“Winning Is Not Uncomplicated”: Louisa Thomas on Sports

"The real value, the biggest value, of sport to me is that it is this gigantic arena for feeling."
Louisa Thomas

Louisa Thomas is a singular sportswriter. In her wide-ranging coverage of tennis, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and more, statistics and scores are incidental. Instead, Thomas shows that the real sports stories are to be found elsewhere: in the intense psychological battles and interpersonal drama of tennis, the sociopolitical implications of underfunding women’s sports, the aesthetic pleasures of watching basketball players move through air, and the general joy of being triumphant.

Thomas never seems to take for granted that sports are intrinsically valuable, or even worthy of our attention. Somewhat paradoxically, it is this conscientious skepticism, evident in all her writing, that reveals how much there is to gain from immersing yourself in sports, whether as player or spectator. In a piece about how Simone Biles is the greatest athlete of all time, Thomas wrote, “There are certain irresolvable tensions within the ideals of sportsmanship: winning is the ultimate goal, but it isn’t everything; it’s all fun and games, but you better take your job seriously; be proud, but don’t show it. These unwritten rules have always been less kind to women than to men, who are typically given some leeway when it comes to embracing their greatness and making their names.”

To read Thomas is to join her on a quest to understand these irresolvable tensions and unwritten rules. She finds what remains ambiguous and complex and invites us to consider existential questions. Why do we watch sports? Why do we care so much about them? Should we? What, ultimately, are sports for? Her searching, elegant writing intimates that sports are not only important and beautiful, but also, more boldly, that they may be important because they are beautiful.

Thomas is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of three books, including two works of historical nonfiction, and the coeditor of Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard (2020). In early March, I got the chance to sit down with Thomas (over Zoom) and talk sports. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Tara Menon (TM): Something that you do better than anybody, not just as a sportswriter but as a writer in general, is capture bodies in motion. The way you write about how Kim Clijsters moves on a tennis court is exemplary:

[She] would sprint for a ball in the corner, extend her leading leg as she began her backswing, and then slide. Her trailing leg would extend in the other direction, bringing her into a deep, sliding split. As she swept her right arm forward to make contact with the ball, her racquet following a simple, efficient path, her left hand would drop for balance. And then, after the shot, she would recover like a cat, using her tremendous strength and flexibility to pull her feet beneath her and accelerate toward the center of the court in one quick motion.

Another one that stands out for me is your description of Jamal Murray’s shot in game four of the NBA Western Conference finals in 2020: “As Murray went up to the rim, [LeBron] James leapt, right arm extended, a rising wall. And, midair, Murray shifted the ball to his left and then swung it under and behind James, finishing the layup with his right hand as he fell. It was a carbon copy of one of Michael Jordan’s most iconic shots—and it seemed to catch James’s attention.” Reading those sentences, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion replay with stellar commentary.


Louisa Thomas (LT): I appreciate your saying that, because I actually think that while there are certain things I do well, I don’t think that’s one of them. Partly because I’m not actually that good at describing things. If you tell me to describe the walls in here, I’d struggle to come up with something besides “pale green.” Those are sections that I spend a silly amount of time on. One reason why I think they might be effective is that I try not to overdo them. Sometimes a single sentence of action can sustain a whole piece.


TM: I know you were an English major as an undergraduate. How has that background influenced your writing?


LT: Oh, I certainly learned from poetry.


TM: Any particular poets?


LT: Wallace Stevens is a pretty good touchstone, partly because he taught me about pacing and the power of stripping away, as well as building up. He is very good at putting pressure on individual images. Think of some of his most famous poems: “Anecdote of the Jar,” or “The Snow Man,” or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He’s able to distill an object or an idea into something essential without exhausting it. Every word, every beat, matters. I’m not, generally speaking, a maximalist when I write. I want my words to count, and I care a lot about the way things sound. I think I care much more about rhythm than your average writer, and I got that from poetry.

I’m almost more of an auditory writer than a visual writer. I often write in my head when I’m running, or when I’m walking, before I put something on the page. I’m speaking to myself in my head, and so my words are in my ear. Maybe I learned that from Stevens, too: he famously composed his poems while walking to work.


TM: You talking about putting pressure on a single image lets me naturally segue into my favorite moments in your pieces, which is when you compare athletes to animals—whether that’s Nikola Jokic as “more giant squid than great white shark,” or Kevin Durant as a “fawn.” 


