News & Politics » Michael Miner on Media

Our itch to write about jocks

When journalists preach on sport's Big Themes, they're lecturing the wayward


  • Jon Strauss

Big-league sports can't figure out what to do with their all-star games. The NFL's Pro Bowl is a dog because when football players go through the motions the game is unwatchable. The NBA game gets by because top basketball players entertain when they showboat. The NHL seemed to change its all-star format annually before last year turning to a choose-up-sides approach straight from the playground. And baseball has tried to rescue its game by using it to decide which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series.

The problem with baseball's all-star game, I've read more than once or twice, was that being a mere exhibition game it didn't matter. That is not a deep analysis of the problem. When I was a kid the game decided which league was top dog—what mattered more than that? The all-star game became a mere exhibition game when the players and fans began to think of it as an exhibition—or, to be more precise, when the media began to report it as an exhibition, sending an ex-kid the tacit message to grow up.

But here's the thing: every baseball game is an exhibition. The World Series winner is the world champion of what, exactly? Its claim is to some sort of Candyland supremacy that lasts roughly as long as the victory parade and means nothing to anyone beyond the game. If, say, a member of the world champion Saint Louis Cardinals swaggered into a bar in Kazakhstan demanding fealty, what reason would the regulars there have not to hit him in the head and throw him out on his ear?

Meaning in sports is up to us. The rapture of victory is wonderful, but to get that giddy rush it's necessary to close our minds against everything we normally know about irrelevance.

The difference between a Super Bowl played before 90,000 fans in the stands and 111 million watching on television and a rock climber inching up a precipice in total solitude isn't in the athletes. It's in the audience. It's in who knows and who cares. Which brings me to the role journalists play in determining what we know and how much we care. I've long thought that role was largely ridiculous, but I'm beginning to see things differently.

Sportswriters are our high priests in the business of establishing meaning. On Friday, February 17, David Brooks of the New York Times published a column called "The Jeremy Lin Problem" that mused on the meaning of the Knicks phenom. Brooks—a Jeremy Lin turns us all into sportswriters—churned up the murky waters of the deepest depths. An Asian-American in the NBA, Lin is an even "bigger anomaly" than that, in Brooks's view: "He's a religious person in professional sports . . .

"We shouldn't forget how problematic this is," Brooks went on. "The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim." The first is oriented "around victory and supremacy," the second "about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God." Ascent in sport is a "straight shot," in faith "a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself." Brooks proceeded to the "morality of majesty and the morality of humility" described by the Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, and he concluded by taking a shot at those who deny the contradiction that he'd just parsed exists because they "want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean." On the basis of other Brooks columns, I surmise he had secular liberals in mind, but I can't be sure of that. My sense is that he reread his piece, had no more idea of what he was driving at than I do, and then made a valiant attempt to tie it in to the sort of conservative critique his regulars read him for.

Here is what I took away from Brooks's column: We just can't help ourselves. When a Jeremy Lin comes along journalists pour into the breach. (Brooks wasn't even the only pundit weighing in on Lin on the Times op-ed page that day: novelist Gish Jen contributed something headlined "Asian Men Can Jump.") It's up to the scribes to assert what a Jeremy Lin means because until they get the job done there is no meaning; there is only novelty and the fun of cheering on an unexpected new talent. When a Lin comes along there's important work to do, analogous to the task of making a football game in January transcendentally important by saying it is and pointing to the TV commercials as evidence.

In one respect, Lin is an exception. When journalists preach on sport's Big Themes, normally they're lecturing the wayward.

Texas Ranger slugger Josh Hamilton fell off the wagon. Patrick Rishe of Forbes addressed his remarks to Shayne Kelley, hired by the Rangers to try to keep Hamilton clean.

"Perhaps, Mr. Kelley, you should have Mr. Hamilton sit down and read all about the rise and fall of Ms. [Whitney] Houston. Have him YouTube some of her best performances when she was at the height of her career, and then look-up photos and videos of her during her troubled times.

"Because this will remind Mr. Hamilton that nothing is forever and that substance abuse destroys."

The Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, recently visited the White House. Goalie Tim Thomas did not attend. He wouldn't answer questions from reporters, but on his Facebook page he said he didn't like the way the country was going and had issues with President Obama.

A high-minded Ken Campbell of the Hockey News made it clear that Thomas had every right to express his opinion. Nonetheless, his "ill-advised" boycott had to be addressed. "If Thomas keeps this up, he risks becoming a cartoon character," Campbell warned. "Until this season, Thomas was known as the champion of the underdog, a guy who emerged from meager beginnings, clawed his way to the NHL by playing for years in obscurity in Finland and became an NHL star and won a Stanley Cup. It's his right to do so, but he's starting to tarnish that legacy."

This yammering brings me to where I want to get, which is to journalists as guardians of sporting legacies. As you know, the keys to Valhalla have been placed in the hands of baseball writers; they are the ones who decide who enters baseball's Hall of Fame. And though the voting is secret, most believe in sunshine and dutifully enlighten their readers on how they voted and why. Some discourse at length on their high-mindedness.

A few baseball writers have made fitful attempts to establish a common set of standards for dealing with the trickiest issue they face—the Hall of Fame candidacies of players implicated in steroid use. But most reject the idea. They much prefer to let each voter's conscience be his guide—not to mention grist for the annual story on why he won't be voting for Mark McGwire that by now he can write in his sleep.

So here's what we have: Journalists make the news; they cover the news they make; and they write up their reasons for making the news the way they made it. Because this situation is preposterous, for a long time I thought it was wrong. But now I don't. Big-league baseball in all its grandeur is basically a figment of the media. It's an aura that threatens to disperse the moment some little boy cries, "Why, those are just grown men running around in bloomers." No one wants that to happen, so it is the sacred responsibility of the game's balladeers to preserve the aura, to find in those men and those bloomers the moral equivalent of war and the sociological equivalent of manifest destiny. Who else but they should shoulder the ultimate responsibility: to define and distribute immortality?

I'm reminded of something Bobby Knight is supposed to have sneered at a sportswriter: "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things." What he went on to was a life dedicated to a skill the sportswriter probably learned in kindergarten—bouncing a ball. That consideration was lost on Knight; unfortunately, it apparently also was lost on the sportswriter whose life's work was to make Knight's ball bouncing seem important. If he'd been more self-aware, he might have given Knight the comeback he deserved. Then again, he might not have been a very happy sportswriter.

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