Dear ESPN the Magazine,
I was less than surprised when I read in USA Today about your upcoming "body issue," which hits newsstands October 19. Your managing editor, Gary Belsky, speaking "from his office in Manhattan," explained that the issue—which will feature, basically, naked athletes—is in the works. "We're toying with the idea of making it a no-clothes issue," Belsky said, expressing that the challenge is figuring out how to "use equipment and pads and bats and goalposts and soccer nets and pucks and helmets to obscure body parts that we still can't quite go to in a magazine that's part of a company owned by (Disney)."
Such is the difficult life of a sports journalist these days. I sympathize.
And I wouldn't expect ESPN the Magazine—a glossy publication whose chief purpose is getting readers to buy mid-shelf vodka, domestic beer, large trucks, and erectile dysfunction medication—to ascribe to the same standard of morality as, say, CT (not in the works anytime soon: an issue devoted to nude theologians covered only by commentaries and manuscripts). An issue featuring the (nearly) naked is only surprising in that it took this long to come together, given the success of Sports Illustrated's oft-hidden, much-perused annual swimsuit issue—a bane to frustrated Christian adolescents since the beginning of time.
That said, I still wish you wouldn't hit the newsstands.
And I write that with much trepidation, knowing that Letters to the Editor from irate fundamentalist housewives have become as much a part of the ethos and legend of the SI swimsuit issue as the nearly naked girls themselves. Upsetting the prudish is part of the devil-may-care outlaw/renegade ethos that helps you sell big trucks and Viagra. I respect that. But really? Nudity?
Nudity is the most over-ridden pony in mass media. I dare say that nakedness is more available to the masses today, thanks to technology, than it's ever been. It's not difficult to find pictures of people without their clothes on, but it is, ironically, increasingly difficult to find good sports writing. That's where you come in. The apostle Paul had some good advice that would seem to apply to many spheres of life: "Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." I think that adage works for great sports writing—and sports magazines.
Not to sound overly biblical, but I think you've lost your first love, ESPN (assuming, of course, that your first love was ever sports to begin with). There's real beauty in one of Kobe Bryant's playoff performances, or Marc-Andre Fleury's game seven. It's the kind of beauty that, regardless of your rooting interests, makes you feel sort of proud to be a human being, and proud to be a sports fan. It transcends, for a moment, the overriding need to move product that is the backbone of our economy and has become the glaringly obvious point of all sports media.
So before you throw your hat into the nudity-saturated, lad-mag ring (or, ironically, remove your hat, as it were), consider the ramifications of your decision, particularly for the young male readers who idolize the Adrian Petersons and Lebrons on your pages. Ask yourself if what they need is more nudity and sexuality at increasingly younger ages, or perhaps more greatness—in the form of great performances and, more important to me, truly great writing.
Your Fan and Former Colleague,
"An Open Letter To …" is a frequent sports column at CT online. Ted Kluck's work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine and Sports Spectrum. Ted has played professional indoor football, coached high school football, trained as a professional wrestler, served as a missionary, and taught writing courses at the college level. He lives in Grand Ledge, MI, with his wife Kristin and son Tristan.
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Previous sports columns by Ted Kluck include:
An Open Letter to Donte Stallworth | Concerning the overall public indignation about Michael Vick's possible NFL reinstatement. (July 2, 2000)
An Open Letter to Brett Favre | There's a season for everything, and for the great QB, now's the time to stay retired. (July 14, 2009)
Christianity Today also has archives of "Play Ball," an occasional department covering sports.