Sports Journalism, No Longer the Toy Department

No. 30

Hey there,

I am Wufei Yu 余物非, a journalist and researcher based in New Mexico. I write about sports, outdoor adventures, and China. 

I was born a sports nerd. As a kid, I watched and read about buzzer-beaters, last-minute goals, and first ascents for hours straight. In my late teens, I immersed myself in commentary, investigations, memoirs, and feature films about sports. The narratives and visual finesse weaving through deep and broad challenges faced by people on and off the field soothed my ever-bubbling curiosity about the world.

After graduating from the Columbia Journalism School two years ago, I became a fellow at Outside Magazine, where I reported on hot-button issues and inviting personas through the lens of outdoor sports like rock climbing, mountaineering, and surfing. I was in my zone and ready to cover Tokyo 2020 up close when the coronavirus disrupted the plans and put sports on pause altogether. With no games to cover, the pandemic battered respected sports publications like Sports Illustrated and SB Nation. Even The New York Times stopped printing sports sections in its Sunday editions. 

COVID-19 is just the latest challenge sports journalists have had to confront in recent years. We have walked a tightrope to cover gender, social justice, and political disputes in sports, as activism in the sports world gained momentum after Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the American national anthem in 2016. The recent boycotts over systemic racism by basketball, baseball, and tennis top athletes have taken the activism to a whole new level. International relations can also affect sports, as we’ve seen with the NBA’s fallout with China over Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protests.

But sports journalists sometimes face pressure from the bosses when they cover what’s out of the sidelines. Deadspin, a fearless sports website, underwent a meltdown after the new ownership disciplined its acting editor-in-chief to “stick to sports.”

But, like it or not, sports, social issues, and politics have never been more intertwined. Sports journalism is no longer the toy department of the news media, and we’ve witnessed that more than ever in 2020. 

For this issue’s Rock the Boat, as games are coming back without spectators at the bleachers, I ask my fellow sports journalists: how has 2020 changed your sports news coverage and consumption? What new ways can we find for talking about sports after such an odd year? Where do we go from here? 

I know that no matter what the future holds, I’ll keep writing about the stories, adventures, and actions on and off the field.


(Qixin Wang, senior editor at ESPN, in the “NBA bubble” before the Nuggets vs. Clippers playoffs. Courtesy of Qixin Wang.)


Best work from our members.

🏀 Clutch Time Rewind
Damian Lillard of Portland Trail Blazers has shocked the NBA fandom this season. SB Nation’s Jiazhen Zhang produces and edits a video that breaks down one of Lillard’s first big moments.

📚 Women-Only Script

For TRT World, Qinling Li 李沁灵 produces a video about how a practitioner of Nüshu, a writing method used exclusively by women in Southern China, is rescuing this dying craft by transforming it into choreography.

🎥 Kenosha Shootings
Muyi Xiao
and her colleagues at The New York Times analyze hours of footage to track the movements of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old suspect of shootings that killed two and injured one during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

🔎 Intrusive Airport Check
As US-China tensions reach a boiling point, Washington has begun screening Chinese students at airports for technology theft, Zhaoyin Feng reports for BBC News.

🇺🇸 Election Season
With both parties' national conventions concluded, Yangyang Cheng reflects on her introduction to American politics and shares her hopes and concerns for this election in her monthly SupChina column.

🏦 Chinese Business in Atlanta
In Atlanta’s Chinatown, business owners face unique challenges amid the ongoing pandemic and growing US-China tensions. Liuyu Ivy Chen reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

👩‍💻 Online Psychology Apps
A wave of therapy apps are shaping how China's rising middle class sees itself and the world, Yi-Ling Liu writes for Rest of World.

🇰🇵 North Korean Humor
For NK News, Luz Ding interviews Immanuel Kim, who wrote “Laughing North Koreans,” a new book about North Korea’s comedy films that reveals what can and can’t be made fun of in DPRK.

🍿 The Real Mulan
Over the past 1,500 years, Mulan has been made and remade countless times in the name of nationalism, feminism, anti-imperialism, and more. For The Diplomat, Jessie Lau wades through the weeds and finds Mulan’s one central quality: her emancipatory appeal.

😎 Influencers During a Pandemic
Zeyi Yang
interviews two Asia-based activists with significant followings on social media for Rest of World’s “Meet the Influencers” project.

⚖️ Alibaba’s Counterfeit Problem
Luxury brands on Chinese online shopping portal Taobao are burdened by hefty legal expenses and the site’s own algorithm, Yaling Jiang writes for Jing Daily.

🏘  Real Estate Rebound
Rental markets in Chinese cities have mostly recovered from the pandemic, with Beijing showing steady growth in August, Jiayi Sun reports for Pandaily.

👋 Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email


Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

How has 2020 changed your sports news coverage and consumption? And what does the future hold? 

Qixin Wang, a senior editor at ESPN, shared his insights from the “NBA bubble,” an isolated zone at Orlando’s Disney World where the league restarted its season in July:  

In 2020, professional leagues ground to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to rights deals cancellations, complications in league-broadcaster relationships, and industry-wide layoffs. But I consider myself a fortunate witness who has experienced firsthand how sports plays a central role in providing hope in difficult times. 

