Voices of the Game: Katie Strang writes the stories that are hardest to tell

In my debut column interviewing sports writers, I spoke to Katie Strang about her coverage of Larry Nassar’s court case, and how she came to tell stories vitally important to sports.

I first encountered Katie Strang on an episode of ESPN’s Hockey Today in 2015, when I was just beginning to cover hockey as an ECHL writer, and was looking for other women’s voices in sportswriting to listen to and learn from. Her voice on air immediately caught my attention -- here was an intelligent writer regularly weighing in on the NHL for an international audience, making insightful points and clicking right along with two hockey heavyweights, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun. I was immediately hooked.

In far too short a time, ESPN recognized her skill and moved Strang to cover a sport with a larger readership, MLB. I stopped following her work for a while due to the time limitations of covering the hockey season. But a few years later, Strang was hired on by Craig Custance to further strengthening the Athletic’s bureau in Detroit —  not for a specific sport, this time, but as managing editor to covered all of the region’s sports.

Perhaps something changed when Strang was afforded this flexibility. No longer bound by the constraints of traditional media, she was handed the reigns and editorial control to begin covering the kinds of social issues that are vital to sports in general, but not covered as thoroughly as they could be.

Media outlets, even an outlet like SBNation, have a publication schedule that follows a sports season. People who are tied to this schedule rarely get a chance to surface and take a thorough, careful look at the social issues surrounding sports. But as soon as I began to follow Strang’s work again at the Athletic in November 2017, I realized that she was rising above this daily grind to tell stories about vital human issues.

The first article that truly caught my attention was a deep-dive on Brian Boyle and his fight against Leukemia. Strang‘s story walked us through the emotions that Boyle faced during the start of a hard season with compassion and attention to detail, pulling us through his journey. She structured it around a larger story about how he slid back into place on a hockey team, but she also wrote about the emotional journey of Boyle’s family, his own daily battles with exhaustion, the tale of his steps to recovery. Strang was back to writing about hockey, and all her storytelling powers were unleashed.

The Nassar Case

And then came an article on December 7 that heralded a shift in Strang’s focus yet again, to storytelling that was careful and honest but also about tremendously difficult issues. This was a story about Detroit, but it was really about the US Women’s Olympic Team, and beyond that, it was about women’s and girl’s rights to control their own bodies. Strang documented the moment that #metoo hit sports, and described the powerful  rage of the US Women’s Olympic athletes as they told the world about the horrors they were subject to at the hands of Larry Nassar.

Strang’s writing made me feel the impact of it all:

It was a chilling scene, and it captured the simple vastness of the case’s scope, the utter devastation one man caused over decades and decades of abuse.

Presiding over that courtroom on Thursday, District Judge Janet Neff held up a bulky white binder of victim impact statements and told the courtroom she had read all of them. Not just in her duties as a judge, but as the mother of two daughters.

“What is so devastating,” Neff said, “is the sense of self-worth these girls and women have had destroyed.”

This was not a one-and-done story, nor the last that Strang would write about Nassar. After the December 7 piece, there was a span of time when coverage of the court case became the sole focus of Strang’s work. Between January 15 and February 6, she published 12 articles that outlined in depth every facet of the case against Nassar, including MSU’s role in the investigation; but most importantly, she highlighted the words and stories of each victim.

I asked Katie how she came to realize that the story needed telling in the greatest depth possible.

Strang responded, I had covered a few of the court proceedings leading up to the victim impact statements in Ingham and Eaton County and so I had the inkling that this was a huge story, and an important one. I had no idea it would captivate national and international attention like it did. After that first day in court, which was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before on a visceral, emotional level, I called Craig and told him I thought we needed to devote ample time and energy to covering it right. He agreed, I canceled a road trip I had planned and that was that.”

By the 12th story in the series, justice was served. Strang gave the last word to the most important people, the victims and survivors.

Too many adults looked the other way, too many institutions failed, too many groups were culpable in acting on their own self-interests when women first came forward with concerns about the renowned doctor. People could not believe it. And so they didn’t. It is the ultimate lesson the survivors hoped to teach, to remember how it all happened in the first place.

“Because if people don’t, it’s going to continue to happen,” said Boyce, who told former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages in 1997 of Nassar’s abuse but was summarily silenced and shamed for coming forward. “It is happening. Everywhere.”

But what was Strang’s own journey to come to cover this story, and more stories like it, for The Athletic?

I asked her to tell us about the steps she took to get there.

In Strang’s Own Words

Raw Charge: How did you come to cover this story, and what did it take to be in the courtroom every day and hear story after story after story from the victims?

Strang: It was an exceptionally difficult story to cover, because of the sheer magnitude of tragedy and pain that you heard time and time again. I try really hard to maintain a level of professionalism, but this was the first story that brought me to tears in public. I couldn’t help it. I was using a spare diaper in my bag to wipe my nose between statements.

Thank god I was in the auxiliary courtroom that first day. And even though I knew what to expect after that, it didn’t make hearing that sort of awful, harrowing testimony any easier.

But at the same time, I’m so grateful to have covered that because there was also something incredibly powerful I witnessed in that courtroom. The summoning of strength and the groundswell of support among survivors, who showed such fierce grit and poise and resilience on a daily basis will be something I won’t forget as long as I live.

I drank a lot of bourbon those few weeks. And I did a lot of crying on the way to and from court.

Raw Charge: There are always people who say, “Stick to sports,” but stories like these make it so abundantly clear that sports and social issues are vitally intertwined. You’ve also written about the life and death of NHL player David Gove, who suffered abuse at the hands of a youth coach. What do you think is the best way for journalism to approach the growing concern about abuse suffered by athletes, and from athletes?

Strang: I just think it’s so important to talk about in general, because awareness is key. The more and more I cover this stuff, the more clear it becomes just how common this behavior is within sports. It’s really uncomfortable to talk about, and to grapple with on an intellectual level, that these people don’t look like monsters, but instead are our neighbors, family members, coaches etc. It’s terrifying, but it’s also essential to remain vigilant. Predators are emboldened when people are afraid to speak out or trust their guts. I think, given what we’ve seen over the past year, people are hopefully more willing to do just that.

Raw Charge: What lines do you draw when you decide to write about these issues, and how do you choose the stories you tell?

Strang: I try not to let the stories affect me personally, but it’s a pretty futile effort. You become so emotionally invested in stories, and in some ways, I think that’s okay. I think when you care that deeply, readers can sense that in the story. At least I hope. As far as choosing them, sometimes stories really do find you. But I find the more I write about these topics, the more tips I get, and the more aware I become as to where to search for a story and why.

More to Come

Strang’s storytelling about uncomfortable truths is not going to end anytime soon. On May 17, in an article following up her courtroom coverage entitled For Nassar survivors, MSU settlement an important step, but fight has just begun, Strang clearly took to heart the words of Nassar’s victims, to never forget. She pointed out that one major part of the case has yet to be settled, and if you aren’t angry yet, you will be.

You may be surprised by one of the non-monetary demands of the survivors, because it is so simple — an apology.

That hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it will one day.

And when it happens, I rest secure in the knowledge that Strang will be there to document it.