a young man I would even pin to my bulletin board an SI photo of Olympic decathlon champion and man-hunk Bruce Jenner!), well, this was heaven. So back to that photo of our gang, and its relevance today.

In essence: we were in the cocoon of a secure and glorious sportswriting era, clearly reflected in our faces, and none of us was fully aware of the turbulence lying just ahead. The approaching thunderstorm was, quite simply, the internet. Yes, it was around in the mid-1990s, had been around in the Silicon Valley tech world for years, but its sweep had not been even partway realized in the public sector. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, and YouTube was a decade from being born. But the World Wide Web had debuted in the summer of 1991, and these new things called web logs, or blogs, were starting to pop up, and what the hell did any of that mean?

As the world would soon see, it meant that publishing as humans had known it pretty much since the invention of the Gutenberg press was over. It had dawned on me as a kind of a vague and bad daydream that since blogs weren’t limited by space and there was no need for ads or editors or fact checkers or even real liability safeguards, if you wanted to plaster any kind of crap onto the vaporous billboard of the electronic, virtual town square, then you could do it.

Theoretically, thus, anybody in the world could now do what it had taken a monolith like Time Inc., Sports Illustrated’s owner, to do with its war chest of writers and photographers and editors and printing machines and distribution services. Joe from Kokomo, living solo in his parents’ basement, wearing footie pajamas and nursing a beer, armed only with a computer console, could now compete with, say, Rick Reilly or Jack McCallum or Scott Price with his prose, or more likely, bilge. The quality assuredly would be garbage, of course, but the writing would be out there as fast as Joe could upload it, and that was something. This freakish revolution wasn’t recognized for its power over publication at first. But nothing since Gutenberg’s device of nearly six centuries ago rivals the internet for human communication.

I bring all this up because Sports Illustrated is on a downward spiral now that likely can’t be stopped. And it’s painful to watch.The magazine has been sold two times and licensed once in the last year and now is run by something called Maven, a Seattle company that bills itself as “a media coalition of professional content destinations, operating exclusively on a shared digital publishing, advertising and distribution platform, providing a major media scale alternative to news and information distributed on social platforms.”

Whatever the hell that means.

Time Inc. became Time-Warner after a dumb merger with West Coast-based Warner Communications in 1989, then was part of an even stupider merger with AOL in 2001. If you don’t believe me, consider that just a year later, in 2002, brand-new AOL Time Warner would report a quarterly loss of over $54 billion, the largest quarterly loss ever for a U.S. company.

I was gone by then, for various reasons I’ll try to explain. Yet the listing of the great ship hurt me in a personal way that is hard to explain. Maybe it just goes back to that childhood adoration of the magazine. Maybe it’s a sadness over the disappearance of a form of writing and visual stimulation that seemed so relevant and wanted. Maybe, most likely, it’s my ongoing recognition that life is ephemeral, rocks turn to gravel, then dust; whatever you thought would never end always does.

Maven, which will be headed by Ross Levinsohn, a career media business dude who not long ago was the ill-fated publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times, immediately fired 40 of SI’s writers, saying the new business plan calls for some 200 “contract writers’’ from all over the country to do most of the work. These will be low-paid, non-staff workers who, presumably, will get no health insurance or other employee benefits.

You want a hint as to what’s coming to SI now? As Lewis D’Vorkin, (aka the “Prince of Darkness” to media underlings) whom Levinsohn hired to be his editor-in-chief at the LA Times, said of the new journalistic style: “It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship.’’

Levinsohn follows that principle, which is why he hired D’Vorkin. In other words, SI does not need jewelry makers and goldsmiths; it needs ditch diggers. Would I have grown up wanting to be part of this “new journalism?” Not a chance in hell. Not one freaking chance.

Deep inside I suppose I knew the solid framework of Sports Illustrated slowly was collapsing, going all the way back to the 1980s, when it still seemed to be ascending. (I was a part of SI in some capacity for 24 years, ending when I landed my sports column here in April, 1995.) Indeed, I have a letter in my files from then-managing editor Mark Mulvoy, dated January 30, 1986, informing me and everyone else that 12 editorial positions needed to be cut, including nine reporters and writers. Reason? “In line with the Company’s goal of managing costs more effectively and achieving meaningful savings . . .’’ etc.(It’s always amused me how journalism outfits, which pride themselves on clarity and precision, slip into the passive voice and vague b.s. when there’s bad news to convey. That opening sentence — the latter part of which I’m sparing you, so you don’t fall asleep while reading — has eight words of three syllables or more. It never would have made it past SI’s blue or red or black pencil editor’s desks!)

