The DEFEND Cleveland Show

The Simmons problem

The Defend Cleveland Show for WRUW 91.1 FM, Cleveland has always sought to tether itself between there needing to be more than a manufactured pandered “take” on the world of sports, and that of its study and research filtered through influences which aren’t afraid to extend beyond the sports world alone. In other words all I’ve only ever wanted to produce is a sports show equivalent akin to the idea of WRUW’s slogan, “more music, fewer hits”. Besides, name me a show around here for folks who love sports even though they eventually outgrow mascots, painting their faces for events other than Halloween, and capably can see beyond formulaic branding when seeking out quality. I’m also very fortunate to have talented friends who too believe this a void needing filled, and who are then willing to share in helping to do so. That said, the DC Show proudly introduces a new column written by Will Hollingsworth: ‘Meta World Peace’. Enjoy.   -Mike James

It’s difficult to find a Science section in the newspaper anymore. The LA Times doesn’t have one, nor does the Chicago Tribune. The Washington Post, my longtime paper, has conflated “Health and Science,” though their editorial position seems to tilt towards Health: I’m far more likely to find a piece on how name brand drug prices vary wildly than on “the science of nature’s bling” (tucked away deep in the “How and Why” subsection of the Health and Science pages–a funny distinction, since between “how” and “why” you’ve covered pretty much all of science). Of the major papers, only the Grey Lady has a Science section separate from Health, though the separation is largely a ruse: an article covering a study on bird bullying is less science than a cynical puffpiece for Humanists who have run out of Humans to Humanize. The drug article belongs in the business section. The bird piece belongs, well, in an ornithological journal and the hell out of my newspaper.

Likewise, it’s getting harder and harder to find sportswriters who write about sports. Much more common are articles, magazines and, more recently, blogs covering “sports and culture” or, worse, “Sports and Pop Culture.” It’s been true of sportswriting at least since its 20th century apotheosis in Robert Lipsyte’s coverage of Muhammad Ali that sports can be about much more, can represent much more than scores and statistics. Ali was more than a boxer to America. And insofar as we’ve been waiting for his second coming ever since, for forty years sportswriters have been aping Lipsyte’s style, trying to sell us everyone from Tim Tebow to, predictably, Lebron James as the “Athlete as America Today.” It’s all been nonsense, of course: Muhammad Ali, as written by Lipsyte, was a one-time landing of the world-spirit, a man who was both a product and expression of the unexhausted American fires of the early sixties. Such an alignment of “sports” and “culture,” in which the two literally bled into one another and for a moment became the same thing, is a once-in-a-generation miracle. But sports writing, like science writing, trades in a coin of metaphor, and there’s no more obvious or pliable a metaphor than “man as Man,” or, more commonly, “American as America.”

There are those who deny that sportswriting is necessarily an exercise in metaphor. To them, the story is right there in the game, in the numbers. Likewise, in science writing there’s a difference between, say, an ornithological journal and the newspaper. A journal is for the insular, the technical, jargon for the initiated. For the uninitiated, the “science-literate layman,” there is science journalism. To put it more simply, there is Science and then there is Popular Science. Sportswriting has had, more recently, the same bi-partite soul: there is technical sportswriting, in which words are treated like packing peanuts for box scores and statistical analysis, and there is popular sports writing, in which games, athletes, and franchises are given “human” and “cultural” context, and in which one thing, sooner or later, comes to represent some bigger thing.

Scientists have always struggled with how they communicate to the unitiated their great discoveries, new advances, and changes in thought. That difficulty has given rise to the science writer, not necessarily a powerful scientific mind himself but a powerful communicator. The science writer studies hardcore journals for “big deals,” things which will affect the public life, and figures out how to communicate them to readers. There are new advances and great discoveries in sports, too, and they happen every day. The rigid statistical boundaries of baseball, built up by a century’s worth of games, are broken down and rebuilt every evening. When mutant spaceman talents like Lebron James fall to the German firmness of Dirk Nowitzki, it’s a big deal. Sportswriters use all the tools at their disposal to communicate a big deal when it happens, but their tools seem limited: their metaphors tend to be clunky, their psycho-analyses tend to be vapid, and “cultural context” more often than not means trite allusions to reality television shows.

But lately, by which I mean just in the past few weeks, sportswriting seems all at once to have come into its modern adolescence. It has become more “self-aware,” more “post-modern.” Or, like the velociraptors in Jurrasic Park II, “they’re learning.” They can open doors.

Three pieces in particular have struck me.