LT: That’s my favorite thing to do. You want to give the reader permission to have fun—and give yourself permission to have fun. It’s harder if you’re writing about a dark topic, like domestic violence, for example. But if you’re writing about Jokic and Durant, you want to have fun. Durant has these long, spindly legs and a blank gaze: hence, a fawn. And the introduction of animals is a signal that we’re going to get a little ridiculous, because sports are ridiculous, too. One of the things I like about sports is that they have an element of the absurd. This is a way of engaging in that aspect.


TM: I now feel unable to look at Kevin Durant as anything except a fawn. You also have other, nonanimal mini descriptions of people: Zion Williamson as “a linebacker crossed with Baryshnikov,” or Daniil Medvedev as “a character from Dostoevsky.”

My absolute favorite is tennis star Andy Murray as “a walking existential crisis.” [Laughter] When I read that, I thought, that’s exactly the feeling Murray evokes every time I see him. And you captured it in a single phrase. That line also captures what I find so compelling about tennis, which is that it seems so psychological. Does that appeal to you as a tennis writer?


LT: Yes, but it can also be a danger for me. I can be too ready to read facial expressions, and other sports are less impacted by psychology than tennis. In tennis, there’s such a mind-body connection. You can actually see when someone tightens. Their feet are not moving in the same way, or their racket is dropping on their serve because they’re literally tight. You also can see it on their face, and that I find really, really compelling. Regardless of the sport, I’m always only writing about humans.


Distant Sports

By Bécquer Seguín

TM: In a piece about Roger Federer, you wrote: “Tennis is a game that tortures souls.”


LT: That sounds like a bit much. [Laughter] My current editor would never let me get away with that.


TM: Another reason your writing stands out is because one gets the sense that you are deeply ambivalent about winning.


LT: Yes. Winning is not uncomplicated. For ethical reasons, I want to be someone who is compassionate, and I don’t think that dominance is the ultimate virtue or the ultimate marker of what is just and right. I’m a little bit distrustful of the desire to dominate, and in our society that is often expressed as competitiveness.

I’m also often distrustful of meritocracy. I see a lot of the contingency and luck that goes into winning, and so I am a little bit reluctant to read too much into the outcome of a game. We ex post facto construct these narratives to explain a win or a loss, but often it comes down to arbitrary things or twists of luck. We can overemphasize the value of winning or losing.


TM: Do you think that there are other values to be recovered in sport, other than winning and meritocracy?


LT: Sure. First of all, I am ambivalent. It’s not that there’s no value in the desire to win, it’s that it’s double edged. Winning is important. It brings out some qualities of courage and excellence, which I admire, and those are values that I do celebrate. There’s also a lot of space for cooperation and compassion, certainly in team sports, but even in individual sports.

The real value, the biggest value, of sport to me is that it is this gigantic arena for feeling. I think this is one of the reasons why sports are also so attractive to men, to be honest. It’s not just this aggro desire to beat everybody—it’s the permission to have feelings. Sports are full of hugging and crying and grief and ecstasy. Part of their appeal is the chance to share these feelings in a very communal setting, and also to give yourself the space and grace to feel them in a very private way. Traditionally speaking, those are not things that most people, but especially most men, are allowed to do. And in sports, they absolutely are. Sport is one of the great valves of feeling in our society.


TM: Speaking of men and feelings, before this interview I asked a few people whether they had any big existential questions about sports. One of my friends said, as a joke, but also not as a joke: “Why am I still a Knicks fan?” [Laughter]

To me, that question is initially funny but also quite profound. Why are people still Knicks fans?1 I’ve played competitive sports my whole life, I’ve always loved watching sports, but I find that kind of maniacal, obsessive, irrational fandom totally alien—distasteful, even. Why do you think people become so devotedly attached to sports teams?


LT: This is something I struggle with. I don’t really have strong allegiances. But people find a very profound sense of community, and identity, in sports. At some point, it feels like it’s not a choice anymore, it’s something you’ve inherited or been raised on or it’s one of those local commitments that feels damaging to break. That sense of community and identity is very human, and it’s very important. At the same time, it can bring out the worst in people. It’s complicated.


TM: If we’re talking about the Knicks, Leeds United Football Club, or Michigan State, I can accept that it is about community and family. Some people are raised Michigan State fans the way other people are raised Catholic, it’s just in the air that you breathe.

But what about individual sports? The first time I met you, I told you that my dad is the biggest Roger Federer fan in the world, and you rolled your eyes and said, “Everyone is the biggest Federer fan in the world.” [Laughter]


LT: The Church of Federer is an international institution. It’s more catholic than the Catholic Church. Federer has never played in an away stadium. Everywhere he goes is his home turf.