There were other rumblings of things changing for the worse.

In September, 1991, new managing editor John Papanek, a former writer and one of my good friends on the staff, sent a form letter to everybody announcing more cuts.

“I am certain that all of you are aware of the fact that the publishing industry has been hit by the most severe advertising depression in 20 years,’’ it begins. “(I)f you read the cover story in the Sept. 23 issue of Business Week, you know most experts believe that the very nature of advertising has changed and that the days of glorious growth in that business are over for the foreseeable future.’’

Yep, old Pappy hit that one on the head. Our journalism business has two ways of making money: paid subscriptions or ads. Subscriptions are nice, but ads are way better. The money is big, and distributing paper copy to subscribers is really expensive. So, get ads, baby! Except that online ads aren’t worth nearly as much as print ads. I don’t know why, but it’s a fact. And the business is all moving online. Just as craft writing was blown up the day those internet blogs appeared, so too did personal ads die the day Craigslist was born.

I guess what I’m saying is that lamenting the demise of SI — it already has gone from weekly issues to biweekly, without lowering its price — is like lamenting the end of charcoal grills for gas ones. The market chooses.

Could SI have done more to prevent this collapse? Oh, for sure. It could have bought ESPN, which it was offered back in the day, for one thing. It could have gotten ahead of the field in online services. It could have found a way to use the incredible resources it had — writers, camera pros, a brand name recognized around the globe — and made new programs and alliances using those assets.

Back in 1991 I wrote a letter to Papanek saying we at the mag ought to produce our own weekly TV show called something like “The Cover of Sports Illustrated,’’ which would feature our own photographers and writers, because they had more access to behind-the-scenes sports than anybody else in the business. Then justplay up that week’s cover story and issue. Just use what we had. The talent was sitting there, idling. I didn’t really care what the show was called or where it was shot, I just knew a new age was here. Unlike most writers, I refused to live in the New York area, which had been an early requirement, and I had seen how Chicago itself had sprinted ahead of the sports journalism field with a show called, “The Sportswriters on TV.’’

This show itself was an offshoot of the groundbreaking “Sportswriters on Radio,’’ program which started in the late 1970s and was carried every Sunday by WGN and featured the distinctive, learned voices of pioneers Bill Gleason, Bill Jauss, George Langford and Ben Bentley. Common thinking at the time was that slovenly sportswriters should shut up and write. And there was the gag that the guys could never get on TV because they had “faces made for radio.’’

But the notion that sports workers had to “stay in their lane’’ was a dumb one, and still is. What does a powdered and hair-sprayed pretty boy (or girl) know about sports that some ugly creature in the field doesn’t? Can I hear a resounding, “NOTHING!” I was part of the original “The Sportswriters on TV’’ show, essentially because Langford couldn’t do it based on his work requirements at the Chicago Tribune. I was already pals with Gleason, Jauss and Bentley, even though I was so much younger, and as producer and mastermind John Roach put it then, and still does, “We needed somebody without a prostate problem.’’

Bottom line, Papanek thought my SI show idea was a good one, but Mulvoy, who had moved up to SI publisher, felt it would “cannibalize the magazine.’’

Mark was a good boss. He truly cared about his employees.

He let us go after big issues like steroid abuse and college cheating without fear of reprisal. He backed us ferociously.

He once let me travel to Scotland and Paris on SI’s dime to work on a never-finished story on the Gulf Stream. He rewarded me after some good work with a trip to Lahti, Finland, to watch the World Cup of skiing. I got to spend 10 days in Florence, Milan, and Rome to cover one World Cup soccer game and write about expat boxer Marvin Hagler because of Mulvoy.

But he had a kind of New York/New England focus that might have prevented him from being as prescient as he could have been. I’m not blaming him — or any of SI’s leaders (there were a number of managing editors during my tenure) — for the magazine’s march to irrelevance. My little TV idea couldn’t have done much to change things. Nor did I ever want to be the boss.

Mulvoy, I should add, tweaked that swimsuit issue into the immense, shimmering gold-jangler it became.

But relying on what had turned the sports world upside down at the magazine’s rocky and controversial beginning in 1954 couldn’t be sustained. The pizazz had to be continually tuned up, remodeled for each new era. Maybe the big fade was inevitable, the descent from print. Just like you, I reach for my cell phone too often, this app or that one, almost as much as a high school teen.

