Something About Something I Just Read

It’s a sad fact that true sports journalism has just about disappeared in our culture.  And here right away I must draw a distinction–sports news is alive and well and thriving, ie the reporting of facts and scores and controversies, etc.  but sports journalism–the longform literary journalism that digs deep into issues in sports and then uses them to illuminate cultural or human issues that transcend the playing of games–is all-but dead, which is a shame, because it’s one of the best and most unique forms of literature there is.

Newspapers–when they used to have a lot more space for stories because there was more space needed for advertisers who no longer exist–used to publish it, but now, except for the New York Times, all newspapers publish is sports news.  Sports Illustrated runs about one longform piece every two weeks, but it’s usually a book excerpt.  Yahoo Sports and FiveThirtyEight.com push out a nice piece every now and then.   The only real go-to place for it anymore is ESPN the Magazine.  The Mag (as us acolytes call it) is a tricky magazine to read, because it actually consists of just about ONLY longform sports journalism, which is GREAT but also makes it tough to just pick up and peruse.  But it’s existence is comforting.

Last year, The Mag published a piece on Alex Rodriguez that remains my favorite piece of sports writing ever.  Before the article, I had a very neutral opinion of A-Rod–I wasn’t rooting for him, but I didn’t hate him like many do.  After the article, I was not only on his side, I was actively rooting for him–even a fan.  but more than that, the article moved me, to tears even.  But not about Alex Rodriguez.  About me.  Like the very best sports journalism, the piece transcended the world of sports and connected the essentially meaningless lives of millionaire athletes to my individual life and our wider, diverse culture.  It was writing of weighty value.  I saved that issue and have since read the piece (which is extremely long and takes about two hours to read) three times.

This was a lengthy way of me introducing the piece I read today, also from ESPN the Magazine.  The article is “Athletes Control the Media” by Kent Russell.  This article qualifies as actual literature, in any field.  Although it is ostensibly about what the title suggests–athletes controlling the media and no longer vice-versa–Mr. Russell expands upon the subject with such aplomb, veracity, and intensity of feeling that the article becomes a large-scale examination of our current media culture, as well as the “many lives” of each of us as individuals in the new age of social media.  Although this might sound like a topic you’ve read about before, Mr. Russell has infused it with a layman’s philosophy quite unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Following are some passages I found especially mind-boggling.  You can read the whole article here (and if you do, just randomly click on an ad or watch the entire video commercial so ESPN the Magazine can make a few cents to keep this kind of journalism going).

Excerpt 1:

“Far below the press box, pacing the field, was the man himself. Bill Belichick kept his arms folded and his chin tucked, sphinxlike. I watched him nod in agreement, conferring via headset as to his next turn in this game of human Stratego, yet I never saw his mouth move. With the help of binoculars, I began to fixate on the small gap between his lips, scanning for the fine mesh screen behind which the smaller, truer Belichick looked out on the world, as if in a Mickey Mouse suit.

By refusing to play along with these people in the press box, Belichick has allowed himself to be transformed, by way of their writing and broadcasting, into a humorless curmudgeon. This is a persona, to be sure; a mask that Belichick donned long ago. What he understood was that over time, many of the journalists up here would begin to mistake this mask for the man’s actual face. And so, in leading them to believe that he is a reticent grump — and not an unflinching actor in addition to the greatest coach of all time — Belichick has gotten the media to direct their questions to the mask.”

 

Excerpt 2:

“When people cheer on the death of the news conference, what they’re also cheering on, perhaps unwittingly, is a future in which all of us will engage in this kind of careful brand management. In such a future, I’ll have my inner circle, the few people I know and care about from real, corporeal life. Then I’ll have my fans and followers, the fellow travelers who don’t really know me but enjoy or support my curated presence. Then I’ll have my “haters,” the people who misinterpret or misconstrue my presented selves, or who actively work against my narrative. These individuals are not with me, physically or in spirit, so they must be against me. This is a feedback-looped orientation toward the wider world that another, better, writer once summed up as: “He who does not feel me is not real to me.”

