Sports and literature seem an unlikely pair. The flashing jumbotrons, the tabloid scandals, the frenzied branding—for the undiscerning non-fan, sports can be all flash and no substance. But good sportswriting draws out a game’s inherent drama. The prose becomes the lens through which intricate feats, sublime triumphs, and the athletes themselves gain focus. It’s in pursuit of these awesome glimpses of human potential that sports and literature converge, capturing what is, in fact, a deeply compelling part of our culture.
For this roundtable discussion, we convened a group of writers whose work continues to remind us about the value and thrill of sports. We asked them to talk about their methods and influences, the genre’s history, and to give us an idea of why it’s so damn fun to write about sports.
Nic Brown is the author of the short story collection Floodmarkers, which was published in 2009 and selected as an Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review. His novel Doubles, set in the world of professional tennis, was published in July 2010.
Chad Harbach is an editor of n+1. His novel The Art of Fielding will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2011.
Will Leitch is the author of four books, including Are We Winning: Fathers and Sons and The New Golden Age of Baseball. He is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the founder of Deadspin. He lives in Brooklyn.
Pasha Malla is the author of two books and a contributor to FreeDarko’s upcoming Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, as well as features about sports for the Globe & Mail, Ryeberg, and The Morning News 2008 Annual. His first novel, People Park, will be released in late 2011.
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a regular contributor to AOL FanHouse. He has also written for Sports Illustrated, Slate, and the Nation. FreeDarko’s first book The Macrophenomenal Basketball Almanac, was published in 2008. The followup, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be published in November.
Let’s start off with a fun one. What’s one specific moment in sports that made you want to write about it?
Chad Harbach: In 1998, Mark Wohlers, an all-star reliever for the Atlanta Braves, suddenly lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. He was sent down to the minors (a great humiliation for such an established player) and struggled there too. In July, in a series against the Brewers, the Braves tried to work him back into their bullpen. Throwing a baseball into the catcher’s mitt was something Wohlers had done with ease all his life; it was like breathing for him, but now he could no longer breathe. He fired a ball 10 feet over the catcher’s head. He walked around the back of the mound, gathered himself, and did it again. He was sweating profusely, his face turned a purplish color—he was essentially having an anxiety attack in front of 48,544 people, plus a TV audience. After two batters, the manager took him out. The next day he pitched a full inning, with worse results. (The Brewers are my hometown team, and I happened to see both games on TV.) The agony on his face was evident—every pitch was a referendum on his entire being, or at least he’d convinced himself that this was true. It felt cruel and voyeuristic to watch. His teammates and coaches and the fans treated him very tenderly, and that made it all the sadder, because athletes don’t want to be treated tenderly. Something like this has happened to enough prominent ballplayers—Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel—that it has a pseudo-medical name: Steve Blass Disease. Few of them ever play as well as they did before. The phenomenon—of becoming unable, for mysterious psychological reasons, to do what one has always been best at; and of having to come to terms with that in a very public way—was something I always wanted to write about, and eventually became part of my book.
I longed to be the next Leigh Montville. I thought Leigh Montville was a woman. Leigh Montville, it turned out, was never a woman.
Will Leitch: It was actually in 1989, when Nick Anderson hit a last-second shot from three-quarters to give my beloved Illini a win over hated Indiana and its monstrous Patton-esque coach Bobby Knight. It was good over evil, and a 13-year-old Will Leitch danced and laughed and accidentally hugged his father. (Gross!) It was such a powerful moment, the idea that sports can make you feel euphoric like nothing else can, and I knew I wanted to capture that moment.
Pasha Malla: Whenever an athlete does something completely new, something we’ve never seen before, it excites in fans a need to talk about it, to figure out what’s happened and share it with other people. The trick of writing about this stuff, I think, is to use language to make sports bigger, to explore and expand them without deflating or explaining away any of their magic. In my case, I turned to trying to write about sports right around the time I started to suck at playing them—maybe when I was scrimmaging with a college team in Australia and threw a wide open lay-up over the top of the backboard.
