ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Why the Best Sports Stories Are Beyond the Field

Super Bowl fans may be playing Monday morning quarterback today, but the stories that most shake up the sports world aren’t recaps of what happens on the field. L. Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated, says the biggest headlines are won by investigative stories, from accusations of cheating in professional sports to high school hazing.

For this week’s podcast, Wertheim talks with ProPublica senior editor Joe Sexton about some of his favorite examples, how Sports Illustrated has adjusted to investigative journalism in the digital age, and what his new book – This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon – reveals about the psychology of sports.

Amy Sussman / AP Images

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Media outlets may have fewer resources for investigative sports reporting than they once did, but the public is still hungry for those stories.
    Wertheim: I'm bullish about the public's appetite. Look at this [Al Jazeera America] Peyton Manning human growth hormone story and the attention that got. … Say whatever you want to say about the report and the methodology, and whether or not you or I would have published that story or not published it – that was the sports story of the week at a time when the NFL was finishing the regular season and college football bowl games were in full force. I think the public appetite for a well-executed sports investigative story is as high as it's ever been.

  • Gambling is at the heart of many difficulties for sports – but provides opportunities for investigative reporting.
    Wertheim: We did a story on daily fantasy – on DraftKings and FanDuel and the revenues, and these valuations that were going up and up and up to unicorn status. … If someone had said, by the end of the season there's going to be an Attorney General's cease and desist, there’s going to be this unending constellation of court cases, and these companies with billion-dollar valuations, we don't know if they're going to exist anymore – it's a remarkable story. It's very fluid and fast moving. A ruling here or there will really sway things. I think one of the reasons the NBA seemed to reverse their stand is because there was this recognition that gambling ain't going away. People's interest in uncertain outcomes isn't going to go away. That's a founding virtue of this country. If you can't beat them, join them.

  • In his most recent books, Wertheim takes a “Freakonomics approach” to the psychology of sports.
    Wertheim: One of the things we looked at [in Scorecasting, co-written by Tobias Moskowitz] were: Why is there a home field advantage in sports? I thought we made a pretty strong case, and it's not about fans waving their arms or booing the visitors and cheering the home teams. It's a lot about this officiating bias. Whether it's balls and strikes, or whether it's foul calls, the home team does very, very well, and the officials are really making the difference. … This new book [This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon, co-written by Sam Sommers] does the same kind of thing: We know that rivalries are good, but why is that? We think that lousy players make for better managers and star players make for lousy managers – why is that?

  • Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Wertheim’s latest at SI.com.

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