During his media day news conference, Marshawn Lynch put that sentiment this way: “I don’t know what image y’all trying to portray of me. But it don’t matter what y’all think, what y’all say about me. Because when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face, my family that I love, ha, that’s all that really matter to me. So y’all can go and make up whatever y’all want to make up because I don’t say enough for y’all to go and put anything out on me.”

This declaration still makes me want to stand up and cheer, sound as it does like something a pioneer in a cabin on the frontier might say. But — and this is ignoring the fact that his trolling flouted an obligation listed in his $31 million contract — Lynch got at the crux of something capital-T True here. Something that works against the point he was trying to make. Real adult life, the face-to-face relationships that allow one to understand as well as to be understood, is founded upon messiness, dialogue, the abdication of total control. I alone cannot truly know who I am. I alone don’t even get final say. I can have some idea. This idea can be based upon the selves I put forward. Yet it’s the people whose lives are affected by my selves — they get to tell me what all that self-presentation looks like. They get to measure the distance between the kind of guy I say I am and the kind of guy I happen to be. It is unlikely that Lynch, Jeter and Belichick have any interest in hearing what kind of guys they are. This is understandable. Although they are as in the limelight as anyone in our culture can be, “spelunk the darkest caves of your psyche, in public” is listed nowhere in their job descriptions.

“STICK TO SPORTS!!!!!” you might be saying about now. Fair enough. I will not mention the recent TV debate in which moderators were demonized for questioning the backstories and assertions of individuals trying to become the leader of the free world. Nor will I mention how the University of Missouri football team used social media to tell the world that it was going on strike until the university’s president stepped down. When that president did step down and media came to document the campus’ reaction, there was a literal sign of the times staked into the quad — no media / safe space — in addition to an assistant professor of mass media who was filmed saying, “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” This same assistant professor had previously posted on her Facebook page: “Hey folks, students fighting racism on the MU campus want to get their message into the national media. Who among my friends knows someone who would want a scoop on this incredible topic?”

 

Except 3:

“Belichick slid into the room and stood to the left of the dais, out of frame. There was a small pack of reporters about 5 feet from him, but none approached. He leaned into a corner jutting from the wall’s architecture, putting all of his weight onto its right angle. He kept his hands in his pockets and his face fixed, rocking back and forth, toggling his spine against the edge. He watched Brady just as intensely as he does during a game, radiating neither joy nor love but grim determination.

I thought then of all the Kremlinology that people engage in, trying to divine the real Bill Belichick from whatever scraps he leaves. Commenters, both official and unofficial, have looked to his on-field body language and cryptic sound bites for clues. They’ve dissected pictures of him kissing his girlfriend. They’ve pored over Vines of him eating “like a gremlin.” They’ve read way too much into the fact that he sang “Love Potion No. 9” at a party. I, myself, read way too much into the answer he gave during the last Super Bowl media day, when the daughter of one of his players asked Belichick what his favorite stuffed animal was. “I’d like, uh, like a little puppet,” he said, “that you can kinda put your fingers in … it’s a little monkey … and then he can talk.”

Belichick took to the dais. He started delivering a monologue of platitudes, as if trying to get them all out at once. “It was a tough week mentally,” he croaked in his strangled-sounding voice. “But they really pushed themselves. I thought our preparation was good and they played hard tonight.”

Eventually, a question was asked. Belichick stared into the middle distance. He appeared to be imagining some empty, perspectiveless afterlife in which jaunty supermarket Muzak was overlaid with the tortured screams of this interrogator. Then he snapped to and answered, “It was good team defense, which it always is when you play good.”

There were a few more questions about special teams. But no one asked the question that I wanted answered, the only question to ask, I thought, which was: “Bill, how does it feel to be so controlling? So single-minded? To be heir to — and apotheosis of — Vince Lombardi, George S. Patton and Niccolo Machiavelli? At what cost is this success? How can this possibly be enjoyable, still? Who are you?”

There was a lull in the back-and-forth. Camera shutters clicked together like insect legs. Belichick sucked his lips inward, nodded. A wall-mounted digital clock blinked past midnight. I thought about asking my question. He climbed off the dais and left.”

 

 

2 Responses to “Something About Something I Just Read”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    Do you still dislike Belichick after reading this? I mean, if you can like A-Rod I would hope Bill’s status with you is raised at least a little.

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