Bethlehem Shoals: This question would be a lot easier if I had cared about writing when I was a kid and I spent most of my time thinking about baseball, basketball, football, and even bits of hockey. Or if, when I got serious about writing in high school, I hadn’t been going through a “sports are evil” phase. By the time my friends and I started our sports blog, FreeDarko, I had done a decent amount of music criticism, and was in grad school for American studies. Typing for a few minutes when I had a stray thought about Kobe Bryant didn’t strike me as anything particularly special. That said, I know exactly when I decided there was a point to writing about sports. It was one of the many weekday nights I spent watching the Phoenix Suns in early 2005. The Suns rattled off what was, for them, a commonplace sequence: Steve Nash alley-oop to Amar’e Stoudemire from the top of the key; rebound at the other end by Shawn Marion, who flipped it to Nash and then sprinted downcourt for the dunk; and, then, a deflected shot that Nash tossed all the way back to a cherry-picking Quentin Richardson, who sank the long three. The Suns put together plenty of 7-0 runs that season, all plenty exciting. But this one was so effortless, so perfect, that it actually moved me. I started calling everyone I know to tell them how… happy I felt. Out of college, I wanted to write about music because writing seemed like an act of love or devotion. Criticism was a necessary corollary of art, a way to get at the meaning underneath the visceral experience, or at the meaning of that experience. While I sometimes dismiss my stuff as “music writing about sports,” I wouldn’t balk at the label “sports criticism.”
Katie Baker: My family subscribed to two newspapers: the Trenton Times and the Trentonian. The latter at least instilled in me a lifelong appreciation for the dark beauty of the tabloid, but the former was totally bland—AP-style beat writing, mailed-in columns, two-word paragraphs, etc. At some point (presumably in 1994, the most important year of my childhood) my dad brought home from work a copy of the New York Times for me to read. I pestered him for it every day after that, calling him at work, reminding him not to forget it, sulking when he did. It blew my mind. After constant exposure to the Trenton Times’ hacky rants and voiceless filler, discovering the “Sports of the Times” columns by Dave Anderson and George Vecsey was like sailing to a new continent, one populated by benevolent geniuses who shared my same interests in Patrick Ewing and Brian Leetch. It was impossible to believe my luck! Even the daily game recaps had a pulse. That was the gateway drug. I subscribed to Sports Illustrated soon after and you can imagine the eye-opening pleasure of a girl’s first Gary Smith. I longed to work at SI, and in particular to be the next Leigh Montville. I thought Leigh Montville was a woman. Leigh Montville, it turned out, was never a woman.
Nic Brown: I was traveling with my good friend, the doubles tennis champion Tripp Phillips, who I’ve known since I was a teenager. As a doubles player, he doesn’t travel with the entourage often associated with professional athletes, so those of us who actually care can often cash in on the benefits of his generosity. I was seated in the coach’s box for his appearance in the 2006 U.S. Open semifinals. I was so excited I thought I was going to cry. I’m pretty sure I was more amped up than Tripp was. In any case, Tripp is a habitual practical joker, and at some point in his past he had told a reporter that his father was a linebacker for the Washington Redskins. This was patently not true, as even a cursory glance at his father would prove. Which is what happened when the CBS cameraman panned to the coach’s box where Tripp’s father was sitting and commentator Patrick McEnroe said, “And there’s Phillips’s father, linebacker for the 1978 Washington Redskins.” There was an on-air beat, and then his partner said, “Linebacker? We’re going to check our stats.” Clearly some intern had Googled Tripp and found this juicy nugget of nonsense. Those of us in the box were assailed with text messages immediately. In the resulting few weeks, I found myself retelling the story so many times that I figured I needed to write it down. The product wasn’t interesting, but the fictionalized version of it gave me an entrance to the world of doubles tennis as a narrative landscape, which, namely because of the partnership aspect of doubles, coupled with the sport’s weird redheaded stepchild profile, made it a perfect dramatic space for me to start working in.
Can you talk a bit about one of your favorite sportswriters or sports pieces?
