ESPN Mag: Confronting ‘Danger’

Concussions. Torn ACLs. Spinal injuries.

As athletes become stronger, faster and more heavily armored, the risk of severe physical trauma — and even death — only increases.

And then there are the perils of fame and fortune. In short, sports are risky business.

ESPN The Magazine has devoted an entire issue to the topic of danger. Sue Hovey, Executive Editor, ESPN The Magazine, explains the story behind the May 16 “Danger Issue” (on newsstands and in mailboxes this week) and the graphic cover image of matador Julio Aparicio.

FR: Where did the inspiration for the Danger Issue come from?

Hovey: About a year ago, we began brainstorming ideas for our themed issues — or Deep Dives, as we like to call them — and danger was one of the topics that made it onto the list pretty early, because athletes are constantly pushing the limits and putting themselves at risk. No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward. A lot of what makes sports so compelling is the fine line that exists between success and failure – and, in some cases, between life and death. So we thought that would resonate with readers.

FR: How did you arrive at the cover image of Matador Julio Aparicio?

Hovey: For any cover to be effective, the image has to read quickly. You want people to get it right away. That’s a little easier to do if your topic is the MLB preview or NFL draft or even our recent Money Issue cover, which has A-Rod’s face on a $32 million bill. But how do you convey danger in an obvious way? If we did a photo shoot, what would we shoot exactly? In doing photo research, we looked at a lot of pictures: a close-up of a boxer taking a punch to the face, a surfer riding a giant wave, a nasty collision between two hockey players, a scary NASCAR crash. But they all felt too narrowly focused and didn’t necessarily shout danger. There was one image, though, that our editor-in-chief, Gary Belsky, was fixated on from the first time he saw it, and that was this photo of a bullfighter getting gored in the neck, with the horn going all the way up and out of his mouth. We like to surprise our readers as often as we can, and sometimes that means giving them something more visceral. This image definitely fits the bill.

FR: Did you have any reservations on using such a graphic image?

Hovey: It’s a shocking image, no doubt. But we didn’t think it was too graphic. We felt like we were on solid ground for a couple of reasons. First of all, we knew that the bullfighter survived. In fact, he was back in the ring a few weeks after this incident, which happened last May. Also, the photo had gotten a lot of play on the Internet at the time, after it was picked up and distributed by the Associated Press, so we decided to make that a virtue.If this is the first time you’re seeing the image, you’re going to say, “Wow.” And even if you’ve seen it before, hopefully you’ll appreciate the stylized treatment that our art director, Jason Lancaster, gave it. The yellow police tape, with the words “Warning! The Danger Issue,” tells you what to expect inside, while also serving as a wink and a nod to those folks who remember the original photo.

FR: What was the most dangerous thing writers or editors experienced when compiling the issue?

Hovey: One of our contributors, Larry Smith, drove in a demolition derby and lived to write about it. He said it was the dumbest, most exhilarating thing he’s ever done. Another one of our staffers, whose name is actually David Ortiz (sadly, he’s a Mets fan), was brave enough to risk a lot of teasing from his friends and colleagues by posing as the photo subject for our story on the dangers of slow-pitch softball, which sends thousands of weekend warriors to the ER every year. Of course, any writer will tell you that working with editors can be hazardous to your health, and any editor will tell you that writers push them to the edge. But I’m happy to report that we all came through this issue relatively unscathed.

FR: Was there anything that surprised you, or the other editors, when creating the issue?

Hovey: Our Stat Factory is full of interesting facts. For example, sports are much safer than farming and commercial fishing. Also, I think a lot of fans might be surprised to read that out of the four major sports leagues, baseball players miss the most games due to injury, followed by NBA, NFL and NHL players. Our story on turning the double play is a good look at how something that seems so routine to fans is actually a lot more treacherous for second basemen.And I especially liked our feature on the Isle of Man motorcycle race, because it really captures the spirit of that fine line I mentioned earlier. Every time those guys race the infamous Mountain Course, they know they might not make it home alive. Andrew Simon, one of our senior editors, helped us steer the Danger Issue, and as the stories and photos started coming in, the two of us found ourselves using the word “crazy” a lot.

Editor’s note: To see the Danger Issue cover, click here.

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