Introduction Most sports writing operates at a disadvantage - the disadvantage being that it's about sports. No matter how the culture tries to amplify it, sports (especially the spectator kind) is simply not a very serious human pursuit. Oh, yes, people make handsome livings at it - playing it, owning it, promoting it, litigating it, televising it, remembering it, even writing about it. People occasionally even die from it or have their lives markedly changed because of it (bungee jumping with a poorly measured cord, stroking out at a hockey game, hitting your horse at OTB). Sports, as well, enters our lives vertically in all sorts of other influential ways: lavishly consuming our dollars and our precious time; infiltrating and corrupting our language and with it our ways of representing, even assessing, what is important ("They're playing for all the marbles over there in Kosovo"; "It's fourth and long in that Russian economy"). And sports routinely promotes into our attention real people who have no real reason to be there except that they're very tall, or very fat, or very bad-tempered, or very rich or like tattoos. These same people are then promoted (often by sports writers) as interesting models for our human behavior and conduct, so that we often go away confused about what's good and what's bad.
There are other kinds of sports, of course, the kinds we perform ourselves rather than simply observe at distances or on TV. And because we choose to do these, because we act them, sometimes gain pleasurable skills from them, draw close to experience through them, they can begin to seem less unserious. They can even take over our lives in ways we or our loved ones don't like (golf addiction, tennis addiction, canasta addiction). But they can also give us relief from noxious duties, distract us from our bad decisions or dreams, contribute to our fantasies, harden our muscles, keep us in mind of our youths, etc., etc. Positive things - as far as they go.
Each may have its downsides, but nothing's really wrong with these sporting realms. Nobody seriously wants them to quit existing. Part of their satisfying unimportance includes their having almost no victims, offering as little as possible to worry about, being morally uncomplicated - indeed, in their having almost no innate importance whatsoever, except what observers and participants decide to dream up for them. They're free, in the sense of gratuitous. And in a world that seems not always free of what sports are innocent of (moral consequence), this makes them seem good, sometimes even important.
What each of these realms lacks, and what might (in another world) promote either to a plain of genuine importance, is some feature of moral necessity, some "I can do no other" quality of human motive - that spiritual standard by which we routinely appraise action and character and deem each lasting because the events and changes they occasion are so inescapable and important that we employ them to help us understand who we are: if we're good or if we're bad, rather than just good at or bad at something.
Oh, I know. The lives of important brain surgeons and army generals and cult novelists have been lengthened, their thoughts clarified, their decisions made more certain because they fished for trout on the Rangeley Lakes or played varsity squash at Princeton or exceeded at curling up in Manitoba. Whizzer White became a Supreme Court standout only after (and impliedly because of) his All-American football days at Colorado. The scholar-athlete, that deeply serious unserious soul, holds a place of almost Apollonian esteem among American hero figures as the perfection of the sporting ethic made consequential outside of sport: the lessons of the gridiron served young Jonkel well in his march to the statehouse in Bismarck . . . Ja, ja, ja.
Only they didn't have to play sports in the way, say, Hamlet has to kill his uncle. They merely wanted to. And indeed, each of these characters could've done something else - or better yet, done nothing but sit home reading books - and everything would've worked out fine. The really impressive part is that sports didn't cripple their progress more than it did. Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen, by which he meant that poetry causes many important things - we just can't see them. But sports really does cause very little of lasting value to happen in the world, except by accident. And this is the fundamental element of sports' character that sports writing has to wrestle with and overcome in order to make itself interesting.
Twenty-five years ago, I used to listen to a sports call-in show in L. A. wherein a guy who billed himself simply aas "Superfan," and whom I envisioned as a congenial cross between Harry Von Zell and Walter Winchell, nightly dispensed vital sports info, intervvvvviewed colorful celebrity sports guests, mediated fan disputes, issued insider wisdom on local teams - in essence did all he could using the AM band to make himself a vicar for citizen needs and to assure us that there was a benevolent good, and his name was sport.
And he was great. My wife and I, without a TV, used to eat our dinner, get finished with whatever piddling duties we had, and then park ourselves on the couch in our little beach house and utterly immerse ourselves, sometimes for two hours a night, in whatever Superfan had on his mind: Dodger news (Marichal was making a comeback with a new club; it fizzled), Laker championship prospects (they won with Wilt and Zeke), Ram quarterback indecision (pretty much the same as now). Like the song says, "I'll never know what made it so exciting." Maybe it was just the Technicolor sports universe cracking open to give me a virtual peek. But it was exciting, and the two of us grew completely involved in the little life of the show - in the caricatured personalities of the callers, "Beano from Encino," "Frankie from Oxnard," "Just Newt from the Valley"; in the ironbound dedication of everyone involved to the unquestioned rightness of our dedication to and use of our time for sports. And in Superfan himself, his chummy, voluble willingness to have faith that dark sports clouds would always give way to bright sports sunshine, all the while staying careful not to be a shameless homer.
What I remember most vividly, though, about those evenings lasting into dreamy summer nights was Superfan's boilerplate sign- off, there at the end of each night's séance with the voices of sport's invisible devotees. "Just remember," he'd say, and a certain breathy solemnity would open in his meaty voice as he was packing up before heading out onto the swarming 405, "just remember, folks, that in the crowded department store of life, sports is, after all, just the toy department." Fade to theme.
In the intervening years, I've tried to take counsel from that bit of complex intelligence, not only because it meant to assure me that there are important things in the world and we need to keep our priorities straight about them (Superfan never said what they were), but that it's also important, if not exactly equally so, that we not take everything so seriously; that in the toy department there are genuine attractions worthy of our dedicated notice, and part of what's good about sports is precisely its optional, inessential character, into which we may choose to thrust ourselves a little, or almost wholly. This wisdom has always reminded me of the old stand-up comic's rule that if nothing's funny, nothing's serious. In the world according to Superfan, if everything's serious, maybe nothing is.
Good sports writing - the best sports writing - always comprehends and often engages this fundamental truth about practically everyone's involvement with sports, be they couch-bound or ironman...