In the beginning, spending an hour or two with Sports Illustrated was better a hang than you could find at any cocktail party. This was from 1954, when the weekly magazine, as the new plaything in the Time Inc., heart-of-Midtown empire, was first published through the early 1970s when the last remnant of America’s Eisenhower-era culture was finally buried.
But it was some run, those first two decades. SI arrived in your suburban mailbox on a late-week afternoon and took you, by word and snap, all over the wide world of sports. On safari in Africa. Sailing Down Under. Inside Johnny Unitas’s helmet. Reading the magazine—reading it and looking at it—was an essential part of middle-class, middle-brow American culture. SI was National Geographic for a million insurance salesmen and their sons. No, the demographic was that narrow, but you get the idea.
Then, starting in the mid-1970s and for the next 20 years, SI became Stern Father, presiding as some sort of moral authority of SportNation. With the rise of free agency in baseball and doped-up East German athletes at the Olympics, and the growing national popularity of college football and basketball, somebody needed to ride herd on sport’s many lawless territories. SI was so embedded in the national consciousness it could do the job. Plus, the printed word–ink on paper–was still king. Jim McKay and Howard Cosell were sports broadcasting stars on network TV and were more famous than any SI writer. Still, if you wanted to really learn something about Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, or Jack Nicklaus, you read Mark Kram, Frank Deford, or Dan Jenkins. They took you inside the athletes and the sports that they played. Access was not so hard to get. The writers had touch, and the magazine had cache. Doors opened.
And then, finally, the next 20 years or so. As family businesses generally last three generations, the same was true for SI, as a minor example of commerce-meets-excellent American greatness. Stage Three lasted from the mid-1990s through roughly 2015. The men who led SI–the magazine’s masthead was filled with white men, from top to bottom–saw what another Time Inc. title was doing, People, and followed suit and did it well. The athlete was a celebrity and should be written about and photographed as such. With the rise of cable TV, we could all see the games, any game. With the rise of TiVo, we could watch them whenever and skip right through the boring parts. But the SI profile–by Rick Reilly, Gary Smith, and Jack McCallum–was still a badge of honor.
And then somebody invented the iPhone, Twitter, and DraftKings. Reading as a contemplative, private act died. The rise of social media allowed athletes to present themselves to the world; no emissary was needed. Betting sites narrowed interests. The general fan of sports- the liberal arts major!-died. In its place came super specialists. These specialists didn’t want to observe the action; they wanted to be part of it.
SI- the magazine, not the newsy sports website, which is not much different from other newsy sports websites- has been dead for years. But it was swell while it lasted.
Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Golf.com, was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated from 1995 to 2018.