Author’s note: Mike and I would like to apologize for yesterday’s lack of an Email Exchange. Due to a scheduling conflict (ahem, Mike going to summer school), Email Exchanges will now only be published on Mondays and Thursdays. Two things to note regarding this. One, we’re going to give ourselves more leeway in choosing which articles we focus on; specifically, if, say, a really excellent article is published on a Tuesday, we’ll allow ourselves to discuss it the following Thursday. Second, and more importantly, this arrangement means more Mariners posts! Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we’ll post something Mariners-related in place of the Email Exchange.
Oh, and lastly, fret not, our dedicated reader(s?): this content schedule will only be maintained through mid-August, after which we’ll return to our daily Email Exchange.
Today’s article: “What Brazil’s Loss Meant, And What It Didn’t Mean,” Tim Marchman, Deadspin
I’m going to mix it up a bit and start with a question: did you think Wright Thompson’s lede was corny in that story Tim Marchman links? I saw him getting a good amount of shit for it on Twitter, and yeah, the guy is prone to a bit of hyperbole, but it seems like he’s pretty much criticism-prone, and this lede had people tearing into him. Personally, I didn’t see anything super objectionable about it, but I’d like to hear your analysis here.
Anyway, that was on my mind, wanted to get that out of the way. To Marchman’s story now: I’d say once every week or maybe two weeks there’s a piece of sports journalism that clearly stands out above the rest of the crop, and surprisingly often that piece comes from Deadspin. Greg Howard’s thing on Jason Whitlock, for example, or that Manti Te’o story from a while back. Not to compare this Marchman piece to those two, which obviously are much longer reported pieces, but I think this is similar to the level of quality of those pieces. Marchman succinctly takes down, really, a bunch of sports journalism: “There is a line of thought that elevates those who win as inherently virtuous, possessed of a certain character, and so marks those who lose as deficient in those traits. It writes the sports out of sports, giving the winners nowhere near enough credit for having learned how to be in the right place at the right time so perfectly that they can effortlessly improvise and ascribing the wrong faults to the losers.”
This is essentially my philosophy on sports journalism. It’s the reason why I revere writers like Zach Lowe or Jeff Sullivan; these guys eschew all of the bullshit narrative conjecture that consumes most of sports journalism, and find a way to make the actual sport itself amazingly interesting through careful, thoughtful analysis, leading to a greater understanding of the game or sport itself in the process. Marchman does a little bit of this himself, explaining Brazil’s breakdown in terms of their tactical failings, illuminating the concept with the “nerve endings” metaphor, one I’ve never heard before and helped me better conceptualize how exactly soccer works.
Marchman isn’t pointing at your local #HotTake artists when he’s finding examples of eschewing analysis for F. Scott Fitzgerald impressions. These are writers considered amongst the country’s best; Thompson, Chris Jones, Grant Wahl. I can’t really speak for Grant Wahl, because I don’t really ever read him, but for Thompson and Jones, there are moments when their over-the-top style works, and when it doesn’t. It usually works when they’re writing dramatic profiles; game recaps, not so much. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this point; basically, what I’m getting at is that Marchman isn’t identifying a problem with just shitty sports journalism, but sports journalism everywhere.
I also think his point about our media depicting Brazilians as unsophisticated was an astute one. I, myself, have surely fallen into the trap of thinking of all of these soccer-obsessed countries as unable to separate sports from life. It’s kind of a fun thought to entertain, that sports can be far from meaningless, but rather something that is the most meaningful thing of all. Of course, that’s not the case, and my thought is that many people that think this way don’t think it because of the reasons that I do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or seen on the Internet someone making the quip, after someone from a relatively poor country is responsible for a goal, “Man, that guy’s gonna get killed.” It’s a shitty attitude to perpetuate, being condescending like that to entire swaths of people.
Not corny. Maybe a bit forced. But regardless, I didn’t find Thompson’s lede particularly weak.
In reality, no, I don’t think “the gods knew.” Then again, Thompson probably didn’t either. His first sentence, and the paragraph that follows, seems little more than an attempt to add meaning to the moment. And yeah, maybe Thompson uses a cheap method of doing so, but it’s nothing unordinary. Which brings me to the Marchman bit you quoted. His insight really does sum up sports journalism pretty succinctly.
Sports writing rarely focuses on the athletic competition alone. The industry’s authors are wont to make the events they cover more grandiose than a mere child’s game fought between grown adults. It’s a result, I think, of the timeless sports fan’s crisis: what’s the “meaning” of them? We feel anxious about devoting so much time and emotion to teams and games that, objectively speaking, don’t seem to matter in the grand scheme o’ things. And so we force the issue, posing athletic events as something other than they truly are – simple games that are amazingly enjoyable. A fan, whether writer or not, views their sport of choice through the lens of one of the classical literary narratives: man vs. self, man vs. man, or man vs. nature. We hope that, in doing so, we might learn a life-lesson or two from watching soccer or what have you, about living a fulfilled life or whatever. Because if we can convince ourselves that we are somehow “bettered” by watching sports, then our existential crisis in obsessing over them subsides.