The first is here, on Grantland. This was the first full feature on Grantland, and the first piece of Chuck Klosterman’s sportswriting I’d ever read. It’s a story uniquely suited to Klosterman’s dreamy detachment: not analysis of something you’ve already seen, something that covered the earth and was shot into space like every major American sports event–it’s an honest-to-god story about athletes. It’s appropriately technical, it doesn’t overreach in metaphorical flourish, it’s full of funny and compelling people, and the narrative is driven by reportage, something which too often finds no quarter between play-by-play analysis and pop psychology. This piece is one of very few on Grantland that fulfills its promise of smarter, more literary sportswriting. The irony is that on a website for “sports and pop culture” the best piece of sportswriting comes from Mr. Klosterman, the consummate bitchy pop-culturist.

When he launched Grantland, Bill Simmons gave it a kind of anti-mission statement, not saying what it would be so much as saying what it (maybe) wouldn’t be. That first Simmons piece was followed quickly by this Klosterman piece, and I realize now that he wasn’t waffling: Simmons knows that for him, Grantland is going to be little more than a new letterhead for his ESPN columns. But Grantland is also this incredibly well-publicized space where sportswriting need not be either hyper-technical or gauzy and adulatory. This Klosterman piece is a restrained standard, sportswriting stripped to its core (it’s supposed to be about sportsmen, right?) then given the particular eyes, the insights, the storytelling of its author. Neither Simmons nor Klosterman nor I know what Grantland will be, but that new letterhead has sparked a conversation about what it, and sportswriting, could be.

Almost simultaneously to Grantland’s first day, the savage and frenetic Deadspin took on a new managing editor. Tom Scocca. The effect was immediately salutory, bringing fresh relevance to what was before a kind of “Jezebel for Men.” Also immediate was this piece, which established the new Deadspin as a kind of classical foil to Grantland. It’s not vehemently anti-Grantland, but it engages in the same dialectic about the future of sportswriting. Tommy Craggs writes:

“Grantland Rice was everything his namesake website should aspire not to be. He was a pandering mythmaker who wrote verse and prose the way Thomas Kinkade paints carriage lanes (“The Hills of Fame still beckon where the Paths of Glory lead …”). Reading him today is not unlike looking at your maiden aunt’s collection of Precious Moments figurines. Moths come flying off every word. He was responsible for a lot of the worst pathologies of sportswriting today, and the fact that a major web site now unironically carries his name tells me we’ve done to Rice what Rice did to so many ballplayers over the years. We’ve godded up the godmaker.”

Mr. Craggs asks us to question our vocabularies, our tendency toward tired narratives, indeed our very intentions in talking about sports. He is also himself writing an unerringly funny, coherent piece of sportswriting, peppered with the kind of easy familiarity and allusion that lets his readers in on the jokes, mixing the technical with the easy-reading while providing surprisingly insightful criticism. What glimmers around the edges of Mr. Craggs’s writing is someone who loves sports, sports in themselves, and doesn’t want them spoiled by the sermonizing of charlatan writers.

Bethelehem Shoals, in one of his first columns for Sports Feat, a kind of curated gallery of sportswriting, responded differently to the launch of Grantland:

“Once a certain threshold of either intellectual curiosity or writer-ly restlessness has been crossed and you’re no longer writing straight sports, a certain level of responsibility emerges. So does a terrible freedom. Because we all love to be confronted by that every once in a while. I don’t think that means the writing has to be ponderous, or subjugate sports. If anything, it’s the only way to put them on an equal footing with the rest of the world around us, whether we’re trying to learn from them, or just enjoy them as more than a bunch of jumping and numbers.”

Mr. Shoals wants to say that we tend to use culture to read sports (black poverty as the codec for athletes’ nouveau-riche absurdities, for example), when really we should use sports to read culture. According to Mr. Shoals, when you write about sports as the thing-in-itself, without superimposing hero-and-villain narratives or overwrought metaphors, the stories make themselves clear. In the objective system of a game with rules, victory and defeat and the clash between the old and the new are compelling in and of themselves.

Then sports, unlike science, need no longer be communicated: they are, like science, complete systems of the world, as well as heartbreaking aesthetic achievements (“truth is beauty, and beauty truth”) and, most importantly, great stories to be told, like Klosterman’s North Dakota. Once you gain that vision, culture (or pop culture) no longer informs sports: sports inform culture. Sports tell us who we are.

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Posted by on Jul 6 2011. Filed under Featured, Meta World Peace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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