With this entry I begin a new reoccurring feature in an effort to make myself post more: Great Pieces in Sports Journalism. Sit back and enjoy while I tell you what you should read.
Figure skating junkies (of which I once was – and, I guess, always will be in some respects) spent today mourning the loss of former US Men’s Champion Christopher Bowman, a skater who battled drugs problems most of his life. Despite his accomplishments (two National Championships, two World Championship medals, two Olympic teams,) he ended up not being as known as his contemporaries (Paul Wylie and Todd Eldredge – admittedly my two favorite skaters when I was a geeky teenage figure skating junkie) due to his comparatively short career (Eldredge was around as an Olympic level competitor for most of my lifetime, Wylie parlayed his Olympic medal into a very successful performing and commentating career) and his personal demons.
Despite his relative obscurity outside of the skating world, Bowman’s death has made headlines on several media outlets (for example, it’s been a lead story on ESPN.com all day.) In a way, his death has played into the recent media spotlight on athlete misdeeds (it comes the same day track athlete Marion Jones is sentenced to jail,) proclaiming that yes, even a “pretty” sport like skating has its tragic situations involving drugs, alcohol and crime. The situation was gingerly handled by the US Figure Skating Association – the news of Bowman’s death broke on Thursday evening by the Detroit Free Press, but the US Figure Skating Association (USFSA) did not issue a press release on their official website until Friday afternoon. The press release posted is quite short, and in one quote from a USFSA official, quickly mentions that he had been “unable to balance his life,” without alluding to the suspicions surrounding the death and his unfortunate criminal history. USFSA’s partner site, IceNetwork.com, posted a six photo tribute to the skater with biographical detail, posted on Friday morning. While the alleged drug related death of a former champion who you had fetted and funded for a number of years must provide Media Relations and Public Relations officials moments of panic, when you are a traditionally trouble free sport like skating it must be even more humbling. How do you acknowledge the speculation surrounding the situation without scaring away the ten year old juvenile skaters logging online to find Sasha Cohen pictures? Then again, can you turn this into a teachable moment, and acknowledge that yes, issues like this affect all walks of life – all socio-economic levels, all ages, and all sports? Although I was a bit surprised at the amount of time it took for the USFSA to respond, I think they have responded appropriately – Bowman had not been a skater within their fold since 1992, and what he did in his life after he retired from competitive Olympic-eligible skating is nothing they should necessarily dive into detail about.
Bowman’s tragic death led me to reread a chapter of the book that cemented my teenage dream of going into sports journalism – Inside Edge, by USA Today and Washington Post sports columnist Christine Brennan. Brennan was my role model growing up – she was a woman who would write about figure skating one day and football the next, and no one dismissed her “the figure skating woman” – no, they actually took her other sport commentary seriously. Her writing is dialog heavy (just the way I like it!) and she crafts detail with language in a way that most sports journalists can’t be concerned with in this day and time. She’s not crafting fiction for you, not a lofty vision, not a golf writer picturesque landscape – she is at her best when describing chaos, describing the way things are, and not making anything pretty unnecessarily. Her only fault is her agenda – and what sports columnist doesn’t have an agenda? – which became pretty blatant in her figure skating writing as the years passed. But her agenda was somewhat understandable – she was a card carrying member of the Michelle Kwan camp, and rarely, if ever, criticized Kwan or acknowledged any of her faults. However, Brennan was also one of the first journalists to cover a young Kwan back in the early 1990s. She rode Kwan’s coattails to stardom, and so of course she remained hopelessly devoted.
Brennan’s best book, and the one she is most known for, is Inside Edge. Published in 1996, the book details a year in the life of figure skating (1994-1995), and is the chronicle of a sport riding a tide of popularity that few had a handle on. Reading it now, you begin to see the early signs of overexposure, the business decisions made in 1995 that lead to the current irrelevancy of the sport. Each chapter drops the reader into a unique situation involving the skating community in one of its many forms. One of the most vivid chapters for me is chapter 12, The Great Wasted Talent, chronicling the turbulent life of Christopher Bowman:
“There’s no reason why any hardworking, dedicated, serious athlete should ever know who I am….I always knew that I could go back to my miserable life after the glory,” (Bowman) said. ‘When I was out on the ice and when I was away from the ice, I was like two completely different people. Because I was such a perfectionist, a performer, I could go out there, put on a costume, like a suit of armor, literally like a mask, and become somebody else.” (page 210)
This chapter was provoking because it examined issues of institutional control (the USFSA knew of Bowman’s problems, but what was their responsibility to deal with them if he was still performing at a high level?), exploitation of a young athlete (a teenager who devoted all of his life to one activity, with limited exposure to the outside world), even issues of homophobia and marketing of a sport (Brennan wonders if Bowman was never punished for his misdeeds because the USFSA wanted to market him as “the macho straight guy that skates,” to fight their existing image in a still homophobic late 1980s-early 1990s.) In this chapter, the reader tackles issues unexpected of a book on a sport popularized by young woman in sequined dresses. And just as soon as you begin to deeply consider these issues, the chapter ends. You are then dropped into the tour bus of a skating tour, and examine issues of the business of professional skating. But Brennan doesn’t let you forget the ties all of these participants have, chapter to chapter – no matter the level of the sport, there exists a ripple effect to everything.
To a curious and overthinking fourteen year old me, Inside Edge’s case study was fascinating, and to this day, it still is one of my favorite pieces of sports journalism. Brennan’s follow-up –1999’s Edge of Glory – was good, but didn’t capture the same cross-section of issues as its predecessor, and has aged over time. Inside Edge stands as a look inside a marginal sport that had a few years of fame due to the exploitative mid-1990s media and the perfect storm that was the Nancy Kerrigan attack, raising issues faced in some form by all organized sports.