Our world now comes to us via the internet. I honestly believe that a more entertaining reality than our real one will someday come to us through artificial intelligence, algorithms and technology. Will we welcome it? I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t even a choice to be made. Technology wants something, and we’re speed bumps on its trip. The way some kids are totally lost in an AI screen these days is the way I once would get lost in a book, sailing away to a new place. That’s almost comical, isn’t it? A book! Can I put an emoji face here for ROFL?

I believe the printed word will lose its impact and be replaced by more direct messages to the brain, whether through visuals, symbols, music, or something we haven’t thought up yet. I’ll remind you again that nobody could see the internet coming.

Early Sports Illustrateds had hunting dogs, yachts, fly fishermen on the covers. It took eight years — until 1962 — for the magazine to shed losses and reach the black. It did so by ditching the country-club stuff and focusing on the big spectator sports like the NFL, college football, Major League Baseball and the NBA, the events that were exploding because of American leisure time, general wealth, and TV coverage. In reciprocal fashion, SI then boosted these sports by treating them to the best photography and magazine writing they could hope for. The “bonus piece’’ at the end of each issue, the long, in-depth story about a star or a topic that you could get nowhere else — pieces made famous by the likes of Frank Deford, Roy Blount, Steve Rushin and Gary Smith — cemented the deification of the games and athletes themselves.

The swimsuit issue? Hoo-ah! Old Andre Leguerre, the legendary managing editor from 1960 to 1974, knew most SI readers were male, and so what better way to treat them during the dead days of late winter than with a full issue of beautiful, half-naked models posing on exotic beaches ostensibly showing off bathing suits you could buy for your girlfriend or spouse. Can I use that LOL face again? Those magazines disappeared into young men’s bedrooms faster than free doughnut holes.

I often argued with that issue’s editor, Jule Campbell, that we should show some real star female athletes in the skimpy suits, or body paint, not just the 6-foot cover girls Campbell and her staff favored. My reasoning? Authenticity, for one. Two, you think Donna de Varona, Katarina Witt, Gabriela Sabatini weren’t pretty and sexy? Campbell would smile knowingly at me and say, “The athletes are too stiff.’’

Fair enough, I guess. It wasn’t like the swimsuit issue didn’t sell a bajillion copies, anyway. I mean, management would take the models on tour, and advertising executives would just about have group strokes storming up to them for photos and autographs. Somewhere I’ve got a shot of me with my arm around Elle Macpherson, cover girl in 1987, both of us grinning madly at an event in Chicago. What I remember is, man, was she narrow around the waist. And pretty, of course.

Campbell and subsequent editors eventually started using female athletes for some models, and that was nice. But the nude athlete thing was taken to ridiculous ends by copycat ESPN, the Magazine, itself in ruins. If you like looking at a naked Prince Fielder’s stretch marks or then-78-year old Gary Player’s bare butt, or all the tubby Philadelphia Eagles offensive linemen, dancing in a waltz-of-the-rhinos chorus line, go for it. Me, I know the end of the road when I see it.

And maybe that’s where that hoops buddy photo brings us, back onto the road to somewhere we can’t predict. Things were still good for elite sports journalism in 1995, at least on the surface. After all, we were in Orlando for what we dubbed “Camp SI,” a fully paid four-day outing for the entire staff at a hotel/resort, set up for bonding purposes and good times. Nobody does that anymore. Nor do print publications give you huge entertainment expense accounts these days. You may not believe this, but I have letters sent to me from the SI finance department reminding me — nay, scolding me — that time is running out and I still have several thousand dollars to spend on meals and drink.

Even still, I was thrilled the Sun-Times courted me and lured me away from my old mother ship. Subliminally, I knew I was leaving even before I said anything to myself.For it’s true. Nothing stays the same. Evolve or die. New adventures are the spice of life, right? It’s nice when they let you refocus on your home life and your homies and your home city of Chicago.

There are still some great writers at SI — Chris Ballard’s recent bonus piece on a former NFL lineman who became a junkie, cleaned up, went straight, then betrayed all who knew him once again is a damn straight keeper. All these fresh, grunt-wage bloggers coming aboard? Well.

Remember the legacy, kids. None of this was your fault. Make SI the best you can. Write well. Enjoy the ride while you’re there.

Someday, for sure, they’ll come for you, too.

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