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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bobby Knight, bibliophile

I spent most of last week exchanging giggly e-mails with my friends about the Red Sox winning the World Series. We cut and pasted paragraphs from articles and forwarded them to one another giddily: look, the heroic captain Tek gave out candy on Halloween! MVP Mike Lowell makes lavender (or pearly gray) work! Weak-armed traitor Johnny Damon's wife refused to wear a scarf made by Curt Schilling's wife during the 2004 celebration and they nearly came to blows about it (really?!). It's one of the few--OK, several--times a year when I'm seduced by sports section features. I've also been known to get teary during March Madness, when my heart automatically warms to any story about a coach's halftime speech to his Cinderella team. At times like these, I luxuriate in anticipating narrative arcs. It's like a Law & Order marathon on the baseball diamond.

The New York Times published its quarterly Play magazine on the same weekend as the World Series. I liked a lot of the stories, but I was struck by a trend in self-conscious sportswriter narration that ran through several of the stories. It's the old "what makes ATHLETE believe in his abilities when the rest of us--you, the reader, me, the sportswriter--are full of anxiety?" line. Richard Ford wrote the playbook on this line in his 1995 novel, The Sportswriter. The narrator, a sportswriter named Frank Bascombe, describes his job this way:
Athletes, by and large, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them, happy to be what they do. As a result, when you talk to an athlete, as I do all the time in locker rooms, in hotel coffee shops and hallways, standing beside expensive automobiles--even if he's paying no attention to you at all, which is very often the case, he's never likely to feel the least bit divided, or alienated, or one ounce of existential dread. He may be thinking about a case of beer, or a barbecue, or some man-made lake in Oklahoma he wishes he was water-skiing on, or some girl, or a new Chevy shortbed, or a discotheque he owns as a tax shelter, or simply himself. But you can bet he isn't worried one bit about you and what you're thinking. His is a rare selfishness that means he isn't looking around the sides of his emotions to wonder about alternatives for what he's saying or thinking about. In fact, athletes at the height of their powers make literalness into a mystery all its own simply by becoming absorbed in what they're doing. Years of athletic training teach this; the necessity of relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favor of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality which has instant rewards in sports. You can even ruin everything with athletes simply by speaking to them in your own everyday voice, a voice full of contingency and speculation.

I think it's important to note that this isn't a just a description of what Ford's narrator does as his job: that "voice full of contingency and speculation" is the voice of the whole book as he tries to muddle through midlife. I found the novel a hard slog the first time I read it; I remember giving it away to someone and joking, "I just don't care about men's feelings. Not this much." But the scene where Bascombe goes to interview the retired football player stuck with me, and I tried reading it again. I realized that the reason I was so put off by the narrator wasn't his anxiety or self-doubt, it was that Ford was working a difficult angle of writing about a failed writer. Bascombe was a novelist but then stopped when he figured his work wasn't going to improve: "My characters generally embodied the attitude that life is always going to be a damn nasty and probably baffling business, but somebody has to go on slogging through it. This, of course, can eventually lead to terrible cynicism, since I knew life wasn't like that at all--but was a lot more interesting--only I couldn't write about it that way."

Frank Bascombe spends a lot of the novel trying to figure out how to express himself in some other way, and he takes solace in sportswriting because it selects the narratives for him: "What could be better, I thought, and still think? How more eaisly assuage the lifelong ache to anticipate than to write sports--an ache only Zen masters and coma victims can live happily without." So I think it's important to remember that Bascombe's assessment of the "self-championing one-dimensionality" is his own wishful thinking, a reflection of his own doubtful state of mind in the book.

But it's become the go-to assessment in many stories about any athlete's mystery of literalness. Here's selections from a few of the good articles from Play:

From the article about Steve Nash, "Not to Get Too Mystical About It":
What can you say without playing yourself false, or leaving your body completely, when zoo officials who have paid you the compliment of naming a 12-pound female Bengal tiger cub in your honor put the razor-clawed kitty-cat in your arms and stick a microphone in your face? (Shrewdly, Nash channeled Tiger Woods: “It’s pretty special.”) Or for that matter, what about the play-killing questions routinely lobbed by sportswriters after the game?

