Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reading a number of iconic profiles of professional athletes, including John Updike’s New Yorker salute to Ted Williams’ last game at Fenway Park, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” Gay Talese’s poignant portrait of prize-fighter Floyd Patterson for Esquire, “The Loser,” and David Foster Wallace’s immortal paean to “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” which he wrote for The New York Times in 2006.
These three pieces all bear the influence of the so-called “New Journalism” movement of the 1960s and 70s. As Thomas Oates and John Pauly put it, this movement frequently used profiles of athletes as an excuse to explore important cultural themes, including “the cult of celebrity built around sports heroes, the existential and agonistic qualities of competition, the increasing resemblance of politics to sporting life, sports as a stage for the dramatization of cultural difference, and the behind-the-scenes connections between journalist and sporting event.”
The culture of sporting celebrity has only intensified since the 1960s, which raises the question: what makes a great profile of an athlete today? What are the dominant cultural themes that play out in the lives and performances of star athletes today? What relationship between the writer and her subject do readers respond to in an era where athletes can communicate more directly with fans than ever before?
These are some questions we’re thinking about as we prepare our next Special Issue, which will focus on profiles of celebrity athletes.