• By: OLM Staff

Why Sportswriting Matters

A 71-year old game won’t likely decide this year’s college football champion – but in some ways, it’s more relevant than ever.

Sports Illustrated published its annual college football preview last week, complete with write-ups of the top 25 teams and profiles on a select few players and coaching strategies. At the back end of the magazine was an entirely different piece: Brian Curtis’ 4,300-word feature on the circumstances surrounding the 1942 Rose Bowl – namely, the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and the players caught in America’s ensuing entry into World War II.

War is an extreme example of sports’ significance to human life. The Duke and Oregon State players that faced off on the gridiron on New Year’s Day ‘42 were soon linked on the battlefield, fighting a much different enemy with consequences that extended far, far beyond a scoreboard. The story correlates the decision to relocate the Rose Bowl from California to North Carolina with the impetus of the war itself: preserving a way of life, rather than caving into fear or apprehension or whatever range of emotions such terror elicited.

No, the temporary move to Durham wasn’t nearly as important as America’s entry into the European theatre, but for a nation reeling from attack and the players that would soon venture overseas themselves – some never to return – the Rose Bowl had to be played, somewhere. So the story goes.

Thankfully, “War and Roses” doesn’t devolve into tired “football as war” metaphors, or vice versa, beyond exploring the sudden brotherhood of former rivals. If anything, the story is timely and pertinent to a more nuanced debate: why sports are important in society, and, consequently, why sportswriting is important.

It’s a subject that’s garnered recent attention with the release of two brilliant digital features from the New York Times: “Snow Fall” and “The Jockey,” both of which explore relatively obscure sport topics. A couple days ago, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan commended the scope of both projects, but wished that future endeavors would focus on “journalistic subjects that really matter.”

War and Roses

That’s the funny thing about “War and Roses”: it’s important because of the former, but it was written because of the latter. The game result, for SI’s purpose, was insignificant; the focus is on human connections and how they manifested themselves, surrounded by gunfire in a Belgian farmhouse or atop a ridge in the Italian mountains, a world away from the sanctity of a football field. It’s about men that happened to play sports, men that became the human faces of a decidedly human issue.

That’s what sportswriting is: human stories told through the prism of a game. The players themselves are far more important than the final score; their exceptional, superhuman athleticism matters less than what makes them normal. The winningest jockey in horse racing is a creature of dizzying routine. The participants of the 1942 Rose Bowl united a country in sport, then fought and died for that country in war, the football result long forgotten. These are stories readers devour, and not because of the games.

The lasting question, still, is why sports actually matter, and it’s hard to answer that without delving into clichés. We watch sports to learn something about ourselves. They’re a distraction from the mundane and depressing travails of regular life. They bring fans together through a common passion, be it love or hate. We consume sports with a voraciousness that should, theoretically, be left for issues that truly concern society. Maybe that’s why they’re important.

If business and politics and the preservation of the environment are significant topics to everyday life, then sports are, too – not because they’re life-or-death, but because we’ve deemed them essential to our existence. Sports Illustrated exists because of a mass craving for sports, be it college football projections or case studies of the human condition. Brian Curtis writes because he can do so with depth and elegance, and because stories like “War and Roses” need to be told.

Here’s the story: a group of regular people joined together to perform extraordinary and remarkably normal acts at the crux of an event that ensnared all of humanity and changed the world forever. They also played football.