Will Leitch: My favorite sportswriter is probably Pat Jordan, who writes for Deadspin occasionally and is so talented and uncompromising and out of control that he’s the only person on earth to write a brilliant story for the New Yorker, then be kicked off the Today show because he was too drunk, and then still write for the New Yorker afterward. A compilation of his best stories, edited by Alex Belth, came out a couple of years ago and is absolutely required reading.
Bethlehem Shoals: My all-time favorite piece of sportswriting is Woody Allen’s 1977 essay on New York Knicks guard Earl Monroe, which appeared in Sport. It helps that it’s Woody Allen, but it’s just as important to me that Woody Allen is not a traditional sportswriter, and that his take on Monroe is anything but traditional. Given what a Knicks superfan Allen is, it’s notable that much of the piece is spent discussing Monroe’s early days with the Baltimore Bullets, and that the focus is as much on the poetry of Monroe’s game as it is his impact on the competition. Discovering it made me feel a good deal less original, but it was good to know that there were precedents for the way I approached basketball, and these precedents had also been responsible for Love and Death.
Pasha Malla: Shoals and I actually met at a Woody Allen costume party—he came dressed as Alvy Singer, and I was Zelig. So obviously I really dig that piece, too. To me it perfectly articulates the vanity and struggle of sportswriting trying to capture “a gift of grace and magical flair the (unfortunately racialized) athlete possesses that can never be reduced to anything but poetry.”
Bethlehem Shoals: I’m also a huge fan of Tommy Craggs, senior editor at Deadspin. Tommy is a simply phenomenal writer who could also go toe-to-toe with any sports nerd anywhere. His longer stuff is just fantastic; these Slate pieces on the interpretation of Kevin Love, and the myth of Stephen Curry, remind you why “essayist” is a title one has to earn. But it’s not just that Craggs is a ferociously strong, smart voice. He can get as literate as the next guy, or push sports to their theoretical limits, without any preciousness or harsh angles. There’s a reason why, somewhat improbably, one of the best young sports writers could also be one of the most widely read. At the risk of sounding pat, or saying too many nice things about a friend of mine, Tommy’s a lot like those Suns in that way.
A favorite sports novel has to convey an expert knowledge and love of the sport at hand, but also must retain some ambivalence about the (extremely large) role of sports in our society.
Will Leitch: As someone with some Deadspin history, I couldn’t possibly agree more on Craggs, by the way. To watch him grow into the role over there, to the point that he practically owns the place, has been thrilling to watch. It makes me feel extremely lucky I got to Deadspin before Nick Denton (and A.J., of course) found Craggs. Everything Craggs writes makes everything I wrote on that site look progressively dumber.
Katie Baker: I still have a huge bias toward NYT writers. I love Richard Sandomir and Judy Battista a lot. Sorry, this is more than one. I hadn’t realized this until I stopped to think about it, but Richard Ben Cramer has written two of my favorite profiles: one on Ted Williams for Esquire and the other a just devastating biography of Joe DiMaggio. (I’ll never make my bed again without recalling the tidbit that a local whorehouse stocked cotton sheets just for Joe after he complained that his knees kept slipping on the satin.) And oh lordy, he is writing about A-Rod next! But the piece that grabbed me and never let go is “The String Theory” by David Foster Wallace, which is ostensibly about a young professional tennis player named Michael Joyce qualifying for a tournament but is really about T-shirts and physics and IQ and exponents and how much Wallace hates Agassi (“his domination…doesn’t make me like him any better; it’s more like it chills me, as if I’m watching the devil play.”) It’s the glorious opposite of the sport’s typically bubbly coverage. When you’re reading Wallace, tennis has never been more relatable or more melancholy. “The applause of a tiny crowd,” Wallace writes, “is so small and sad and tattered-sounding that it’d almost be better if people didn’t clap at all.”
