Playing Outside the Mainstream

The cover story in the latest issue of Play magazine should have tipped me off that I was about to read sports writing of a different sort. Touting its “NFL 2008: Big-Brain Edition,” with a photo of a professorial model and a blurb promising answers to “mind-bending questions,” Play continued the hints on the inside spread. “Football for Smarties,” the headline reads, with further vows to explore “a complex game” with help from “the pigskin professoriate.”

Could the casual fan – the reader who sees sports as pure entertainment – find the player profiles and game recaps that she wants from sports journalism? My search for that answer brought at least one pleasant surprise – and more than a little frustration.

Play, otherwise known as The New York Times Sports Magazine, is published bimonthly as an insert in the Sunday Times. It’s an ambitious magazine, judging from the prominent bylines (both from within and outside the Times newsroom) and the numbers of stories. The 74-page September issue, for example, features 59 pages of editorial pages, and such bylines as Joe Nocera’s and Bryan Curtis’.

But this is a Times product, after all. So it leans toward elitism in its approach to news: not just with in-depth and thoughtful coverage, but also in its disdain for the commoner. That’s where I started to disconnect from this issue of Play. In place of straightforward sports reporting on popular teams, athletes, and upcoming events, we’re treated to stories on the Ironman World Championship and body-building, and to stories for athletes (not about athletes) on injuries, treatments, and nutrition.

Even when the focus is a hugely popular American sport, NFL football, Play’s approach flies over the head of the amateur. The 16-page report burst with excessive information: strategies, salaries, business angles. I found it overwhelming – and more than a little difficult to find the main point of the stories.

Play has its advantages, though. Its sense of humor leavens the dense content. And I found at least one player-focused article to satisfy my love for people stories. In his feature “Alas, Poor Zito,” Pat Jordan does a masterful job of telling the story of the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Zito, whose huge 2006 contract started a remarkable and puzzling slump that Jordan examines in depth.

If only there were more of that. As a young magazine – first published in 2006 – Play tries to reinvent the game of sports journalism with less entertainment and more enlightenment. That’s a laudable goal. But the end result is a niche magazine that’s distributed to a general audience, a publication that is too smart and insiderish for its own good.

— Amy Su

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