Conflict – In all good stories, a main character wants something but someone or some thing, stands in the way. Unlike fiction, in these sports profiles the conflict does not always need to be resolved. Check out the story on Jake Scott, an award-winning story by Dave Hyde. Conflicts are usually resolved in stories that deal with events that took place in the past. There is nothing wrong with addressing an ongoing challenge; however, you do need to find the main conflict for most profile pieces. (Do not elevate conflicts that are not really there, nor should you create melodramatic scenes. Instead, spend some time interviewing, observing and researching until you see where the story begins. Keep in mind, some papers are just looking for a short overview profile piece. These are usually not as interesting, but readers do like some of these shorter takes on athletes, nonetheless.)
News angle – Determine the reason you are writing a story on this person. Why this person, and why now? Perhaps, this person is being profiled because of a recent athletic performance or because of a recent hiring. Perhaps, this person is connected to an anniversary of an event (like he 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal game) or an amazing season (like the 1972 Dolphins, the last undefeated NFL team.) Perhaps, someone just died, so you are writing a more involved obituary, one that runs days or weeks after the actual death. Either way, make sure a reason is clearly stated somewhere in this story.
Setting – Put the person in a place, a physical location, whenever possible. Set the scene early, putting the main character in a certain place. Sometimes, you can describe the setting before you describe the profiled person, especially when the setting takes on the role as character. That’s the case in Pamela Colloff’s terrific story on a fired women’s basketball coach, entitled “She’s Here. She’s Queer. She’s Fired” that was originally published in Texas Monthly. (This piece is one of many superb sports stories also published in the Best Sportswriting 2006). The town, whose morals and beliefs, clash with those of local girls coach, is introduced in the beginning of the story.
IN BLOOMBURG THERE ISN’T A STOP SIGN, or even a blinking yellow light, at the center of town—just a bend in a winding two-lane road that meanders through the woods toward the Arkansas state line. Every now and then a logging truck piled high with pulpwood rumbles by on its way to the paper mill, scattering twigs and pine needles onto the blacktop below. Otherwise the town is quiet. There is no Dairy Queen, or any diversions to speak of; the closest movie theater is thirty miles away, in Texarkana. Even Bloomburg’s 1A high school is too small and too poor to have its own football team. But every November, when teenagers scrawl “Go Wildcats!” in white shoe polish on the back windows of their pickups, the boys’ and girls’ varsity basketball teams try to make the town proud.
Bloomburg never had much to brag about until six years ago, when the school district hired a young coach out of Arkansas named Merry Stephens. She was the first female coach in Bloomburg history, and also one of its toughest. When just seven girls tried out for the Lady Wildcats during her first year in Bloomburg, Stephens had them practice by playing against the boys. If they were used to making fifty layups at practice, she told them to do twice as many. It wasn’t long before the Lady Wildcats started winning. Stephens led the team to the state playoffs three times, and in 2004, when the team had grown to 25 players, the Lady Wildcats made it all the way to the final four. “Half the town went with them,” said one parent of the six-hour drive to Georgetown, just north of Austin. “We’d never had a team do so well.” The Lady Wildcats didn’t win the championship, but they were welcomed back as heroes. When the team’s bus pulled into town, people stood on their porches and cheered, and the volunteer fire department led an impromptu parade.
But even after the local Wal-Mart named Stephens Teacher of the Year and the district had chosen her as its Coach of the Year no fewer than three times, many residents felt uneasy about her. Stephens, it was rumored, was a lesbian. And in an area where ministers preach against homosexuality from the pulpit and tracts denouncing the theory of evolution sit next to cash registers in convenience stores, Stephens’ sexual orientation was not an issue that most residents of Bloomburg, or its school board, could overlook. In December, just nine months after the Lady Wildcats had gone to the finals, Stephens was abruptly put on leave. The woman she lived with, a teacher’s aide and school bus driver named Sheila Dunlap, was dismissed. The board’s actions made this otherwise placid town of 374 people erupt in controversy and became the central issue of the school board election in May. “It’s divided this town,” said history teacher Thresha Jones. “You’ve got people who feel that Merry and Sheila were done wrong. And then you’ve got people who think that what the school board did was the only right thing to do."
