November 10, 2017

Skipping Class was the Goal, the Job was the Touchdown

Guest Contributor: Jon Wertheim

What exactly am I missing here?
That, as I recall, was my initial reaction when my ninth-grade guidance counselor made me an offer. It was the mid-80s, and the newspaper at my high school in Indiana was in need of someone who could write about sports. If I were willing to fill this void and join the paper, I could get out of taking an English class.
There had to be a catch.
Never mind the getting-out-of-reading-The Odyssey bit. I was going to get academic credit for going to games and then writing about them? Come again?
A sports-obsessed teenager, I would be sitting in the stands anyway. And writing never much felt like a chore. My math and science homework, that stuff felt like, well, work. When I had to compose an essay or put together a research paper, it never seemed nearly so bad. Sometimes it even verged on enjoyable.
So for most of high school, I would sit courtside and rinkside – once even ringside – and in the press box for games. Usually, they were high school games, but sometimes I would receive the special dispensation of a media credential for an Indiana basketball game. I would scribble notes during the action; try to interview players and coaches afterwards; and then try to alchemize these musings and bits of statistics and sound-bites into something coherent and, ambitiously, original.
Like the athletes I covered, some efforts were better than others. And like them, I improved a little each season, learning tricks and shortcuts and building confidence.
In college, I still had the writing bug and was a staffer – mostly for sports – of the “Yale Herald.” I spent a year after college working for “Rip City,” the Portland Trail Blazers’ fan magazine, before trying to find an honest line of work and heading off to law school. But, again, I couldn’t shake the damn writing bug. Who wanted to write briefs about jurisdiction or corporate mergers when you could be writing about Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods?
After my second year of law school, I was a summer intern in New York, not at a big law firm, but at “Sports Illustrated.”
While I returned to finish up law school, by that point I was officially hooked on journalism and writing, determined to paint word pictures for a living. Long story short – cardinal rule of media: there are word counts and time limits that must be adhered to – I’ve been a journalist at “Sports Illustrated” ever since.
I’ve covered perfect games and NBA Finals and Super Bowls and Wimbledons. I’ve played ping pong with Marshawn Lynch and lifted weights with Ronda Rousey. But I’ve also covered pool hustlers and underground cage fights and steroid pharmacy raids – and from a writing/storytelling perspective, these niche stories are every bit as gratifying.
In lots of ways, media and journalism have changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years. The Internet has put a premium on speed. Social media has put a premium on voice. The phones we all carry in our pockets have, for better and worse, completely changed how we process information.
If media was once a row of silos; it is now a wide-open pasture. I write and edit full-time for “Sports Illustrated.” But I also write books and do a weekly podcast and appear as a correspondent on 60 Minutes and work serve as a commentator for Tennis Channel at the four Majors. Likening media in 2017 to “the Wild West,” as many do, exaggerates the chaos of the American Frontier.
And yet in other ways, virtually nothing has changed. The underlying job – discovering and then conveying original reports; delivering informed analysis; telling people something they didn’t already know – is the same. Likewise for the ground rules. Be fair. Be accurate. Be thorough. People are still people. Good stories are still good stories. All that’s really changed is the delivery mechanism.
Though it began with a scam to get out of an English class, this has been my line of work for almost 25 years. Maybe one day I will have to get a job.

Jon Wertheim is a senior writer and executive editor for Sports Illustrated. He has also written several books including Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won.

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