Feb 14, 2002; Akron, OH, USA; St. Vincent-St. Mary’s LeBron James flashes this week’s Sports Illustrated cover with his photo on the cover to reporters in the school cafeteria Mandatory Credit: Phil Mastuzo-USA TODAY NETWORK

As all of us make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, we tend to lose our sense of wonderment, trading our youthful naivete for jaded cynicism while coming to the important—but no less heartbreaking—realization that nothing lasts forever. Times and sensibilities change, our priorities shift, and what we’re left with is usually a deep sense of loss, an aching nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” before big business crashed the party, reducing the human experience to profit margins and quarterly projections.

As a 90s child growing up on Dunkaroos and Nickelodeon, racing to the mailbox each Thursday for the new issue of Sports Illustrated became a rite of passage, opening my eyes to a colorful new world mythologizing the likes of Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire, larger-than-life athletes that informed my perception of sports and celebrity at a young age. As an eight and nine-year-old binging Rick Reilly’s back-page column, it felt like I had finally graduated from the kid’s table, passing my initiation and earning membership into a secret society of learned scholars preserving the sanctity of sports journalism.

At the height of its power, Sports Illustrated was a cultural barometer, an industry tastemaker with the rare ability to shock and amaze in equal measure. Gracing the cover of SI was the ultimate validation, a career turning point for athletes on the precipice of mega-stardom. George Plimpton’s tongue-in-cheek profile immortalizing fictional Mets prospect Sidd Finch was before my time, but I still remember, with thudding finality, the weight of Ken Caminiti’s shocking steroid admission in 2002, a chaos grenade the sport has yet to recover from.

There was John Rocker’s ugly descent into racism and homophobia, forever branding himself as a wildly intolerant bigot giving voice to deep-held prejudices that still resonate in certain areas. Sports Illustrated is also where we first learned of high-school phenoms LeBron James and Bryce Harper, anointing them as generational talents long before the rest of the country recognized their immense greatness. SI has launched so many careers, from Frank Deford to Pablo Torre, whose “Linsanity” cover story helped catapult him to viral fame.

Even as subscribership plummeted, a product of dwindling attention spans and a shrinking appetite for written content, the Sports Illustrated brand still carried weight, remaining a trusted industry voice synonymous with quality, polished professionalism, and, above all, integrity. However, that perception has quickly faded with The Arena Group (formerly Maven), a venture capitalist outpost based out of Lower Manhattan, fundamentally altering the composition of what was once the gold standard in sports journalism, stripping SI for parts like a rusty two-seater headed for the junkyard.

Since going their separate ways with longtime publisher Time Inc. in 2018, Sports Illustrated has seen it all, experiencing, among other challenges, downsizing, diminished quality, corporate restructuring, mass turnover, and a heated labor dispute culminating in the creation of a long overdue writers’ union. In that time, The Arena Group has placed an increased emphasis on branding, including the development of resorts and a mobile sportsbook operational in three states (Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia).

Paying no mind to Sports Illustrated’s rich legacy, The Arena Group has made painfully obvious its lack of journalistic ambition, happily profiting off a reputation that took the better part of a century to build, clumsily slapping its name and likeness onto products not even tangentially related to sports. To the suits in SoHo, Sports Illustrated is little more than a cash register, a piggy bank for big business to take from. SI’s precipitous decline should be viewed as a cautionary tale warning against opportunistic VCs blinded by tunnel vision, leaving Sports Illustrated, like so many others undermined by corporate meddling, to die on the vine.

It’s bad enough that Sports Illustrated, in pivoting away from magazines (printed monthly with most issues clocking in around 80 pages), employs mostly freelancers, adopting a fan blog model similar to the earliest incarnations of Bleacher Report and SB Nation, typo-riddled listicle factories specializing in mindless clickbait. What’s worse are the appalling allegations that surfaced Monday, which Sports Illustrated stopped short of actually refuting, instead serving us a piping-hot bowl of word stew.

Artificial intelligence, and Chat GPT, in particular, present an inherent danger to writers, with the potential to make them all but obsolete in the coming years. This subject loomed large over the Writers’ Guild Strike in Hollywood, with studios cleverly using AI as leverage in their negotiations. In practical terms, you can see why machine learning would be an appealing alternative, allowing studios to skimp on costs without answering to writers who view their work as sacred, treating scripts not as words on a page but as statements of artistic merit. The same is obviously true of sports writers, with Gannett recently enlisting AI to write high-school game recaps in local papers. Marred by obvious mistakes and awkward phrasing, the short-lived experiment was deemed a colossal failure, lamented as an embarrassing misfire by a failing outlet already in hot water from laying off six percent of its news staff.

Needless to say, the threat of AI is not going away any time soon, with Sports Illustrated and other early adopters setting a dangerous precedent, passing off computer-generated stories as manmade and expecting readers not to notice. As our screen-obsessed society grows less sophisticated, mirroring the moronic dystopia portrayed by Mike Judge in his satirical masterpiece Idiocracy, it’s possible we no longer have the mental bandwidth to appreciate great writing, willingly discarding journalism as a casualty of new technology. That’s a hard thing to reconcile, both as a writer and a human being, devaluing a critically important profession to the brink of extinction.

Not to be hyperbolic, but it feels like the written word—not computer imitations but carefully crafted prose expressing genuine human sentiment—is on life support, with doctors summoning a priest to deliver its Last Rites. It’s last call at the bar and the lights are coming on for mainstream media, with writers, once considered the lifeblood of journalism, now seen as expendable, a hindrance to wealthy executives who care more about what outfit they’ll be wearing to Michael Rubin’s White Party in the Hamptons than protecting the Fourth Estate. Sports Illustrated may not be the only perpetrator, but that doesn’t make it any less complicit in facilitating journalism’s steady decline, depriving the next generation of talented sports writers the platform and audience they deserve.

As a young sports fan who devoured Tom Verducci’s baseball analysis as eagerly as I anticipated Grant Wahl’s investigative reporting, to read Sports Illustrated was to be inspired, unlocking a portal to an alternate dimension offering endless possibilities. Each issue was an examination of the human condition colored by breathtaking photography (the caption-less “Miracle on Ice” cover photo from 1980 comes to mind), all brought to life by the artful storytelling of its brilliant writers. But now that childhood bliss feels like a distant memory, an extinguished flame in a dark castle of ghosts and spirits, doomed to a haunted purgatory of eternal nothingness.

Naturally, Sports Illustrated will try to play it off as something else, insisting the articles that ran were mislabeled and should have been presented as sponsored content from a third party. But we all know that’s just lip service, a sorry excuse for a seismic betrayal stripping Sports Illustrated of what little credibility it still had.

Bleak as our current journalistic landscape may seem, the social media backlash against Sports Illustrated can only be seen as an encouraging sign, showing that audiences still care deeply about writing, demanding nuanced analysis from real humans who live and breathe sports. Perhaps the powerbrokers in their plush corner offices will heed that advice, using their influence to advocate for writers while resisting the urge to let robots do the heavy lifting. But more likely, they’ll continue to cut corners, compromising their values in the interest of self-preservation, further depriving sports journalism of the resources necessary for its survival.

Cynical? Maybe. But with so much streamlining and reconfiguring in a rapidly evolving medium, it’s hard to feel anything but pessimistic, dreading the uncertain future of an industry that, unfortunately, might not be built to last.

[New York Times]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.