I ought to be feeling good vibes to Sports Illustrated for putting a Brave on the cover for the first time since the team won the World Series in October 1995 and they were forced to acknowledge a team other than the Yankees or Red Sox. However, The New Republic, to which I am a subscriber, is running an article bemoaning the decline of SI, another magazine to which I have a subscription. The Football Outsiders discussion of the article can be found here.
The assault is on two fronts, both of which have some merit. First, the article nails SI for continuing to reflect the trend sweeping through our society of elevating personality and celebrity over all else. Look at the political sphere for instance. There was no serious debate about Iraq in the public sphere for weeks until Cindy Sheehan came along, criticizing our continued involvement in Iraq and demanding to meet the President. She raises legitimate questions, but those questions are only salient to the media when they can personalize the issue into a Sheehan vs. the President dynamic. Terri Schiavo was the same way. Hell, the Democrats nominated a Presidential candidate last election cycle mostly because of his biography, not because he had any particularly interesting ideas on governing.
SI is following the same pattern. Most of their articles are puff pieces on athletes and tend to focus far more on individual players rather than their teams. For instance, they ran a piece on the Chicago White Sox in their College Football Preview edition and rather than focusing on why the team was doing so well and what challenges they face in the playoffs, they instead bored me for three pages with the back story on Scott Posednik. Their college football preview did have an interesting article on the Utah spread offense, but most of it was devoted to "getting to know you" puff pieces on Vince Young and Reggie Bush, as if Young's father's incarceration is more important to Texas' chances this year than the offensive line in front of him. Their team preview sections used to have paragraphs from opposing coaches scouting the top teams, but now, they just tell meaningless vignettes about certain players, like the revelation in the Michigan section that Steve Breaston writes slam poetry. (Please, Steve, don't be another J.J. Redick.)
Additionally, SI spends the majority of its page space on bite-sized features for people with non-existent attention spans. The magazine used to be full of lengthy features. Now, the features only start after about 50% of the magazine has been filled with fluff, including the almost useless "Players" section. I do like the polls of players (the "which manager would you most like to play for" one was enlightening), but otherwise, that section is nothing more than irrelevant personal details about athletes. Does anyone really care if Tony Stewart knows that Brad Pitt is together with Angelina Jolie? The features have also gotten shorter over the years.
As always, we can blame ESPN for the decline of sports media. Their insipid Magazine has caused SI to US Weekly-ize itself to compete. Personally, I would have loved to have seen SI turn its nose up at the Worldwide Leader and abandoned the "350-word attention span" market, but unfortunately, that would entail abandoning a very large chunk of the sports magazine market. The market seems ripe for a thinking man's sports magazine, which would take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated analysis that has been popularized by outfits like Football Outsiders and Baseball Prospectus. The magazine could charge a higher price and go after an up-market niche of professionals who don't care that Jessica Alba was seen canoodling with Derek Jeter in Central Park. Then again, maybe the web and the blogosphere have already filled that niche.
Oh, I almost forgot the second problem with SI identified in the article: shoddy journalism. Again, because of the need to compete in a race to the bottom with ESPN the Magazine, SI has apparently forgotten most of the rules for good journalism, as evidenced by evidence that has emerged in Mike Price's libel trial against SI and Don Yaeger. When Price first sued, I thought that he was just an indignant guy who got caught with his pants down and was trying to look aggrieved to save his reputation. Now, it turns out that the juiciest allegations in SI's story were based on seriously flimsy evidence. Price probably ought to win his suit, based on the evidence that has come out, although Price will still have to prove that Yaeger and SI were malicious, rather than just really sloppy. (There's also a potential damages issue: Price concedes that he went to the nudie bar in Pensacola and dropped some serious coin. Might he have been fired at Alabama even without the allegations that he slept with two strippers?) The article absolutely trashes Yaeger and does so without even mentioning Under the Tarnished Dome, which came out with much fanfare and is now viewed as little more than a poorly-sourced hatchet job that inspired Notre Dame to an 11-1 season.
I'm not going to cancel my subscription to SI because they still have a very good group of writers and the magazine is still better than its competitors, but it has definitely lost its luster in recent years.