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The Veil of Sports

The thing I hated about taking graduate courses in English is the thing I love about being a sports fan.

In English, the farther you go, the farther you get from the stories that first drew you in. In their place, you read metatheory about theory about criticism, commentary stacked on commentary, and each additional layer is less insightful and more poorly written than the one that preceded it.

In sports, it’s the opposite. The commentary that is most thoughtful, both in its reasoning and in how the writers present their ideas, is found farthest from the story that took place on the field or in the arena. As near as I can tell, baseball analyst Bill James was the first one to point out the advantage of being an outsider, that it gave him time to reflect and it freed him from accepting the distorted views most people seem to develop when they work closely with athletes.

These distorted views affect the athletes, their coaches, and the team’s announcers and beat reporters, as well as the radio hosts whose livelihood depend on the most immediate and emotional reactions of fans at moments of elation or, far more often, despair. Dispassionate observation and careful analysis generally don’t make for great drama.

Except when they do. Those who are drawn to genuine drama realize that objectivity mixed with empathy is the only way to get there. Unfortunately, most writers and radio hosts seem incapable of creating great drama, so instead they get it on the cheap by making statements and asking questions that activate our cognitive biases (e.g., recency bias: “Bases loaded, two outs, game on the line, he strikes out. The guy’s washed up!”).

But there have always been a few people writing about sports who appreciate context, such as Roger Angell, and a few broadcasters as well, including Vin Scully and Lindsey Nelson. These are the sports broadcaster equivalent of Jimmy Stewart or Michael Cera as romantic leads, people who play against type, break the third wall, yet still come across as more genuine and believable than the performers who meet our expectations. The best thing about contemporary sports is that Angell and Scully’s successors are finding an audience on the web and in podcasts.

The host of Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen,” Josh Levin, and his regular collaborators, NPR contributors Stefan Fatsis and Mike Pesca, love sports the way that I’ve wanted to since I was a teenager, with a sort of resolute, post-modern wonder. They know they probably should be doing something else with their time, they knew the XKCD punchline years before Randall Munroe penned it, and they’re just as aware of Eugene McCarthy’s observation: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” But rather than doing whatever more sensible thing they might have done instead, they’re getting paid to do something they like doing, and watching sports is only half of it.

The other half is reading what other people they respect are writing, listening to what they’re saying, and talking sports with people whose company they enjoy. They’re having a good time, and seem mostly guilt-free about it. They have removed themselves not only from macho posturing, but from the irritability that marked Bill James’s early writing.

The analytical heirs to James, the founders of Baseball Prospectus, Gary Huckabay, Christina Kahrl, Rany Jazayerli, Joe Sheehan, and Clay Davenport, project a sort of sports equanimity as well. Huckabay, the initial organizer behind Baseball Prospectus and at the time its best writer, seems to have moved on from sports writing. Davenport was always more of a statistician than columnist. But Kahrl, who writes regularly for ESPN, has found her voice and quietly become one of the very best writers ever to cover sports. And Jazayerli, a Chicago-area dermatologist, as well as the proprietor of Rany on the Royals, a contributor to ESPN’s Grantland, and a co-host of a weekly podcast with Sheehan, has become not only my favorite sportswriter, but one of my favorite writers in any genre. Sheehan alone remains voluble, but it is charming, and he knows it, which doesn’t make it any less sincere. His targets, rather than the players themselves, are almost always petty injustices or preventable stupidity.

Others who like sports, and like writing and talking about sports, like it much as they do music, in the case of Grantland contributor Chuck Klosterman, or food, in the case of ESPN’s Keith Law, or birding, in the case of SB Nation’s Rob Neyer. These are not the kind of writers who engage in hagiography, and if they did, athletes would not be the people they would lionize. They love sports, but they know far too much about the rest of the world to lose track of sport’s importance. They are cerebral people, geeks in the best sense of the word.

We may, right now, be living in the best time ever to be a geek, even one who likes sports. And there may be no better emblem of that than Joe Posnanski. Though he is still in his mid-forties, he is already among the most recognized sportswriters ever, and has gotten to the point that organizations appear to be creating awards just to bestow them on him, then naming the award after him so they don’t have to give it to him every year. His writing is serious and comic, universally human and analytical, persuasive and vulnerable, and invariably lengthy. He is starting his own version of Grantland, called Sports on Earth (which is in preview mode now but due to go live any minute) and on August 21, Simon & Schuster will be releasing his book about disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, which he started researching and writing before anyone outside of Penn State knew about the serial incidents of child molestation that took place in the football team’s training facilities. It was the best timing, and the worst.

Joe Paterno wasn’t a topic that interested me when Posnanski announced that he would be writing a book about Paterno’s last season at Penn State, and I stayed as ignorant of the scandal as possible when it dominated the news. But now, in part because of a post by Rob Neyer, I look forward to reading Posnanski’s book. It will likely be controversial, because anything published about Penn State now is certain to be controversial, but the appeal of Posanski is that he’ll likely view any rifts he engenders as a failure. This is not a man drawn to heroic tragedy. This is a man drawn to our common experiences, the things that bring us closer. The book must have been torture for him to write.

Not that writing should ever be considered torture. Even when it is difficult, it is a privilege. The real torture happens when we experience actual loss. Not the kind of loss that happens in sports, but the kind of loss that happens to almost everyone: the loss of a parent, or a sibling, or a child.

A couple of weeks ago, that kind of loss happened to the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid’s son, Garrett, was found dead in his room at the team’s training camp. He had been helping out with the team’s weight training program, and living in the dorms with the rest of the coaches and players. His death reminded everyone that sports don’t really matter. And, from what I can tell, it also reminded all of us why sports exist.

I don’t know Andy Reid. Even though I live a fairly short drive from his home, I don’t know anyone who does. But I know hundreds of people who are mourning for him, in a way many of us have difficulty mourning even for ourselves when we experience our own personal losses. We’re too close to it when this kind of loss happens to us, and so it fills us with conflicts we never knew we had, and forces us to deal with a type and level of attention that most of us never experience at any other time in our lives. It is too much, and so we shut out much of it, delay it, fixate on details. But when it happens to Andy Reid, someone we know so much about but don’t actually know, when it is right there for us but also removed, we can simply be sad.

 
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