The situation has forced us to innovate sports coverage in ways unimaginable in the past. As I am writing this, I am well into my fourth week inside the NBA bubble — with limited access to the outside world, stringent health and safety protocols, and a long way away from home. I’m amazed not only by the incredible broadcasting technology, but also the discipline and collaborative spirit that have allowed the games to restart. As of today, the NBA has not had a single positive test in the bubble, serving as an example for how sports may move forward in America. 

In the time of social divisiveness and political polarization, sports is a unifying force. I feel grateful and motivated to be part of this cause in this historic time.

Yurui Wu, a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science at Northwestern University, talks about how beyond-the-score sports coverage may influence a new generation of Chinese fans:

I was already a sports fanatic at the age of 5. The sports programs on CCTV 5 - the Athens Olympics, the NBA, the FIFA World Cup in Germany - gave me my first glimpse into the world beyond China. 

In light of the recent global reckoning on racial injustice, and the lack thereof in China, I’ve been reflecting on what role sports coverage can play in fostering that conversation among young Chinese people. Today’s athletes command a huge audience thanks to social media. Their messages can travel through the Great Firewall, appearing on Chinese platforms like Weibo, unfiltered. With the sports icons, from LeBron James to Lewis Hamilton, constantly using their platforms to speak up, it’s almost impossible for their Chinese fans to not take notice. 

But the athletes’ strike and the messages on their jerseys are not sufficient to serve as an “Introduction to Systemic Racism” course in China. Their Chinese fans, by and large, lack the context to understand their outcry. This is where I think popular sports columns on Chinese social media can do better. Instead of casting it aside, this is a great opportunity to properly introduce and explain race issues to a generation of young sports fans, and even inspire some to reflect on comparable domestic issues such as ethnic violence. In a hostile geopolitical environment, where venues for the global free exchange of ideas seem to be rapidly shrinking, sports may be one of the remaining channels connecting not only ideas, but also people.

Jiawei Caroline Chen, a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School, shares her takeaways from covering sports in a pandemic:

Just as I was looking forward to covering my first NBA game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, COVID-19 began to hit New York. At first, there was no more game coverage for me. Then eventually, there were no sports at all. 

Instead of writing stories that focused purely on games, I began to look into sports’ relations with public health, politics, economics and social justice. Even though sports are now played in “bubbles,” the sports world is not and should not be a utopian bubble. This industry has the ability to inspire and empower people, and advocate for changes off the court. Sports journalism must keep up with that and continue to go beyond scores in storytelling. 

Hualun Shi, the host of the Chinese sports podcast “Sports Inverted” 翻转体育 and a J.D. candidate at Arizona State University, talks about how his active lifestyle and podcast production focus changed:

I was based in Phoenix in March, when my Jiu Jitsu school closed due to COVID-19. I had to adjust my training to a mixture of indoor and flexibility-focused programs. I realized how interconnected this world is when the Sumo bashos, top-level tournaments of the sport in Japan, got suspended in May, weeks after major sports leagues in Europe and North America ground to a halt. 

I produced a podcast episode about how Jiu Jitsu practitioners get by throughout this period. Many Jiu Jitsu gym owners have suffered tremendously during the quarantine and many implored for funding via social media, since most of them are small businesses with limited funding. My gym, Gracie Arizona in downtown Phoenix, is no exception, though it has been around for close to two decades and built a close-knit community. I hope major sports media would produce more content about how professionals in comparatively non-mainstream sports get by, instead of only focusing on major ones like baseball, basketball, and football. 

Yutao Chen 陈昱陶, a multimedia editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and diehard Arsenal and Formula-1 fan, reflects on the lost team-fandom and human-human connection:

As the world of sports slowly grapples with a new normal — empty stadiums, face masks and drastically changed schedules, I am low-key grateful for living in the era of online streaming and independent content creation, where professional sports coverage and independent commentary on different platforms are readily available. 

The current status is a reminder of how sports have the ability to connect people and that sports teams, physically separated from fans at the moment, are ultimately social entities despite their commercial presence. This was underscored by athletes’ responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and racial injustice. I hope these messages still carry weight in the sports world whenever we settle upon a new reality.

🤔 Tag @CNstorytellers on Twitter to keep the conversation going.


We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

🎤 Olivia Qi Zhang and Zhaoyin Feng, spoke at AAJA Asia’s New.Now.Next Media Conference (N3Con) conference. They talked about how the interaction between China and the US is reshaping Asia.

🎉 Yuyang Liu, Billy H.C. Kwok and Ronghui Chen were nominated as finalists for grants in humanistic photography from the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund.

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc. 

The Washington Post is hiring a visual reporter to join its expanding graphics team. Apply by Sept. 11. APPLY

The Economist is seeking applicants for two paid fellowships in America. APPLY 

Mother Jones is currently accepting applications for their editorial fellowship starting in December in San Francisco and Washington, DC. APPLY

IRE is accepting applications for the Journalist of Color Investigative Reporting Fellowship, which is intended to prepare and support a journalist of color for a solid career in investigative reporting. APPLY

The Committee to Protect Journalists is hiring a video producer and a tech researcher. APPLY

KrAsia is looking for a video producer based in Beijing. APPLY

Hong Kong Free Press is hiring a full-time editor to edit, rewrite, polish, and fact-check up to six news stories per day. APPLY

👀 Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writer: Wufei Yu; Editor: Zhaoyin Feng; Copy Editors: Isabelle Niu, Muyi Xiao

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.