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December 16, 2008

Stating the Obvious

Recession and print-death be damned—this week's Sports Illustrated is surprisingly good, with arresting essays on Baron Davis and Russian sports moguls. But that doesn't mean it's perfect.

Selena Roberts

Selena Roberts

Time was, Rick Reilly owned SI's back page, sending off his weekly "Life of Reilly" to an often snarky reception. We scrutinize Reilly for everything from his bottle-cap conspiracies to his tooth fetish, mostly because his go-to gambit—the obscure, heartwarming anecdote—has become too obvious to parody or mock, though not to be a little sad.

Reilly now works for ESPN, so his old magazine has (re)christened its back page "Point After." And therein lies the hitch with this week's issue. In "Gift Idea for the Meddling Parent," Selena Roberts begins by describing a company that tests kids' levels of ACTN3, a gene that may predict whether they'll be better at explosive or endurance sports. Actually, Roberts begins with a meditation on Build-a-Bear, but I'm not here to fault her metaphors; instead, I'll point out that her discussion merely summarizes a recent front-page New York Times story (which, to her credit, she does cite).

From there, Roberts turns to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, specifically his argument that hockey players born early in the year have a far better shot at success. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is: Just about every review of Outliers highlights this episode, from Business Week's to Entertainment Weekly's.

But Roberts offers less a book review than a book report, again settling for a mere summary of Gladwell's conclusions. In fact, Roberts's contribution to the column amounts to getting bland quotes from an academic and that testing company's president. Her juxtaposition of the Times story and the Gladwell book produces a lame joke—instead of testing your kids, screw in April!—but no serious points, even as the specialization of children's sports remains a serious issue. (See Tom Farrey's excellent Game On.)

While SI hired Roberts from the New York Times at around the same time they lost Reilly, she wasn't a direct replacement. (In fact, like the Lakers, "Point After" goes at least 10 deep.) Still, it's worth paralleling their columns. In replacing Reilly's love of the obscure with Roberts's love of the obvious, SI is erring in the opposite direction. (In previous groundbreaking installments, Roberts exposed Al Davis's incompetence and NFL team doctors' conflicts of interest.) Roberts's column is basically a pastiche of points lifted straight from the Times and Gladwell, and, while I'm not exactly pining for the return of Reilly, I do think someone should call her on it, just as everyone and their dentist calls Reilly on his every move.

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