Setting is not always so significant, but putting a person in a place allows the reader to follow more easily, so take some notes on the places you go and ask for details from those involved if you could not be there or if the event happened months or years ago.
Character – Your main character (or protagonist) needs to be a fully developed person, a person literary critics would call dynamic, or complex – not flat and simple. Show this person through actions, physical description, dialogue, commentary by others and by revealing this person’s thoughts. Do not paint this person as all good or all bad. We are all illogical, inconsistent people. There’s nothing wrong with revealing this, if these points are relevant. Show this person. Speak to as many people as possible to learn about this person. Do not limit your perspective by only interviewing the person to be profiled. Consider the opening for another fine piece, this one by Pat Jordan entitled “The Magician” that focuses on a legendary pool player who is now down on his luck.
At midnight on a bitterly cold January 15 the lobby of the Executive West Hotel near the Louisville, Kentucky, airport was crowded with men and a few women, all waiting anxiously for the guest of honor.
A man in a yellow windbreaker came through the front door and walked toward the registration desk. A murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone stared at him, a small brown man with slitlike eyes, a wispy Fu Manchu moustache, and no front teeth. He wore a soiled T-shirt and wrinkled, baggy jeans. He moved hunched over, his eyes lowered.
People clustered around him. Men flipped open their cell phones and called their friends to say "He's here!" They introduced him to their girlfriends. The man looked embarrassed. Another man thrust his cell phone at him and said, "Please say hello to my son; he's been waiting up all night." The small man mumbled a few words in broken English. Then the hotel clerk asked him his name. He said, "Reyes." Someone called out, "Just put down 'the Magician.'"
Write with authority – Learn so much about this person that you can tell this story like an omniscient narrator, offering major events and little details related to the story’s main focus. Profile stories take more time and effort than most other sports stories. You can’t just go out and speak to a person or two and fire off a profile story – at least, not one worth reading. Do the proper reporting.
Voice – Yes, reporters can have a voice. Like a column, profile stories can include commentary and insights from the author. But do not interject yourself into the story too much. Offer subtle, illuminating points. Unlike a column, a profile story is not about you. Perhaps, the voice is the person being profiled, where you tell the story through their eyes, or from the perspective of this person’s 10-year-old sister, if that POV is relevant. Do not be afraid to take chances.
Here are a few more points to consider
Make sure the person profiled is acting, or doing, something that propels the overall story. Action means dialogue as well, but it does not mean someone talking about someone else. Quotes can from key people are certainly necessary, but they do not propel the story.
The person should be going somewhere, either on the field or off. The person may be working to go the state track and field meet, earning spot on an NFL team or going to the Olympics. Off the field, the person may be going off to war, going to therapy, or going to places in order to be a preacher. In the meantime, this person may be also going to a low-paying job and living in a weekly rental to get by, or going to a doctor to fix some ailment. But, overall, the person has a goal and place where they want to be.
Be fair. But that does not mean you have to be neutral in these profiles. Look at all sides to any related issues. If a coach has been vilified in the press or on a web site’s fan forum, address those points, even if they were unfair. You can reveal that these comments were unfair through solid reporting. You also need to address aspects of this person’s life that do not reflect favorable upon him. If a person is a known alcoholic, ask this person how she overcomes that handicap each day. If this is not well known, ask if the coach would be willing to share her thoughts on this topic. We do not want skewer people for their faults, so we need to be empathetic in dealing with them. We do, however, want to make sure and address events and moments that serve only to embarrass someone. But there are some aspects of a person’s life that need to be included because they are known or significant. Make sure you have a good reason for using them (and have an honest conversation with this person about your reasons as well.)
Get as much access as possible. Let this person know you would like to hang out at practice, attend meetings and speak with other people in their lives. This way, this person will not get worried when he sees you so often. You might also get some suggestions for new story angles.
