Sports Nut

In Defense of Sportswriting

Since the spring of 1977, I have pretty much spent each morning hunched over the sports pages. Nineteen seventy-seven was the year that Ron Guidry broke into the bigs. I, a lefty little-leaguer needy for a role model, became obsessed. After each of his starts, I found myself craving the following morning’s written accounts—the beat writer’s article and the box score, both. And the cravings were worse, which is to say better, when I had watched each pitch, knew the score, knew the stats. In other words, the more the sports page contained the basic words and numbers I already knew, the greater my pleasure. Nothing much has changed since then. I went to Game 3 of the Knicks-Pacers series last week—Ward swatted Smits and Spree skittered to 32. That next morning reading the Times was the happiest I had been in a long time.

According to David Remnick, this makes me something of a dunderhead, a thinker of the concrete sort. Remnick slighted me and my fellow obtuse-headed kind almost a year ago in a short “Talk of the Town” piece in TheNew Yorker. There, he bemoans the effect of the information super-age on sportswriting: “Only the tardy or the literal-minded fan really needs a written recap over coffee. We’ve already seen the game—seen it live, seen it in real time, in slo-mo, in film clips all night long.” His claim is that no part of our lives is more media-supersaturated than our sports lives, and thus unless you live in an unwired hole, sports just doesn’t come fresh anymore.

I suppose I’ve been called worse than “literal-minded,” and I do continue to have a hard time understanding that, say, rivers can flow north. (The whole idea of Upper Egypt makes me spasm.) But I think that Remnick is off-point here on at least two counts. First, I don’t know why, when it comes to sports, being “literal-minded” is a term of abuse. A huge part of the appeal of sports is its lack of metaphor (Freudian ones aside): Ball goes in hole, ball crosses line, bodies move fast, bodies move slow. That’s exhilarating. Further, I am no scientist, but I’d bet that the sporting fan’s obsession with statistics engages the primitive parts of her cerebral cortex. These days, for instance, I can’t get enough of seeing Mark McGwire’s position on the all-time home-run list: In my mind, he didn’t really fully pass Foxx and Mantle until I saw the Cardinals’ posting of McGwire’s total among the rest of the home-run legends. Letting it all sit on Busch’s scoreboard—pure atavistic genius.

In fact, the ultimate point of Remnick’s critique of sportswriting—that the endless stream of sports effluvium has created a truly loathsome moralistic “deadline brand of Freudian analysis … consist[ing] largely of middle-aged, middle class white men issuing judgment on young African-American millionaires”—serves as nothing less than a rallying cry for us, the straightforward. I agree, let’s stay away from this sort of highhandedness. Sports is nothing if not the simple pleasure of watching, meditating on, and, yes, even reading about a bouncing ball, a changing number, a flash of color. And when mere paragraphs later Remnick rather comically slips into the sort of high dudgeon he vilifies—Larry Johnson, Remnick says, “is equipped with so great a sense of insular self-drama that, in the midst of the fateful series against San Antonio, he declared that he and his teammates were a band of ‘rebellious slaves.’ (Johnson is a rather pampered Nat Turner; he makes more than ten million dollars a year.)”—I find myself wishing for an evocative sentence or two on Johnson’s sweet, soft lefty twirl.

Second count: If all Remnick can see in the “written recap” is the quotidian and the unexciting, then perhaps it is he who is rather literal-minded. That is, sports reporting—and here I am not talking about sports columnists but beat writing—is a creative synthesis of description and analysis. One of the deep allures and mysteries of sports is the way in which its dramas and narratives are inchoate. How many times have you watched a game and afterward had a hard time figuring out which were the key plays, moments, and tensions? Whose hands were in the passing lanes? How much of a divot did Hogan take on the 18th at Merion? Even for the serious sports fan, the basic plot must be decoded and unearthed. This requires imagination, and it’s difficult. Further, the lattice-like constellation of a game’s nodes is exactly what the nightly diet of sports shows, clips, and Web sites do not give. It seems to me that the surfeit of sports information is making the “written recap over coffee,” when well done, more important and more satisfying than ever.

For example, let’s see what we can find (intended or not) in the following sentence by New York Times Knicks beat writer Selena Roberts on a Knicks-Lakers game early this March: “As Bryant started to zip around Latrell Sprewell on his way to flashbulb drenched dunks—the Laker blew the tip of his index finger like a gunslinger at one point—Phil Jackson could find more comfort than ever over his career choice.” We get a key matchup—Bryant and Sprewell—and more, we get Bryant beating Spree at his own game in a couple of senses: individual moves and also insolence. Should we applaud or be appalled? That is, is this what Kobe is becoming out in L.A.? Roberts suggests that Coach Jackson is appeased by Bryant’s play, but the flash-bulb dunks and the showboating so conflict with Jackson’s own style: Don’t the Lakers have problems when Kobe steps out of the triangle? Is Bryant’s individual flourish a sign of troubles to come? Finally, by mentioning Jackson’s “career choice,” Roberts alludes to a bitter subtext: Jackson’s shrewd self-conscious positioning in taking the Lakers job. We can’t help think, wasn’t it just a year before when Checketts in a bald act of perfidy contacted Jackson about coaching the Knicks? Is Van Gundy the Knicks coach only because Jackson turned the job down? Finally, to us Nets fans, we, too, remember the pain of rejection Zen-style.

Don’t get me wrong. I am distinctly not saying that we were better off before the big business of sports-information providing. If you ask me, the greatest thing about the Internet is real-time scoring—useful for tracking the B.C. Open each fall. What I am saying is this: The sheer quantity of sports information dispensed to us throws into simple, and I might add, salvific relief the active interpretive artistry required by those of us who find ourselves returning to the same games, with largely the same players, at the same times, every year.