A comparative essay in sports journalism

A look at how Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde compares to ESPN feature writer Wright Thompson

When looking at the works of both Pat Forde and Wright Thompson, it’s safe to say that sportswriting is in good hands. Both are graduates of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School. Forde is a columnist for Yahoo Sports. Thompson is a feature writer for ESPN. The differences in their writing styles and forms are apparent however, their unique approaches both work successfully as great sportswriting.

When reading Wright Thompson’s piece on Michael Jordan, one can only notice the extreme detail that Thompson takes to build a setting and characters. The third graf reads:

“Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.”

Let’s just say you didn’t know who Michael Jordan was. Thompson addressed in our class that it’s a very hard thing to picture, but it’s possible to write that way. The important point being is that the way Thompson writes about Jordan puts the reader right on the yacht with His Airness. He describes the inner emotions and thoughts of Jordan and makes readers well aware of what’s been eating at the Greatest of All-Time. It’s a very novelesque way of writing in the way that Michael Jordan could be a fictional character and the passionately competitive drive that helped him do seemingly fictional things on the court could be part of that. Another great part in that is building around the legendary Michael Jordan that wore No. 23 for the Bulls and putting that figure against the 50-year-old Michael Jordan that’s at the helm of the struggling Charlotte Hornets. Thompson does that by keeping the audience captivated with displaying how the same competitive drive exists in this man who just can’t take it out by dunking on someone any more.

Another piece of Thompson’s that I enjoy is his piece on the legacy and family of Ted Williams. Just like in the Jordan piece, Thompson is able to generate awe by making Ted Williams an ever-present figure in a story about his living family. In this story specifically though, he is able to weave between the past and present perspectives of Ted Williams’ daughter, Claudia, and piece together more information on how life in the Williams home really was. A little bit into the story Thompson writes:

“THIS STORY BEGAN two years ago, when I reached out to Claudia about meeting at her home in Hernando. The timing never worked for her because she struggles to look past her obsessions: nursing school and a book she wrote about her father, which started as a stocking stuffer about lessons she learned and turned into a cathartic exploration of the person she’s still trying to be. Finally she said yes. The first visit lasted a week in the fall of 2014, and we made paella and she told funny stories about her dad — he’d call the public phone in European hostels and boom at unsuspecting travelers, “Is CLAUDIA WILLIAMS there? This is her FATHER! OL’ TED WILLIAMS!” — and she got melancholy later and said, “We need to laugh more.”

I like this section because Thompson gives us a lot and a little all at the same time. We learn about funny instances between Claudia Williams and her father but also that these funny instances led to sadness. It’s unique because while there is Thompson’s trademark detail, there’s bait for readers to continue reading. It works excellently as a sports journalism piece.

The reason why Thompson’s feature writing works for sports journalism is because of how vastly detail oriented his pieces are. Like I said above, his writing his novelesque. The attention to detail alongside the rich storytelling makes his features on these sports legends seem like they’re only that; just legends. But since it is novelesque, there’s an opening to interpretation. There’s a lasting impact in Thompson’s style. So I’d say, Thompson’s ability to capture real-life people and real-life situations creates an astonishing sense of awe. Awe always works. Not only in sportswriting but in all writing.

Pat Forde, on the other hand, works mainly as a reaction columnist. In terms of sportswriting, this is a perfectly fine way to approach stories as well. Forde does an excellent job at inserting emotion into his pieces. One of the pieces in which this is evident is his column on Urban Meyer and Ohio State Football.

After identifying the ridiculousness in Meyer’s statements following the Zach Smith domestic violence investigation, Forde writes:

“Sorry to be cynical regarding Meyer and his motives, but what’s the point in trusting him? His statement Friday vaguely admitted to lying repeatedly at Big Ten media day when asked about Zach Smith’s 2015 incident. Meyer said in Chicago last month that he knew nothing about it, then Friday admitted he knew about it, trying to chalk up the multiple falsehoods to not being “adequately prepared” for that line of questioning.

Please.”

The interesting thing about Forde’s writing is his conversational tone. He’s taking a very serious issue and he’s inflating the doubt around Urban Meyer’s denial and showing his distaste for it. By stating that he may be cynical allows the reader to interpret his writing but then after he mentions Meyer falsifying the situation, the “please” that is thrown in by Forde closes down the apology he had just made. This isn’t a contradiction. This is Forde using his columnist skills to their finest. Domestic violence isn’t ok. Knowing about domestic violence and then lying about it isn’t ok either. Forde is able to throw in a conversational tone to emphasize the ridiculousness in Meyer’s lies. There’s no room for interpretation because domestic violence can’t be interpreted in more than one way.

Forde’s writing style limits interpretation, however, his brash frankness presents the column in a unique light. Though Forde is a columnist, he does have experience writing features as well. A feature of his that I like is his on Olympian Cody Miller and his rise to stardom.

About midway through the feature, Forde writes:

“The reasons why Cody should never have been the happiest bronze medalist in Brazil are numerous, and not all of them have to do with a fractured family upbringing. You can go back to birth.

He was born with a condition called pectus excavatum, which basically is a sunken chest caused by deformities of the ribs and sternum.

‘It looks like I have a big hole in my chest,’ Cody said.

He was teased about it repeatedly as a kid, but the challenge of the defect goes beyond appearance. It also inhibits lung capacity, which is about as vital as any physical characteristic for a swimmer. But Cody and, in turn, his sister took to the sport at a young age and he overcame the sunken chest with relative ease.”

Forde’s frank tone and writing style is evident in this piece. However, Forde does his best Wright Thompson impression by writing a solid feature that pays close attention to detail and emotion. Clearly, even Forde as a columnist can pull off feature writing with great success. The reason why is that he has a unique enough voice and writes with brash frankness that gets the point across with a conversational tone. This works in both his columns and his features.

Overall, Wright Thompson and Pat Forde have unique sportswriting styles that both operate well under the umbrella of sports journalism. Thompson’s novelesque feature writing effectively draws readers in with awe and the opportunity for interpretation. Forde’s curt, conversational tone allows him to get his point across and persuades the reader to feel exactly how he feels. Though their styles are different, they each give an effective and unique voice in the collaboration of many voices that is sports journalism.

~DS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s