By Paul Fichtenbaum, Editor, Time Inc. Sports Group
One of the most intriguing parlor games played here at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED begins in January, when our attention turns to the coming year and we think about the tantalizing possibilities the next 12 months could bring. As the events on the sports calendar slowly unfold, and distinguished moments, performances and achievements start piling up, a question inevitably starts to echo around the offices—whom should we be considering for Sportsman of the Year?
It makes for fun discussion and, yes, disagreement. But it’s not a topic we take lightly. The award, which SI has been handing out since our inception in 1954, honors those athletes, teams or executives whose accomplishments embody the spirit of sportsmanship combined with a high level of on-field success. Ask any SI editor or writer at any time of the year who their choice would be and you’ll likely initiate a thoughtful and pointed conversation. Opinions matter around here, and there are lots of them.
Note: This Editor’s Letter appears on page 5 of the Dec. 26 issue, on newsstands Wednesday.
We expected surprises, and still we were surprised. The decision of what to put on the cover of Sports Illustrated has been the top editor’s since the founding of the magazine in 1954. There have been eight such editors. Some have thought choosing the cover was the most interesting part of the job and others the most difficult, but either way they guarded it. Some were collaborative, others not so much.
The idea that the editor should relinquish that call this week and ask fans to choose the cover came from Scott Novak, SI’s vice president of communications. Novak is editorial minded and brilliant at driving connections with readers through social-media platforms such as the SI Facebook page, where he proposed to invite visitors to vote for the best sports moment of the year, with the winner featured on the year-end cover. The argument against him was simple: As much as readers may second-guess the magazine’s cover choices, that’s where they want SI’s credibility and authority to start. And who said the voters would be readers in the first place? But the argument Novak, his team and a growing number of staffers made was that letting the public in on the selection process would strengthen the bond between the magazine and its readers and, further, allow SI to plug into a new two-way relationship with a wider landscape of sports fans.
[NOTE: This appears on page 10 of the Nov. 28 issue, on newsstands tomorrow]
Last week SI announced the Sport in America: Our Defining Stories HBO documentary series that we are producing with Endgame Entertainment and Playground Entertainment. This week In My Tribe explains the themes of the series and encourages readers to contribute their own stories (at sportinamerica.com).
To begin reporting the piece I asked colleagues 16 questions, starting with: What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever seen in sports? I agreed with senior writer Joe Posnanski that it was Jackie Robinson’s debut and rookie year. Everything else follows that. And even then, Robinson still doesn’t get enough credit for his courage. Neither do Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson and Bill Russell and Jim Brown. I also agreed with copy chief Gabe Miller, who pointed to the spirit and endurance of the Thrilla in Manila, and what it did not only to the loser, Joe Frazier, but also to the winner, Muhammad Ali. So it is with so much about Ali: His decision to apply for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam war cost him a fortune and reminds us what courage and conviction are. Courage is also at the heart of comebacks like the Giants’ rallying to beat the Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl and the Red Sox’ coming back from a 3–0 series deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
NOTE: This appears on page 12 in the Nov. 7 issue.
“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” —Henry David Thoreau
This fall Mike Wetterauer of Henderson, Nev., wrote to Sports Illustrated about his best friend of 36 years, Michael Shay of Naperville, Ill., who had gotten his first subscription to the magazine in the late 1950s. SI gets tens of thousands of letters every year, but no one could remember one like this.
The letter, an e-mail, explained that in 2008 Mike of Naperville lost almost all his sight in a painful and freakish accident when he was packing a metal gas can and an old sump-pump battery to take them to a recycling facility. The explosion was sudden and bad: third-degree burns on Mike’s right arm and second-degree burns on his face, head, neck, upper back, chest and left hand. He spent more than five months recovering in the burn unit of Loyola Hospital in Chicago, followed by another five weeks of rehab at the Institute of Chicago. But the worst part was that even after four cornea transplants, he had been unable to read a newspaper or magazine since that terrible day of the accident. And so he let his SI subscription lapse, and his friend, Mike in Henderson, began calling more often to fill him in about what was running in SI, giving him updates with each issue, going over the pieces that he thought would be most interesting.
Then, late this past summer, Mike in Naperville got a Merlin low-vision reading machine, which allows him to read again with the help of a camera and a large viewing screen. The first thing he asked his wife to do was to renew his subscription to SI. He was especially interested in the College Football Preview issue.
Note: This Editor’s Letter appears in the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now.
Since Jeff Pearlman left Sports Illustrated in 2003, he has written five books, two of them New York Times best sellers. Among Pearlman’s great strengths are the thoroughness of his reporting and his ability to draw the most from his sources. For his latest work, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, which is excerpted beginning on page 70, he interviewed nearly 700 people over 2 1⁄2 years to draw a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of a complex hero. As a football player Payton was magical, and for fans in Chicago and beyond he defined ruggedness and commitment. But like all truly transcendent figures, the great Payton had many more layers than were apparent from his public image. The excerpt from Pearlman’s book looks at Payton’s life with empathy and an understanding of the difficulties he faced once he left the game.