Hang out. Watch practices, attend meetings, follow the person across campus, go to lunch with him. Observe and take some notes, even if you can only do so mentally (after all, you should not always be talking notes while other are eating. They’ll feel less comfortable. Write down your observations after lunch.
Use a tape recorder. Nobody can record every detail from a lengthy conversation, so buy a digital recorder and let it roll. Make sure you let people know you will be using this. If they feel uncomfortable, tell the you just want to make sure you want to get the facts right, which is the truth.
Be tenacious, patient and curious. These traits will send you in more directions than you have time, and many paths will lead to amazing stories, news and information.
Piece together scenes. Listen for stories from others, verify them and then tell them in a more concise, compelling manner. Put the reader in the moment based upon the detail offered by your sources.
Here’s an example of a scene pieced together by Kurt Streeter for his wonderful piece on a 10-year-old girl that was part of a 5-part series in the Los Angeles Times.
Do girls box? she asked, turning to her father one evening. Is it OK for girls to box?
Well, yeah, mija, they do, he answered. Sure, it's OK for girls to box.
They were sitting on the bed in his cramped apartment, faces lit by a flickering TV, eating pizza, watching a pro boxing match. Seniesa loved to watch fights with him, loved the way boxers settled their differences, using fists to express what was inside. She was just a kid, a girl enthralled with a man's sport, but she wanted to express herself like that.
Dad? Can I box? Can I learn how to box?
Joe Estrada was shocked, he would remember afterward, but he didn't want to let his daughter down, not with what they had been through. Yeah, he said, eyes still on the TV. Sure, mija, you can do that, if you really want to. I'll take you to a gym in a couple of days. I promise.
He didn't mean it. Boxing wasn't for girls. Not for his girl, a pretty one with thin bones, a delicate nose and rosy lips. He had lived by his fists, both on the streets and in prison. All he wanted was to protect her. For weeks, he did nothing to make his promise real.
But she grew adamant. She read a book about Muhammad Ali, got a poster of him and tacked it to her wall. She admired his confidence, the way he would not back down, just like her father, she would proudly say, and the way Ali had grown up, just as she had — an outsider looking in. She wanted to become a champion boxer, bold and strong, just like Ali.
Besides, if her father trained her, he would be with her, no matter what. Both needed that, desperately. They needed it to save each other.
The more he put off boxing, the more she pressed.
Finally, guilt got him. One Monday afternoon, he drove her to a gym on a busy street in East L.A. When he parked, she sprinted from the van to the entrance. They walked inside, unsure what was next.
Do you train kids here? Joe asked.
The manager looked down at Seniesa, leaning against her father's side. How old is she? he asked.
Eight, Joe said. Almost 9.
She's too small, the manager said. We'll train her, when she's 13.
She walked from the gym with her head down. Joe tried to console her, but actually he couldn't have been happier. Good, he thought, that's the end of this boxing thing. Then, inside his van, he looked at her and saw her staring out the window.
What's wrong, mama? he asked.
She couldn't speak. Tears filled her eyes.
It hit him then how much this meant, how badly she just wanted the chance to step inside a ring and put gloves on and let go.
A few days later, deciding to try once more, he took her to a gym near her home where a group of boy boxers trained.
Emphasize story. Have a beginning, middle and end. Save inverted pyramid for breaking news stories. You can write a story narratively, from beginning to end, you can offer a series of stories that lead to the end, or you can insert asides and commentary in the middle of a longer narrative story. There are many ways to tell a story. Read other great stories for ideas.
Writing a profile story is something that can be done over time while you work a beat through a season. You do not have to reserve a chunk of time to write these stories, but you do need to spend time reporting and developing the story. Do not judge yourself against the stories, like those cited here or those in the Best Sportswriting series. But yo should aspire to get to that level someday, if you want to be among the best. Lear as much as you can from these terrific pieces and always try to be better than you were on your last story. Good luck.