Review by Budd Bailey
The series of books called “The Year’s Best Sports Writing” has been out for more than 30 years now, and it has been consistent … and consistently good. Even though the editors have been different and bring their own standards to the table, the stories included were generally almost universally worth a read.
Now, we come to 2022’s version. It doesn’t take long for it to announce that this one will be, well, different.
J.A. Adande jumps right in to explain in the introduction. He writes that he’s much more interested in great writing than great journalism, and that he’s not particularly interested in that warhorse of the industry, the game story. In addition, Adande writes “I sought diversity in race, gender, sexual identity, and faith among the writers and their subject.”
Hmm. Adande is the director of sports journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and you might know him for his work for some big daily newspapers as well as some ESPN television appearances. He mentions that the book might providing teaching material for the faculty at the school. So we know before getting to page one that the contents will be different than they have been. That might be a little disconcerting to longtime readers of the series. It doesn’t seem like a great idea to disqualify an article from inclusion because it doesn’t fit the narrowed focus of this particular edition.
Having now finished the book, at least one conclusion jumps out. The material is not necessarily a step backwards. There is some good writing here, as usual. Happily, there are some feel-good stories here that are entertaining. Kansas-Texas football. A reporter and his daughter at the Olympics. Tommy Lasorda’s personal assistant. The Guinness Book of World Records.
You don’t need to have a smile on your face to appreciate some of the other offerings her. A first-person account of the Badwater Marathon is always interesting. A good-sized account of Simone Biles’ departure from the Olympics is well done, and makes some bigger points along the way. Jacob Stern does a full account of the effects on all concerned of a death in the boxing ring. Howard Bryant hits the right notes in paying tribute to Henry Aaron.
I’m the type of reader that doesn’t mind having my definite of sports stretched at times. But there are some stories that just didn’t reel me in, maybe in part because of a lack of interest in the subject matter. It’s going to take some heavy lifting to get me to read about free diving, bull riding, and surfing. Other stories seem targeted toward the commitment to diversity, and I came away wondering if they would have been included under different standards. A story about the wife of a former Ohio State assistant football coach and her abusive husband checks in at 40 pages – quite long by the series’ standards. It feels like a New Yorker magazine article that lures the reader in but requires quite a commitment to keep him/her around until the end.
There is enough Grade A material in “The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2022” to keep sports fans engaged for the most part. But it needs to be said that I probably skimmed through a higher percentage of the material than I did in the books of previous years. It’s hard to guess about the reaction of others. It might be worth noting that the rating on Goodreads (3.85 stars) is at this writing the second-lowest of the series in the past decade, and just a fraction above the 2018 edition (3.82 stars) As a fan of the series I’ll be curious as to what the 2023 book looks like in terms of content.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)