“It’s always the same three questions,” Nash said. “ ‘What do you think about the game tonight?’ ‘How do you feel about the game tomorrow night?’ ‘What do you think you’ll have to do differently next time?’ I started off trying to answer honestly, and then I tried being ironic, but that didn’t really work either. . . . ”

And then later in the article, Chip Brown talks about how difficult it is to get Nash to explain himself:
As Nash began to fidget on the bench — maybe his back was tightening up, or he was thinking about Lola’s supper, or he was just tired of answering questions and the full-court press of chores entailed in being “Steve Nash” — I remembered something his agent, Bill Duffy, had told me: “With Steve it’s all about the flow.” Flow, of course, being shorthand for that state of mind that artists and athletes strive to enter into, and which in full flood entails an ecstatic expansion of consciousness that releases them from confines of the self and produces crowning moments of creation and performance — not to get too mystical about it. Maybe the truest picture of Nash depended on seeing him in motion, in the flow; whether he was threading a half-court bounce pass or exploiting his small window of fame to get potable water to third world villages or practicing surreptitious acts of generosity, like slipping spending money to the coaches to give to his less wealthy basketball teammates at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Enacting himself, as it were, as opposed to talking about himself.

Then here's Michael Lewis's article about Adam Vinateri, where Lewis talks about Vinateri's ability to separate himself from his skill:
Theoretically, Vinatieri hits every kick exactly the same way. An extra point in a preseason game is to be treated no differently from a 45-yard field goal to win the Super Bowl. He didn't put it quite this way to me — he wouldn't like the way it sounds, I suspect — but everything he does is designed to eliminate himself from the kick. He controls his body out of a suspicion that he cannot control his mind. In his approach to his job, he is not merely making it as unlikely as possible that he will choke, but also as unlikely as possible that he will be forced to view himself as having choked. (How can you choke when you never change what you do?) The end result is a near-perfect self-certainty, which in turn reassures himself, his fans, his teammates and his coaches — to a greater degree than that of any field-goal kicker in National Football League history.

Lewis comapres him to Mike Vanderjagt, who played for the Indianapolis Colts and still holds the NFL record for accuracy in kicking field goals but who also missed a crucial kick in a 2006 playoff game. When Lewis asks Vinateri what would happen if he made a Vanderjagt mistake, Vinateri answers, "That's a hard thing to think about." The gambit of asking an athlete a question full of doubt in order to expose how he thinks differently is the point of the whole article. One of Lewis's key transitions is, "Still, I confess my doubts to him."

To complete this circle of referentiality, there's there's a column by Richard Ford, sounding a little like Frank Bascombe, in Play about the incessant need for color commentators and sports columnists to manufacture storylines and chatter:
I usually don’t think sports is an apt metaphor for anything very interesting, and it’s certainly not a good metaphor for anything as swarming, irreducible and important as complex life itself. It’s not as if the behavior of rich celebrity-athletes comments provocatively on what’s going on in our communities at large. But sports, at least as we get it piped into our homes now, sports as the entertainment industry, sports as maundering gossip, sports as smirking, factless triviality for the bored, may in fact be a symptom of something grave — about us, the sporting consumers. And that something is a national malaise, a Nancy Grace-style questing for something realer than real — and far realer than the game could ever offer — an indiscriminate hunger that blindly permits a “product” that’s made-up, garish, tawdry and finally untrue and virtueless, and yet is loud and merely immediate, to be a sullying reality-substitute for those of us just sitting out here with our right to know exposed. Substituting something that’s trivial-but-noisily-immediate for something that’s virtuous — even smally virtuous, like a game we play or ponder — breeds an ugly cynicism about virtue itself.

Do you think there's a difference in narrative voice between 1995 Frank Bascombe and 2007 Richard Ford? Ford's concern isn't a unique one--see Josh Levin's Slate piece on the dullness that is Sports Illustrated and Le Anne Schreiber's ombuds column about the cycles of opinion on It's not a facetious question, because I think it is important to remember that Bascombe is a character whose opinions on literature probably aren't the same as Ford's. As a failed novelist, he's anxious about reading: "Literature's consolations are always temporary, while life is quick to begin again." That's a line that would seem to come only from someone who wanted consolation--and not any of a hundred other things--from reading literature. Is that a fair assessment of the character?

I note that because there's another piece about reading sports books in Play that encapsulates this sportswriters-search-for-doubt gambit: Bryan Curtis's look at sports autobiographies that transcend the genre. Curtis starts with a note about the conventions of the genre:
Most sports memoirs adhere to a rigid formula. The athlete begins by devoting several pages to his most memorable play: a great catch, a walk-off home run. This is a defensive strategy, in case we should forget why we’re reading about him. There are the compulsory chapters of childhood woe, a dim flicker of hope kept alive through sports. Athletes often write like sportswriters (Tiki Barber: “Your head is tilted back, and your vision is fixed on that damned prolate spheroid tumbling lazily through the air”). In most cases, this is because their books are ghostwritten by sportswriters. This separation between athlete and text has introduced a postmodern problem. Shortly after the memoirs of Charles Barkley and David Wells were published, both men claimed to have been misquoted.