Nic Brown: I recently read Levels of the Game by John McPhee (an Arthur Ashe biography of sorts told through the lens of a single match), which was a big influence on me. It avoided exploiting the built-in drama of sport for emotional manipulation, the prose was utterly precise, and it was interesting for reasons almost entirely separate from the sport—which is, of course, what really matters. I love what Hemingway wrote about bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon because he was so clearly obsessed with the subject. The feeling it left me with was a huge appreciation for connoisseurship and a desire to find anything I could ever be that passionate about. But my favorite is going to have to be “Federer as Religious Experience,” the essay David Foster Wallace published in the New York Times Magazine in 2006, concerning—of course—the tennis star Roger Federer. It wasn’t until well after reading it that I realized Wallace wrote the entire piece without ever once interviewing the subject. I think it was his most generous work—to himself, and to the reader. It seemed like he was having fun, not something I associate with much else of his work. He also just knew so much about the subject and was so damn smart that it made every sentence leap screaming off the page. Again, the piece was excellent because it was really about beauty, obsession, precision, and the mysteries of the human condition. It just also happened to be about tennis as well.
Chad Harbach: Several people have already talked about David Foster Wallace, and Wallace’s essay about Michael Joyce is certainly my all-time favorite. I’d also recommend John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are. It’s a short book—McPhee’s first—about Bill Bradley, when Bradley was playing basketball for Princeton (and, amazingly, taking an otherwise mediocre Princeton team to the Final Four). It’s probably the most lucid description of athletic greatness ever written. You read it in one sitting, and you wind up just sort of awash in admiration and not knowing which guy, Bradley or McPhee, is better at what he does.
Wow, a lot of love for David Foster Wallace. I’m wondering about the parts of Infinite Jest that focus on tennis. Nic, were those passages on your mind at all when you were writing Doubles?
Nic Brown: I reread those sections as I was writing the book, just to see how Wallace handled tennis within the context of a literary novel. And, for the most part, he did what I was setting out to do, which was basically have the details of tennis serve as window dressing on a story that is essentially about something else entirely. So, no, it wasn’t really on my mind. But I do have to agree with Katie about the Michael Joyce piece that Wallace wrote. It really captures the realities of lower-level tennis tournaments in a way that captivates and is similar to the world I was hoping to portray in Doubles. The dialectic between the reality of an athlete, perhaps one of the best in the world at what he does, playing in front of no one in some godforsaken corner of the globe is really pretty compelling and, as Katie points out, very melancholy.
What’s one of your favorite sports novels?
Will Leitch: I just used Pat Jordan, so I can’t say A False Spring—though I would totally say A False Spring—so I’ll go with The Great American Novel by Philip Roth. It’s weird how profoundly he captures baseball in this weird, almost elliptical way.
Nic Brown: Barry Hannah’s weird little novel The Tennis Handsome is up there for me for reasons which, as I’ve said before, are pretty much unrelated to any sport-related content. In fact, most of the narrative in that book is secondary too, all in service of the language. Which is, of course, totally explosive and hilarious. What a freak. I love him.
Even when my life was a total mess, I could tell you everything about the laughable Golden State Warriors.
Bethlehem Shoals: True, if embarrassing: For at least a few months, a roommate nicknamed me “The Tennis Handsome.” Barry Hannah is my favorite author ever, and she was trying to convince me to wear a preppy, possibly tweed, coat she had picked out for me. I should add that I am extremely ugly.
Pasha Malla: I was a soccer goalie for years—until a teammate accidentally kicked my face in, anyway—and, as a nine or 10-year-old, one of my favorite books was Brian Glanville’s Goalkeepers Are Different. My strongest memory of it is when the main character, who’s been given a shot at the pros, lets in a bad goal and stands there watching the ball trickle over the line. That helpless, sinking feeling was something I knew very well and extended to all sorts of things beyond soccer; it was the first honest expression of failure I’d read and recognized, anywhere, and might have been the first time a book expressed exactly how I felt about anything. More recently I read Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which isn’t really a sports novel, though the final image (a save) echoed and somehow redeemed that moment from the Glanville novel.
