Sportswriting and the Humanities

A couple weeks ago, Rian Watt at Baseball Prospectus wrote a provocative post about the future of baseball writing. He notes the complaints that sabermetrics—known more broadly, outside of baseball, as analytics, the focus on statistical data—has become stale, with discussions increasingly calcifying around the same few narrow topics: pitch framing by catchers, the effects of defensive shifts, etc. (One factor Watt doesn’t mention is the trend in which talented analysts are often hired by sports teams, thus exchanging their publicly-available work for proprietary work.)  But Watt rejects the idea that sportswriting as a whole is stagnating. He sees an ongoing paradigm shift, in which the ascendant trend in sportswriting is no longer analytics, but writing by those he calls “intersectionalists”: writers who, while by no means rejecting the statistical analytic approach, put more emphasis on the human side of sports:

The best baseball writing I’ve read this year has been about more than baseball. It’s been about politics, and race, and gender, and sexuality, and money, and power, and how they all come together in this game we love. It’s placed the game in its social context, and used it as a lens to talk about ideas that are bigger than the nuts and bolts of a box score or a daily recap. It’s engaged with difficult questions about how to be a fan when players you love are disappointingly flawed and human, and how to be a human being living in an often unjust world.

Craig Calcaterra, among others, wholly embraced the label, putting up an “Intersectionalist Manifesto.” I share Watt and Calcaterra’s conviction that this is a new and exciting trend in sportswriting. I don’t mean to overstate how new this is (and I don’t think Watt does either); much of the appeal of sites such as Deadspin, as well as the now-defunct Grantland, is on their insightful and clever look into the human side of sports. Even traditional sportswriting has its humanistic giants, like Roger Angell, and its hacks, like Mitch Albom. But it does seem to me that Watt is right that more and more new writers are producing interesting writing along these lines, and despite the death of Grantland I think these discussions will continue to thrive. Humanities-based sportswriting is exactly what I’m trying to do with this blog, of course, and so I’m particularly interested in exploring how this style might have growth potential. That’s what I’ll look at in this post.

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“Useless Stats”

Though I’m not the most math-savvy sports blogger—I went to Sarah Lawrence—I’m a big fan of well-written statistical analysis. My life as an active and conscious sports fan—as opposed to a guy who just cheers when the team wins—began when I read Moneyball,and since then the most interesting sports writing I’ve read, whether in print or online, has almost all started from the premise that statistics, and the hunt for better and better statistics, are a vital part of how we tell stories about sports. It’s because I’m such a fan of statistical analysis that I want to point out when it could be doing better at telling those stories.

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