But he goes on to praise a few outliers. His interest in Jose Canseco's Juiced is telling:
One of the interesting things revealed by the athlete memoir is that pro athletes have brutally repetitious, uninteresting lives, where even a “restless, questing mind,” which Tiki Barber claims to own, has few outlets other than a PlayStation. Sports memoirs may be intended as post-retirement victory laps, but many of them read like a cry for help.

Curtis, too, wants to find those moments when the thing that makes these athletes so strange, so alien (in a way) fails. With these autobiographies, he gets further than Brown does with Nash or Lewis does with Vinateri, but they're all focused on the same thing. The articles are good ones, but I wonder why this trope keeps coming back.

It reminds me that I have a complicated relationship with Texas Tech men's basketball coach Bobby Knight. I should despise him, right? For treating people badly, for physically threatening others, for acting entitled to bad behavior. But it seems like every time I'm about to finally give up on him, I read a story about... how Bobby Knight loves reading. He has donated many, many books to the university libraries where he's coached. He is a Civil War history buff. He helped his old mentor's family publish the final book in a popular children's sports series:
The [Chip Hilton] books, published from 1948-66, were popular but had much competition from other series of the era, such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. [Clair] Bee's books, however, had powerful messages for the future athletes, coaches, businessmen and even journalists on integrity and sportsmanship, teamwork and leadership, loyalty and responsibility.

Bee even wove in plots about racism and respect for other cultures.

"He was ahead of his time" in writing about those subjects, says Knight, the Texas Tech basketball coach who used to plunk down his $1.25 for the books growing up in Orrville, Ohio. "They were like an essay on life for kids."

Especially for athletes, Knight points out: "There was always something that had to do with sportsmanship and fair play. Second, the coach was very demanding and expected the kids to work hard."

I remember tearing up at that story when I read it in a 2002 issue of USA Today--that's how sensitive I am to Bobby the bibliophile. While I was searching for it on ProQuest, I found Michael Ledeen's 2004 article from the American Enterprise (the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute) about Knight's wide-ranging mind:
I first met Knight at an academic conference on 'Culture and the Cold War' in Bloomington a couple of years ago. The keynote speaker was David Halberstam, a friend of Knight's who had sought a tutorial on the subtleties of basketball when he wrote a biography of Michael Jordan. Knight presented Halberstam to the conference, speaking off-the-cuff, and dazzled the audience with his understanding of Halberstam's work. He spoke in complete paragraphs, ably summarized Halberstam's contributions to American historical scholarship, and congratulated the organizers for their appreciation of Halberstam's wisdom.

I'm more skeptical about other parts of this article, which makes the claim that Knight's form of aggressive masculinity is intolerable in our contemporary PC society. ("I just don't care about men's feelings. Not this much.") It's funny to look at Knight and Frank Bascombe together--the former doesn't suffer under the same self-doubt as the fictional character, but he's certainly a complex, thoughtful person. So how do you capture Bobby Knight in a story that doesn't fall on these narrative gambits?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Nov 07, 02:01:00 PM:
Awesome, Alice.

Two things: DFW's "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" is worth a read on this subject because, well, it's DFW.

And second: If Jacoby had one the MVP (which, though Lowell was a fine choice, wasn't implausible), he would have been the only player to do so before his rookie season.

Neat, huh?
Blogger Brette on Wed Nov 14, 06:49:00 PM:
Three things from me:
First, CC Cy Young?

Second, what was up with the "Take an NFL Player to School" Day in today's Times? Are we all supposed to forget that Strahan not only has bad BO but also is bad at math (judging by the ruinous pre-nup he prepared and which obligated him to give his ex-wife 50% of his net worth plus 20% of his yearly income for each year of their marriage) and has questionable moral character.

Third, am I the only one who thinks that Natalie Portman in "Mr. Magorium's Look's Really Borium" bears more than a striking resemblance to a young Andrew McCarthy?
Blogger Ben on Thu Nov 15, 09:57:00 AM:
CC's Cy is all about innings. 241 fucking innings! That's a lot of innings to pitch 3.21 ball. You gotta figure that in the regular season, he was more valuable to Chief Wahoo than Beckett was to the Sox. 241 innings!

