By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

So the big question out there with regard to the recent dismantling of Sports Illustrated is What Does It All Mean?  Of course, if we’re looking at this thing cosmically, Deadspin’s Ray Ratto is, as per his usual, right on the nose: “The gutting of Sports Illustrated was pointless, needlessly cruel, stupid and thoroughly corporate. It is what we do now—from an agrarian society to an industrial one to an informational one and now to the strip-it-down-resealable-parts one. Hurray for progress! See you in hell!”

Hard to argue with that.  The downsizing of SI isn’t really all that different than the corporate downsizing of pretty much everything else we read about nearly every day.  It’s soul crushing and makes you question the tenets of capitalism, yes, but it’s not all that unusual.  Let’s face it – corporate America sucks. It’s a bottomless pit of greed, narcissism, short-sightedness, and stupidity.  And those are its better attributes.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I’m more interested in what the gutting of SI tells us, if anything, about how we watch, understand, and digest sports in the twenty-first century.  And here, I think, it tells us more about ourselves than we’d care to admit.

In order to understand why SI was ripped to shreds the other day, it’s important to understand why it was vulnerable to the soulless corporate sphincters in the first place.  And here’s where we see that, really, it was us – the American sports fans – who put the magazine in the position it found itself in the other day, not some black-hatted corporate raider.

In short, the corporate world didn’t kill SI, we did.

We did because we stopped caring so much about what it was that SI did every week.  Above all else, SI venerated the American athlete. Whether it was a snarky Frank Deford piece, a meditative Gary Smith piece, or something silly by Rick Reilly, SI was almost always about the athlete first and foremost. 

SI may have come along at a time – the mid-1950s — when the old guard sports journalism was dying out, when those who “godded-up” the athletes they covered were giving way to those who wrote about them as human beings, but in its way, SI grabbed the mantle of the old guard, dusted it off, and carried through to the end of the twentieth century.  On the surface, a Deford piece might not have looked all that much like something Grantland Rice would have written decades earlier, but underneath they were cut from similar cloth.  Both Deford and Rice were in awe of the athletes they covered.  And that awe translated to the page.  After devouring your weekly helping of SI, you couldn’t help but see the athletes profiled within its pages as larger than before that week’s issue hit your mailbox.

By the late 1990s, however, we stopped caring so much about the athletes we were watching.  Rotisserie baseball and then fantasy football were starting to become a thing and countless numbers of us played one or the other or both.  And when we played them we cared less about the players themselves than about the number of points they’d earn us in a particular game.  Around the same time, sabermetrics started to take flight, allowing us to see the players yet again as amalgams of numbers rather than mythic gods or even everyday people we not only could relate to but care about.  What did it matter what Barry Bonds was like off the field when he could help us win our fantasy league?  And who cared how Bonds compared to players who came before him like Willie Mays or Ted Williams?  All that really mattered, metrically, was how he compared to others in the game right now. 

None of this happened overnight.  Rather, like a leaky faucet, this drip, drip, drip persisted for years until, by the day of SI’s dismantling, there was a pool of dirty water underneath the sink.  Of course it’s true that Deford passed away in 2017 and Gary Smith retired from sportswriting in 2013, but there’s no shortage of other writers who could conceivably fill their shoes, giving us writing that fleshed out as human beings the athletes we watch on TV and on our phones if only there was a public appetite for this sort of writing.

However, there isn’t.  At least not as much of one as there used to be.  So, sure, blame corporate America for this, I’m not going to stop you.  Hell, don’t look to me to stand up for that segment of the world.  But also look in the mirror.  Who really killed Sports Illustrated?  You did.  I did.  We all did.

I cancelled my SI subscription in 2004.  When did you cancel yours?

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