Chad Harbach: A favorite sports novel, at least for me, has to convey an expert knowledge and love of the sport at hand, but also has to retain some ambivalence about the (extremely large) role of sports in our society. Otherwise you wind up with flat sentimentalism. If I have to pick just one, I’ll go with Don DeLillo’s End Zone, about a college football team in West Texas. It’s DeLillo’s funniest book, and maybe even his best—a virtually perfect short novel. (And it gets extra points for having exerted an obvious influence on my runner-up choice, Infinite Jest.)
George Plimpton is famous for always playing a sport before he would write about it. He pitched in an All-Star Game, he boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson, he played as a goalie in a game for the Boston Bruins, etc. Will, Chad, and Nic: Did you do much hands-on research for your novels about sports?
Nic Brown: Last night I played an exhibition tennis match with a very accomplished professional tennis player as research for an article I’m writing. This might create the impression that I am a really good tennis player. I am not. I bow to Plimpton on paving the way for me on this one. I also spent quite a bit of time traveling around to tennis tournaments over the years and hanging out with some of the lower-level players, which gave me almost all of the content I needed when it came to inside info for my novel. Other than the match last night, though, almost none of that was research, exactly. It was almost all just hanging out with my friend who happened to be a tennis player. The book came after the fact, but came out of those stories I’d accrued over time.
Will Leitch: A large part of my book (Are We Winning: Fathers And Sons And The New Golden Age of Baseball) is about how, historically speaking, the most popular and successful era in baseball is right now. So I did a lot of research into the financials and off-field statistics of baseball. I also talked to Bob Bowman, head of MLB Advanced Media. But otherwise: Yeah, I just riffed about my own shit.
When I see an athlete compete, it is pure magic, unattainable and alien. I know I can’t do what he or she does, and so I relax and give myself up to it.
Katie Baker: This question wasn’t directed at me, but since you mention George Plimpton: there is a great interview in the Paris Review with Katherine Dunn where she says that Plimpton called her shortly before he died and asked to include one of her pieces about boxing in a collection he was editing. I mention this because Dunn herself spent time training as a boxer: “I’d been writing about the sport for a dozen years by then and wanted to know what boxers endured, what it felt like,” she said. Her literary preparation ultimately paid off last fall when she kicked the ass of a would-be purse snatcher! Or, in her words: “I punched her out until the cavalry arrived. Most fun I’ve had in years.”
Chad Harbach: I played shortstop in high school, and now I’m the assistant captain of the n+1 softball team—not exactly Plimptonesque. But anyone who longed as a kid to become a great athlete probably had an intense enough set of physical and emotional and psychological experiences to last through a lifetime of writing.
Pasha Malla: I can’t imagine writing about a sport I’ve never played, though I’ve been working on a “Canadian hockey jingoism is stupid” thing for a while, and I never really played hockey (though I’m a huge Montreal Canadiens fan). But a piece like that is no fun to write, so crotchety and didactic. To me, writing about sports is most enjoyable when it’s all exuberant celebration, and I feel like a lot of that comes from having played a sport, gotten about as good as I was ever going to get, and only then really appreciating what the best athletes are doing. Maybe part of sportswriting is envy… I don’t know.
Why do you think sports is such a rich source for literature?
Nic Brown: Sport is the perfect dramatic device. Any game has a built-in narrative arc that creates conflict and then resolves it. But, for me, that’s not why it compels in a lasting way. It’s the fact that high-level athletes are such freakish, single-minded overachievers. They care so much, are so specialized, and have put so much work into their craft that they are, each of them, infinitely fascinating. For me, especially in the pantheon of contemporary fiction, a character that has lifted himself to perfection is often a more engaging one than some disaffected slacker. I also appreciate the minutia, tradition, and emotion folded into each sport in such distinct and profoundly odd ways.
Pasha Malla: One thing I’ve been noticing during the World Cup, this time around, is how closely the British announcers’ commentary resembles narration in short fiction. It’s all about crafting a narrative with the greatest economy of language, and so many of those guys, like John Motson and Clive Tyldesley, are masters of building tension and creating drama with a few, judiciously chosen words.