The Strahan article was silly, but I couldn't resist it. Strahan hitting on the boy's crush for him (he must have been DEVASTATED when he read the article and knew he would be a laughingstock at school), the mom worrying about the quality of her breakfast, the fact that the family is really Dolphins fans, Strahan telling students to "step away from the TV"... it was full of wacky shit.
Blogger Unknown on Tue Nov 20, 03:12:00 AM:
Thanks for the review of these pieces Alice! I knew from your post on ESPN/stats obsession that you were interested in analysis of sports, but I didn't know you were a fan of sports profiles.
I would be interested in hearing your views on Chuck Klosterman's gimmicky style (he has a piece on Steve Nash that would be interesting to compare with Chip Brown's).
When I was in Spain some people asked me why Americans were so obsessed with stats, pointing out that soccer is practically devoid of stats when compared to baseball, basketball, and football. As someone obsessed with these stats I was very interested in this issue. This one guy said he thought it was because we didn't have a substantial enough historical identity and are therefore trying to fill an identity void with stats.
-Alex W.
Blogger Alice on Tue Nov 20, 04:01:00 PM:
In his essays about sports, Klosterman somehow manages to introduce one more level of self-consciousness to the sportswriter's gimmick. He knows you know that the doubt/confidence divide between authors and athletes is a weird, provocative one... throw Bill Simmons into the mix and you get a crazy amount of male anxiety about confidence about one's abilities as a witty writer.

It reminds me of seeing DFW speak a few years ago and someone asked an oblique question about self-consciousness in his work, and DFW replied, "That question is shrouded in so many levels of irony I can't figure out what you're asking."

Klosterman would have loved that moment, I think, unless some sort of vortex of self-consciousness and irony opened up at that very spot at that very moment and he self-destructed (totally possible). And then it would have been a vortex of self-consciousness, irony, and awesomeness.

Actually, I don't mind his essays on sports as much as I do his music journalism. Here's his article on Bode Miller and confidence, which plays up the self-consciousness by using the second person (a classic Klosterman move).

In the Super Bowl XL blog, he cites DFW's Tracy Austin essay, mentioned above:

"In 1994, David Foster Wallace wrote an amusing essay about how reading Tracy Austin's co-written autobiography deeply disappointed him, partially because Austin was prone to expressing sentiments such as, 'I had just won the U.S Open. It felt great.' Obviously, we don't really need to read books to learn such things. But there continues to be this unkillable belief that the role of sports journalism is to help us understand how it feels to live an extraordinary athletic life, since that kind of life is beyond the average human's physical (or mental) comprehension. The problem, of course, is that this is an impossible quest, and not just because it's difficult to quantify any visceral experience; it's impossible because everyone perceives their own experiences as normative. For Jerome Bettis, winning a Super Bowl would probably feel less alien than having to operate a forklift for eight hours, which is probably why this was his response to the reporter's question: 'Mission accomplished.'"

which then leads to this observation two days later:

"If you hope to separate yourself from all the other super-fast manimals within the NFL's hyper-violent bone yard, you need to be more sensitive than Chris Carrabba. You need to be emotively devastated by any sentiment that involves you or anyone you've ever met -- even if the sentiment in question seems borderline affable.

"I realized this when I heard why Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is upset with Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens. Porter is angry because Stevens made this statement about Detroit native Jerome Bettis: 'It's a heartwarming story and all that, but it will be a sad day when he leaves [Michigan] without the trophy.' In response, Porter has essentially declared a jihad against Stevens (while simultaneously pretending not to know whom the man is or what he does for a living).

"Now, I realize Stevens was being a tad snarky, and I realize Porter was simply being Porter -- but isn't this a curious assertion to take offense with? It sounds like Stevens basically said, 'Jerome Bettis is a nice guy, but his potential niceness will not impact our ability to win this game.' In a sense, Stevens gave Bettis an unnecessary compliment -- he could have just as easily said, 'I don't give a damn about any of their guys. I'm confident we're going to win.' At his core, I'm sure Stevens probably feels that way; I'm sure every player on both rosters assumes he is going to be a Super Bowl winner by Monday morning. Confidence is a normal (and necessary) component to winning anything.

"But confidence is not enough.

"At the highest levels of sport, art and business, confidence merely makes you normal."

That Jerramy Stevens line is a gem!