It was perhaps inevitable that the same year that sports stopped cold in its tracks, The Best American Sports Writing would mark its last year. The 2020 edition, guest edited by ESPN analyst and former Sports Illustrated columnist Jackie MacMullan, is the thirtieth edition of the series that has collected sports, games and outdoor life articles from publications general and well-known—The New York Times and The New Yorker make regular appearances—to the highly specific and sometimes surprising sources, such as the niche Racquet and independent stalwart The Sun. Digital sites have contributed quality stories in the recent past—ESPN.com and Deadspin among them—but anyone who has glanced at a magazine sales rack or picked up a glossy lately can tell you that the number of titles are dwindling and those that remain are considerably thinner than previous years. The loss of long form journalism across all fields is well-known and not really the point of this review, but it’s something that multiple editors of BASW have mentioned especially in the introductions to recent editions, so it’s perhaps not surprising that BASW would cease. But for those who enjoy good sports journalism not just for its probing of a specific sport culture but a mirror to larger society as well, the loss of a print compilation to tell those stories is a tough loss.
Happily, though, the 2020 edition closes the series on a strong note. The series has always had an eclectic streak, and MacMullan’s selections are no different. Aishwarya Kumar’s piece for ESPN.com on the surprisingly severe physical toll the mental demands of chess takes on top players might take top honors for most unexpected (and strangely fascinating) topic. Some articles hew to what would be considered conventional newsy topics in the more ‘traditional’ sports—for instance, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s work on the Astros sign stealing for The Atlantic or Tim Layden’s take on the historic disqualification of the 2019 Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated—but others sometimes seem to have a more tangential relation to a sport, probing deeper into the human interest elements of identity surrounding competition, identity and entertainment. Roberto José Andrade Franco’s portrait of the travails of Juárez’s lackluster soccer team delves into the fraught dynamics of border politics and long-seeded violence in the region; May Jeong’s “Patriot Act” for Vanity Fair speaks far more volumes about how Asian immigrants, and particularly Asian women, are treated in the US than it does about the peculiarities of Robert Kraft’s taste in personal care. Chloé Cooper Jones uses reactions to the sheer athletic perfectionism of Roger Federer to cast light on how own disability is viewed in ‘Champion Moves’. And after reading John Griswold’s ‘The Exiled and the Devil’s Sideshow,’ which captures the very worst of humanity in the cruelty of Angola Prison’s annual rodeo, there is some hope with the remarkable story told in Elizabeth Merrill’s ‘Whatever Happened to Villanova Basketball Star Shelly Pennefather? “So I Made This Deal With God.”’
There will likely be single authors that continue to compile their sports related journalism into book format and perhaps another publisher will launch a series to pick up where Best American Sports Writing has left off. As we emerge from a year like no other in memory, there are certainly great stories out there, stories that need to be told. Maybe digital sites like longform.org will be able to adequately continue what BASW has accomplished over thirty print editions. I sincerely hope so. The Best American Sports Writing is recommended to sports fans of all types and those who enjoy quality narrative nonfiction.