TM: True, but it’s not the same as the team sports, necessarily. My father was not raised a Federer fan, in the way people are raised as, say, Liverpool fans. It feels more chosen—more like a cult that you consciously join, not a religion you are born into.


LT: I don’t know your dad, but I might suspect that while he was not raised a Federer fan, he was raised to elevate certain qualities that Federer seems to embody: effortless grace, profound technical skill, and efficiency.

Efficiency can sound very machinelike, or soulless, but I mean something much more like geometric efficiency. Federer manages, in some really beautiful way, to find the shortest path between points. You don’t need to know anything about tennis footwork to realize that Federer’s balance and timing are perfect. He personifies certain ideals that are very legible. He plays in a way that is easy for both tennis purists and anyone else to really see and understand. That is quite rare.

And he’s just so very good. That’s not to be discounted. He wins a lot. He also has a foil in Rafael Nadal, who in every sense is just as great, maybe more, but plays with this brute force and a certain kind of bullishness. It’s very easy to fall into these tropes with the two of them because they seem so willing to play their roles.

With Federer and Nadal, the debate about who is better at tennis raises old questions about what we value in sport. Do we value a certain kind of effortless grace or a kind of Herculean effort? It hardly seems to matter that, overall, Novak Djokovic is probably better than both.


TM: I love that we have transitioned seamlessly into GOAT (greatest of all time) debate territory. Obviously, these debates play out across sports, not just around Federer and Nadal (or Djokovic) but also Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, in soccer, and Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, in golf. But it seems to me that “LeBron James or Michael Jordan?” is the fiercest of all these debates. People get into vicious fights about which of these two men are better at basketball. Why do we care so much?


LT: Partly because these are arguments over character, or certain kinds of values. It feels very personal because when you are arguing about, let’s say, LeBron and Jordan, you’re not just arguing about the value of assists versus midrange twos. You’re also arguing about these players’ different impacts on culture, about aesthetics, and about what they meant to you as a kid, or maybe what they mean to your dad.

People don’t usually want to admit that the debate is inherently about these aspects, too.


TM: They always want to pretend that all they care about are the statistics.


LT: Because we all want to seem rational! But really, we’ve already made our decisions. We are not convincing anyone. We are defining our own terms, based on our own values and experiences.

TM: Even people who are not sports fans or tennis fans probably know that Serena Williams had a meltdown when she was playing Naomi Osaka in the US Open final. Broadly speaking, my social life is split into athletes / sports fans and academics—both of whom had really strong and opposing opinions on the matter. I remember feeling totally infuriated, because I felt both camps were so completely wrong.

You wrote about what happened. What do you feel that people misunderstood about that moment?


LT: People saw what they were inclined to see. Women are often treated differently than men, and Serena Williams—no stranger to injustice—felt profoundly wronged in that moment and reacted accordingly. I could understand why.

At the same time, the rule is the rule. Her coach clearly broke it by sending her signals, which he admitted. The violation was not an invention of the umpire. It was also Serena’s obligation, as an athlete, to know the rules, and recognize the situation she was in. There is a well-defined escalation of penalties. The rules in sport are there for a reason and the umpire was following them. He did a good job, even if he might have done a better job by exercising discretion. The readiness of many people to not only leap to Serena’s defense in an empathetic way but also to say, essentially, “This is what’s wrong with America and the world,” was like—wait a second.

At the same time, the charge that Serena got out of control and was playing the victim ignores the complexities of the situation—not to mention the contextual complexities, of tennis, her life, and society. There were all sorts of factors: the effect of the crowd, Serena’s history at the US Open, what she’d had to overcome to arrive at that moment, and, on the other side, the difficult circumstances umpires sometimes have to deal with. There was a lot of backstory. But the point of rules is that they’re rules: backstories don’t matter. Part of the problem was that this particular rule isn’t consistently applied.


TM: You cover a lot of female athletes, from superstars like Serena Williams to underappreciated stars like WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike and soccer legend Marta. Do you feel a sense of duty or social responsibility to write about a wide range of female athletes, or do you simply follow big sports stories?


LT: I would say both. One, I like a lot of women’s sports and female athletes, so I find myself drawn to them naturally. Two, they tend to be underreported stories that aren’t otherwise being told. That’s less true of, say, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which is widely covered. But even within that context, there are opportunities to spotlight unsung heroes. I’m going to pitch a story about national-team member Crystal Dunn because she’s maybe the best soccer player in the world and nobody’s writing about her. That’s crazy!

