Sports Illustrated at the Bottom of the Ninth

Sports Illustrated at the Bottom of the Ninth

I was dressing for a friend’s wedding, unknowingly headed toward my own divorce. 

It was a Saturday morning in June of 2001. I was knotting my tie as I readied to attend the wedding of a Sports Illustrated colleague, Steve Cannella, in Mystic, Conn. Dozens of co-workers and friends, a mostly overlapping Venn diagram, would attend the service, just another in a series of events, formal and informal, in which we frequently convened to celebrate our camaraderie and good fortune. We merry men…

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At precisely 10 a.m., the phone (not yet subordinated as a “landline”) rang. The caller was Bill Colson, SI’s managing editor. With brevity and empathy, he informed me that I was being laid off. And sheepishly added: “Enjoy the wedding.”

Fast-forward to this Friday morning, news broke that SI was being gutted—some employees immediately laid off, the rest in 90 days—in effect pulling the plug on a journalistic enterprise six months shy of its 70th birthday. The current staff, including Cannella, who has risen to occupy the Editor-in-Chief role, now finds itself in toto in the same position I did that day. As so many former SI staffers have.

Unemployed, sure. But also adrift. The victims of identity theft. For anyone who spent a significant number of years at the magazine, particularly their formative ones, it is only natural to ask: Who am I without SI?

Today, however, for the first time since 1954, fans of sports or journalism, or both, must ask: Who are we without SI?

Certainly, sports in America pre-dated the magazine’s launch on Aug. 16, 1954. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings finished 57-0 (still the only undefeated team in the history of professional baseball) and never even merited a commemorative issue. However, as sports metastasized over the past seven decades from a popular diversion to a ceaseless intrusion upon American life—this past Christmas Day saw an unholy amount of both NBA and NFL action—SI’s self-appointed mandate was to both talk about the passion and be a critical but objective observer. To chronicle, but also to be a conscience.

For almost all of us who appeared on the masthead, our umbilical connection to Sports Illustrated began years before our official start date. Subscribing to the magazine as kids. Expecting your copy to appear in the mail on Friday; being thrilled if it arrived early on Thursday; giving the mailman a withering look if it showed up, dog-eared, on Saturday. Adding the latest issue to your collection, alternating the placement every 10 or so weeks, so that your stack did not tip over. Cutting out favorite covers and photos, taping them to your closet door. (One college friend of mine brought his entire SI-generated Rickey Henderson collage along with him to the dorms.) Guffawing over particularly clever lines, such as this one from a story about Olympic track and field judges: “These are the souls that time men’s tries.”

We knew, you see. We knew that SI was smarter and better and more dedicated to its chosen avenue of interest than any other magazine on the then-overstuffed rack. We knew that to hear someone parrot “The Swimsuit Issue!” when hearing the initials “SI” meant they had probably never read one of its stories. A dead giveaway, like a purported seasoned traveler hearing “New York” and excitedly cooing “Times Square!”

Then, suddenly, to be part of the staff? To be 23 years old and have your boss, Jane “Bambi” Wulf, enter your office and say, “You’re checking [Rick] Reilly’s ‘Point After’ this week. Give him a phone call.” Me speaking to Rick Reilly?! Is this heaven, Ray?

No, it was the 18th floor of the Time & Life Building. (Back then, Sports Illustrated was a sister company of TIME, both titles sitting under the media corporation Time Inc., founded by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, former TIME editors.)

Once the thrill of actually making the team had worn off, after the physical relief of surviving a probationary period and being added to the masthead had passed, the next summit was earning a coveted byline.

Before the advent of the internet, pages in Sports Illustrated were like affordable apartments in Manhattan: too few, with far too many folks vying for them. We young reporters were acutely, and painfully, aware of both sides of that analogy.

The gatekeeper for young reporters in those salad days of the late eighties and early nineties was an editor named Myra Gelband. It was she who oversaw the “advance text” portion of the mag, stories that mostly ran only in subscriber issues (versus newsstand), and only then for subscribers in affluent zip codes. A reporter’s best chance for a story to run was in advance text, so… 

There I go, trailing off. Suddenly I feel like Sam Elliott at the end of The Big Lebowski. The encomia—as well as the post-mortems and finger-pointing and loads and loads of loving memories—have already begun in earnest. And while not the entire SI staff was laid off on Friday—the magazine is only, as Miracle Max would say, “mostly dead”—it sure does feel as if its writers and producers (“editors” is so last millennium, apparently) are taking their last at-bats in the ninth inning trailing by 12 runs.

We’ve watched that slaughter unfold in real time, on social media and in headlines: from Time Inc.’s sale of SI in 2018 to the Meredith Corporation (with attendant layoffs), then to Authentic Brands Group (more layoffs), then a licensing agreement and wave after wave of downsizing and public humiliation and, the latest, what seems to be a big game of contract chicken, with the last handful of SI employees stuck in the middle.

Earlier this week, I was speaking to one of my favorite people, former SI senior writer Austin Murphy, about the coming demise of our beloved workplace. It was Austin, by the way, who had phoned me a few days after I was laid off in 2001 and, in his inimitably wry way said, simply: “John? Austin. Better you than me.”

Anyway, we were speaking, and Austin said that SI’s end days reminded him of a line from The Sun Also Rises. (How many current sportswriters quote Ernest Hemingway off the cuff?) “Someone asked one of the characters—I can’t remember whom (Mike)—how he went bankrupt,” Austin said. “He answered, ‘Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly.’”

The same can be said for Sports Illustrated.

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