As the literary and journalism worlds prepare for the April 20 announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, it is fair to say that the media award season is in full swing. The Pulitzer Prize will recognize excellence in journalism in categories ranging from commentary to breaking news reporting and every aspect of journalism in between. Where does sports journalism play into this mix of awards and acknowledgements?
Well, most of the time, it doesn’t.
Even though sports reporting is consistently one of the most popular sections in newspapers and news websites alike, the Pulitzer Prize does not offer a specific category to acknowledge excellence in the area.
Instead, sports journalists fight it out with the rest of the press mainly in the broad categories of commentary and feature writing. But this restrictive process hasn’t completely kept sports journalists from accepting the prize at Columbia University, and some of the industry’s talent have received the award and been acknowledged as finalists.
This includes excellent writers such as The New York Times’ Dave Anderson and The Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray who won the prize for commentary in 1990 and 1981 respectively. Most recently, The New York Times’ John Branch won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for Feature Writing for his articles on the potential brain damage caused by fighting in hockey, and ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser was a finalist for commentary in 1997. The Pulitzer Prize symbolizes the top of the journalistic world, but it rarely acknowledges one of the industry’s strongest foundations: sports.
Of course there are other prizes that acknowledge the best and brightest of sports media, including the Red Smith Award given by Associated Press Sports Editors every year to a writer who made “major contributions to sports journalism.”
Last month, the award was given to Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe whose forty-year career stretched from covering the Boston Celtics in the seventies to appearing weekly on ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” Undeniably, Ryan’s impressive career deserves recognition, but as the sports writing legend continues to contribute from his quasi-retirement, he stands as a relic of a quickly fading age of newspaper sports writing. The new age of sports fans turns to the web for stories and updates, not the newspaper.
This new internet-based audience has made it easier and easier for sensationalized and half-cooked stories to steal readers’ attention, making it critical for awards such as the Pulitzer to acknowledge and direct the consumers towards credible and excellent journalism. In my opinion, the purpose of prizes in media is not just to acknowledge good work by writers and producers, but is also to highlight quality in a forum increasingly cluttered by a host of shoddy products.
At the moment, the future of sports journalism can appear bleak. Quantity is valued over quality and long reads artfully detailing how games felt while they happened have become increasingly obsolete.
Meanwhile, bite-sized article updates that are jammed full of statistics instead of prose and directed at a fantasy sports-crazed market have risen in prominence. The sports journalism landscape is changing faster than a Russell Westbrook fast break, and yet the awards for industry have barely changed since Larry Bird was a rookie.
I fear that as the barrier between fans and players dissolves, the need for sports journalists to bridge the gap will hurt the industry and the quality of the product. Already, Twitter and other social networking sites have allowed athletes to easily connect with their fans, enabling players to take control of their public perception. Furthermore, a considerable amount of distrust seems to be developing between sports media and athletes. This distrust is visible in a multitude of episodes ranging from Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks answering all questions at his Super Bowl press conference by saying, “I am just here so I won’t get fined,” to Russell Westbrook telling a reporter asking him routine post game questions, “I just don’t like you,” to his fellow Oklahoma City Thunder star forward Kevin Durant telling reporters, “Y’all not my friends.”
Between these three recent events it is easy to deduce that there is a growing disconnect between athletes and reporters who in the past were on good terms. Even though sports journalists need input from athletes to write compelling pieces, athletes do not need reporters to do their jobs.
Nowadays athletes even write directly to their audiences and fans, completely removing the need for a journalist middleman. This can be seen in Derek Jeter’s The Players Tribune where a myriad of high-profile athletes have written pieces since the site launched last year or in Richard Sherman’s series of articles in Sports Illustrated. Even LeBron James tried his hand in writing when he announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers late last summer.
At present, sports journalism could use a much needed boost. A viable annual award that would acknowledge the best creative minds in sports writing would lend credibility to an industry that is losing trust from players and readers alike.