There is also a social responsibility component. I do care about women’s sports both as a woman who has seen women’s work be consistently devalued and as a woman who just likes sports. This is actually an area where my thoughts are evolving. I went through a period, more at Grantland, where it was taken for granted that I would write a lot about women’s sport, and it was very important to me to establish that I could write about men’s sports. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.


TM: I feel that way about writing about Indian novels.


LT: Women’s sports are treated as lesser, and I simultaneously object to that and worry that I sometimes fall into that trap myself. I didn’t want to be seen as a lesser writer. Sometimes I find myself wanting to write about the “big” sports stories, and those are usually about men. I want to be writing about what people are talking about. I want to be read by a lot of people. But I came to realize that that’s the wrong way to think about it. It’s up to me to make stories about women’s sports seem compelling. It’s my job to give those stories scope and relevance and analysis and style, and to convince readers to give them the attention they deserve.


TM: Do fewer people read stories about women?


LT: Definitely not. A few of my most popular stories have been about women. And some of the ones that I’m proudest of, too.


TM: Do you ever get pushback from your editor or higher-ups if you pitch a women’s sports story?


LT: Not now. Times have changed. If I pitched a WBNA story in 2013, it was seen as more of a rare thing. Maybe I wasn’t pushing hard enough. Now, The Ringer and The Athletic have WNBA writers. Women’s sports are still receiving way too little coverage and investment, but I think that’s changing. And my editor is encouraging me to explore that momentum. All the pieces I’m working on right now are about women’s sports.

TM: It feels like we’ve really come a long way from “shut up and dribble.” Especially since last summer, athletes like LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe have participated in protests. Yet, Muhammad Ali’s activism demonstrates that this isn’t a totally new phenomenon. What is different for this generation of athlete activists compared to previous ones?


LT: There are several things. One: Trump inadvertently alleviated the social risk of protesting. What was controversial in 2015 is no longer so controversial.

Relatedly, it’s less financially risky for athletes to publicly protest. What Colin Kaepernick did was extremely brave. But Kaepernick would probably be the first to point out that, while he got a Nike contract after protesting, Muhammad Ali was sentenced to prison. Megan Rapinoe has been pretty eloquent about this. Protesting has not just threatened but also expanded her opportunities.

But that’s not to discount what Kaepernick or Rapinoe did. I don’t want to discount how unsettling it must have been to be mocked and threatened by the so-called “leader of the free world,” not to mention the trolls who follow him. And the culture has changed partly because people like Kaepernick and Rapinoe are changing it. There is more agreement that athletes have voices and have the right to use them.


TM: Do you feel like some sports are still more conservative? The tennis world, with the exception of players such as Naomi Osaka, seems less outspoken about political issues.


LT: Different sports are in different places, and we’re all working it out on the fly, very quickly. Tennis is an outlier for a couple of reasons. For one, its history in the United States includes exclusionary country clubs. Another reason is that it’s very international. I’m not so offended when an Eastern European doesn’t really understand the racial dynamics of the United States.

In contrast, women’s professional leagues are generally progressive. The WNBA is a leader in fighting for social justice—probably the leader, even more so than the NBA, which is often called the most progressive of major American sports. In other sports, like football, there’s both activism and retrenchment.


TM: What do you think explains the major difference between basketball and football?


LT: They have different fanbases. Money is part of it, too. Contracts are not guaranteed in football, so most players live with the reality that on Monday they could lose their jobs. There are only a few players who can say something and not worry about getting replaced. Why would you then take on a controversial topic, which would maybe risk your livelihood? I’m sympathetic to that.

The racial makeup of the locker rooms is different, too. On most basketball teams, the stars are Black; on most football teams, the quarterbacks are white. That’s changing, and the league is changing with it, but LeBron James and Tom Brady set very different examples. There’s also a lot more separation within football locker rooms. Basketball teams are much smaller.


TM: And they are much tighter.


LT: Yeah, exactly.


TM: OK, let’s end on the most important question of all: Who is the greatest basketball player of all time? LeBron or Jordan?


LT: LeBron.


TM: Hurrah! But sorry in advance for all the angry emails you’re going to receive.



This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. icon

  1. This interview was conducted several months before the Knicks secured the fourth seed in the 2021 NBA Eastern conference. In March, long-suffering Knicks fans were dreaming of, not actually watching, their team play playoff basketball in Madison Square Garden.
Featured image: Louisa Thomas. Photograph courtesy of Louisa Thomas