Will Leitch: Because writers love to write about things that they can’t do but desperately wish they could. And because we love to imagine athletes are thinking deeper, more self-examining thoughts than they actually are. Through literature, we can fill them out as people in a way they aren’t in real life. We turn them into the human beings we want them to be, giving them attributes that they either don’t have or cannot verbalize themselves.
Katie Baker: I agree with Nic about the absorbing abnormality of elite athletes. (Jon Krakauer, as good of a literary sports writer as any mentioned above, has compared extreme mountain climbers to religious fundamentalists, calling them both zealots.) We spoke a lot about David Foster Wallace above, and this is one theme he writes about often—the clash between what we want or expect from our great athletes and exactly what it is that makes those athletes great. The title of one such piece is self-explanatory: “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” We’ve all been there! Although now we have Ron Artest thanking his therapist and turning everything on its head, pun maybe intended.
Some of you have mentioned starting out with sports as a kid. Is there an element of sentimentality when you write about sports? If so, does that at all concern you?
Bethlehem Shoals: I think sports are inherently sentimental, the same way pop is. That’s not something I necessarily hide from, unless someone’s tasked me with writing a game recap. But there is a big difference between letting several decades worth of memories and associations flood that writing, and just being open to fact that sports make you feel something.
Will Leitch: I am a sentimental person by nature, so whenever I’m writing about anything, my first instinct is to tamp that down. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being sentimental about sports, as long as it’s real sentiment, not Rick Reilly sentiment.
When my team wins, I am happy. When my team loses, I am sad. Nothing in life is that simple and powerful and easy.
Nic Brown: I have the opposite feeling. I was never an athlete growing up, just always into assorted arts. I skateboarded some, and yeah, played some tennis, but nothing really. So, since, childhood, I feel like if I watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, or view a piece of art, I engage with the work on a critical level that doesn’t exist when I watch sports. It’s as if, when I encounter art, a completive reaction occurs that immediately dictates I question whether I could do that, if I could create it, if it has been constructed the way I might approve of. When I see an athlete compete, on the other hand, it is pure magic, unattainable and alien. I know I can’t do what he or she does, and so I relax and give myself up to it a bit more. Also, because I became a sports fan later in life, the whole world of athletics seems exotic and counterculture to me in an odd and exciting way.
Pasha Malla: What’s wrong with a little sentiment? I think part of what attracts me to sports is that they excite the same feelings now that they did when I was a kid, twirling a towel around my head in front of the TV as the Minnesota Twins won the ‘87 World Series, or drawing pencil crayon pictures of Patrick Roy making an incredible glove save on the back of my math homework. For about 10 years of my life, sports were absolutely everything, and while that obsession has subsided (you know, somewhat), the wonder and awe and joy and misery they still inspire are such pure, unfettered emotions—and I think that’s awesome.
Do you think writing about sports appeals more to men than women?
Katie Baker: A 1986 profile written by Rick Reilly in a past life describes the great Jim Murray’s acerbic-but-observant prose as being “the kind of stuff that the guy with a stopwatch hanging from his neck hated, but almost everybody else liked—especially women. ‘I love your column,’ one female fan wrote him, ‘even when I don’t know what you’re talking about.’” When someone starts loving to read about sports, they’re that much closer to wanting to write about sports. I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I bet if you compared the writes-about-sports : likes-sports ratios across genders you would find the women’s to be higher. Which is nice and all but it’s only because the men’s denominator is larger by several orders of magnitude. In general it’s just easier to baseline exist unmolested as a casual observer of sports if you are a man. There’s this dumb thing that happens where a woman will say, idly, ”I hope the Lakers win!” and someone will snarl, “Oh yeah? Name five players on the team besides Kobe.” You don’t hear that being said to a guy. In the beer line at Shea we roll our eyes at the girl in the tie-dyed Alyssa Milano-brand Mets tank but give her drunk dope of a boyfriend in the black Piazza jersey a ‘what’s up’. It’s cool: He probably has a fantasy team. Then again, it’s probably also the case that most women are simply too smart to voluntarily surround themselves with press box shrimp cocktail or like, professional athletes all day.
