The Glory of Sports Illustrated
At the moment, there’s confusion. Heartbreak and confusion. Sports Illustrated may live on. It may not. It may morph into something else. One hundred people are laid off. More than 100 people are laid off. Everybody is laid off. The union is fighting. The union is helpless. The headlines are so confusing.
Sports Illustrated was the gold standard. Now its future is in doubt, writes USA Today.
Sports Illustrated lays off most of its staff, writes The Washington Post.
Sports Illustrated Thrown into Chaos With Mass Layoffs, writes The New York Times.
The best magazine in American history—not just sports magazine but magazine, period—may be dead. Or not. Who even knows? Sometimes even “heartbreak” isn’t a big enough word.
Over the coming days, many people will write stories about what Sports Illustrated meant to their lives. They will write about that jittery anticipation of going to the mailbox on Thursday (or Friday) when you knew the latest SI would be there. They will write about the excitement of seeing who made the cover… and how that excitement doubled if it was someone they loved. They will write about that magical moment of scanning the table of contents to see what stories were chosen. And not just what stories, but what writers? Did Bill Nack write something this week? Jenkins? Reilly? Price? Wolff? Gary Smith? Frank Deford?
There is no way to fully describe just how completely Sports Illustrated commanded the sports stage in those lazy days before the internet, before every game was on television. The Super Bowl wasn’t over until SI wrote the story. The Masters didn’t end until Dan Jenkins said it ended. Muhammad Ali’s fight wasn’t complete until you saw the cover in your mailbox.
Part of the magic was that it was your mailbox, this wondrous combination of photographs and words was coming directly to your house, and from there to your bedroom. It belonged to you. All of the brilliant turns of phrase, the hilarious jokes, the tear-jerking turns, the heart-stopping paragraphs, the drama, the color, the photographs, the letters to the editor, the faces in the crowd, all of it was yours. And next week, same time, another little miracle would come to your mailbox.
Of course, for me, Sports Illustrated means something more. Working at SI was a dream too big to dream. I wouldn’t dare to utter it, not even to my closest friends. When Terry McDonell called to offer me a job as a Senior Writer, I pulled off the side of the road and sat in a daze for what had to be 30 minutes. It didn’t seem real. Me? Sports Illustrated? How? Then I called my wife, Margo, and she said: “What are they paying?” And I said, “Um … good question.”
I thought I would be at Sports Illustrated forever. But, then, few of us can forecast the winds of change. I got there just as the glory days were fading. The internet crawled into every space of life. ESPN grew into a goliath. The iPhone came out. And suddenly, mailboxes didn’t seem magical anymore. Nobody took time to wait for the mail. I cried the day I left, not only because it crushed my soul to leave the only job I had ever dreamed about, but because I saw that time was running out on Sports Illustrated. By then, it was hard not to see.
At the moment, there’s confusion. Sports Illustrated has been coughing and wheezing for years now. The place has been sold twice in the last decade, they seem to publish whenever it’s convenient, the website is a baffling array of fonts and ads and pop-ups and promos that appear scientifically designed to make you go elsewhere. I told a friend that Sports Illustrated might be dying. He said that he thought it had died years ago.
Maybe Sports Illustrated will carry on in some way. Maybe not. Social media is filled with writers and editors, brilliant writers and editors, saying goodbye and expressing uncertain hopes for an uncertain future. Newspapers are dying. Magazines are dying. Television as we know it is dying. Something will take their place, because something always does, but will it be as good? Will it be as fun? Will it be as meaningful? Will it touch our hearts and fill our imaginations the way Sports Illustrated did? How can it?
Shortly after this Yogi Berra magazine came out, I was in New York, and I walked through Times Square on my way to the Time-Life Building and the Sports Illustrated offices. On the way, I saw somebody pick up this magazine at an outdoor newsstand. I heard the guy ask the vendor, “Hey, is this any good?” And the vendor guy said, “It’s Sports Illustrated. OF COURSE it’s good.”