Bethlehem Shoals: Not to turn this into the all-purpose gender section, but I feel like women sometimes get into sports after realizing they’re worth writing about (well). As opposed to men, who are hard-wired to throw balls around.
Chad Harbach: Hmm. Advertisers say that men watch more sports than women, and publishers say that women read more writing than men. Tie!
Pasha Malla: To add to Katie’s answer about how we gender sports fans, and how women are unfairly demanded to earn their stripes: Amen.
Roger Angell, in a piece about Boston Red Sox fans at the 1975 World Series, once wrote:
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amusing superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut… is understandable and unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.
What makes you want to care about sports?
Chad Harbach: Whoa. Is that true? I mean, it’s true (much truer, post-ESPN, than it was in 1975) that fanship is foolish on its face, insignificant, and commercially exploitative. And it’s also true that people care about sports. And it’s also probably true that as a society we’ve constructed elaborate ways to deflect ourselves from having to care deeply and passionately about precisely those things we should care deeply and passionately about, like, say, global warming. But it strikes me as odd to suggest that sports somehow tap into a capacity for deep caring that has otherwise been lost or severely curtailed. How special (or devious) sports would have to be, to latch onto the last bit of our humanity like that. And yet! I go back to D.F.W.’s essay about Michael Joyce: “The radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art—something few of us get to be.” I guess I care about sports because I consider athletes artists, and admire their art, and also because (this is largely what Wallace’s essay is about) they’re the artists that our society most nurtures and encourages—as a group, you could say that we’re so-so at producing poets or novelists or painters, but tremendous at producing athletes. Which means not only that our athletes perform at levels that are extremely fun to watch, but also that they play out our personal struggles on the biggest possible stage.
Will Leitch: When my team wins, I am happy. When my team loses, I am sad. Nothing in life is that simple and powerful and easy. Think about the last time you actively jumped up into the air in joy. It was probably during a sporting event. Typically the only other thing that makes me leap like that is, I dunno, maybe a spider. Sports gets out emotions that are unacceptable or tamped down in normal life, and makes them acceptable, even encouraged.
Bethlehem Shoals: In high school, I worked at a restaurant and one of the most powerful waiters was an older, balding, gay Deadhead named Ron. Ron had part of a graduate degree in philosophy from U.N.C., and I wanted to study philosophy, so we talked a lot. He was a rabid sports fan, which always perplexed me. So I pressed him on it. The obvious answer would have been “in Chapel Hill, sports are part of the lifestyle here,” but instead, Ron launched into a monologue about traveling the country, moving around, and often showing up in new towns lonely and depressed. No matter where he went, the box scores in the paper were constant, and reassuring. He followed every sport, college, pro, even some minor leagues. On some level, I had to think it was just to give him some grounding in his life. The ritual of reading box scores meant far more to him than all the contradictions that Ron, sports fan, seemed to raise for me. He told me I would understand one day, which seemed rather ominous at the time. Toward the end of college, I started back with the N.B.A. and stuck with it. Maybe Ron was right; even when my life was a total mess, I could tell you everything about the laughable Golden State Warriors.
Katie Baker: It has to build character the way we submit ourselves to such cruel whiplash, right? Endy Chavez makes a catch so wrist-bending that my own bones throb in happy sympathy until Carlos Beltran goes down looking, boom, over like the fucking Sopranos finale. Lawrence Tynes misses two gimme field goals late in regulation and I hide in a Bozeman, Mont., bar bathroom with my face in my hands, pacing and cursing and silently pleading, while my blithely agnostic friends remain at the bar downing shots bought for them by some dudes wearing cheeseheads. Then Tynes nails it in overtime, just through the uprights, and I’ve never leapt higher nor hugged so many strangers.
Pasha Malla: Besides your pants catching on fire, what else can make you, home alone in front of the TV, jump involuntarily out of your seat and roar?