That in mind, back to Thompson’s piece. Considering his stature, yeah, I’d expect something better than an opener about how even the supernatural forces of the world were against Brazil on Tuesday. And hopefully that’s all people were getting at in the criticism you mentioned. Because to fault Thompson for making a connection between nature and sports is to fault sports journalism in its entire; and if you’re going to criticize an entire industry, why start with its maestro?
Muddling my view a bit, though, I disagree with your phrase “bullshit narrative conjecture,” as it pertains to sports writing. Yes, the narrative aspect of the genre is largely contrived, but I don’t think that inherently render it bull. This is getting real theoretical, but frankly, nothing in life resembles a narrative. Our day-to-day existences are NOTHING more than the random interaction of atom-clusters. But this is a quite frightening notion, so we chose to view our lives as linear progressions, in order to maintain some semblance of order in a universe that lacks any of it. Which is all to say, imposing narrative on a sporting event is, to me, no more “bullshit” than imposing narrative on someone’s biography. In any story, we pick and chose the pieces to highlight, ones that add to something cohesive. Taking tiny bits of history and saying, “This is why Brazil lost to Germany,” is no more unfair than looking at a few moments from Barack Obama’s upbringing and concluding, “This is why he became President” – something literary folk deem perfectly acceptable. Truthfully, Obama’s in the White House because a string of a bazillion events, with a one-in-bazillion percent chance of happening, happened. Brazil lost to Germany for the same reason. This is getting quite heavy, but it’s just to say that life is a total clusterfuck, and we stay sane by imagining it as a neat and tight little story. Sports are part of that life, so viewing them through a narrative mind is nothing I find objectionable.
I want to touch on your last point real briefly before sending this back. “Unsophisticated” is a good word to describe how Americans generally imagine Brazilians’ relationship with soccer. I work in a Democratic Congressman’s office in Olympia, WA. In other words, I work with liberal people in one of the country’s utmost liberal cities – our office is a bunch of damn hippies, compared to the rest of the population. Yet, after we watched Brazil go down so horrifically, the responses were generally as you said. One coworker kept joking, “The German fans better find some security.” Another declared all hoity-toity, “I would not want to be in Brazil right now.” For all the open-mindedness these people profess, they jumped right on the “Haha dirty, violent third-worlders” train. It’s a sad phenomenon, because it’s completely unfair. I remember reading a Brian Phillips piece sometime ago, when he was lamenting those who worried about traveling to Brazil for the Cup on account of the country’s purported violence. He explained that this “violence” you hear of in Brazil is sensationalized, a few horrific events that are meant to put the entire country in a similar light. But, as he then argued, you can find similarly horrific murders or whatnot taking place in the United States. Yet no one equates these scattered outbursts of evil as representative of our nation’s entire character. Never would a foreigner fret traveling here because they heard another story about gang warfare in Chicago. Brazil should be treated no differently. Yeah, there are some dangerous areas and some dangerous people there. Both of which are far outweighed by their kind, innocent counterparts.
(For those interested, I found the Phillips piece.)
Took us about three weeks to refer to life as a random interaction of atom-clusters; I’m surprised it took that long. To address the main thrust of your argument, there, in the fifth graf: yes, I could have been more tactful in my use of the word “bullshit” to describe narrative sports journalism. I didn’t mean to completely discount all narrative sports journalism. We keep referring to narrative sports journalism in the abstract, so I’d like to add a concrete example to make our discussion a little more grounded. Let’s take the narrative of, say, LeBron James’s quest towards greatness. Neither of us, nor anyone, can deny the fact that this story makes the watching of the NBA Finals much more interesting. No longer is each basket just a random, disparate event; each basket is LeBron overcoming the doubts of his clutchness and ascending closer to Michael Jordan. See, this narrative, in a vacuum, I have no problem with. Like I said, like you said, it adds intrigue, an extra layer of meaning and depth to this event.
The problem I have with narrative sports journalism is the degree to which it devours, manipulates, and drowns out all other kinds of sportswriting. LeBron’s legacy isn’t one aspect of the larger conversation; it is THE conversation. Takes are dished out at machine gun speed, and the whole conversation around the Finals, instead of appreciating the specific greatness of what LeBron is doing – his legendary passing, combined with defensive versatility no one’s seen before, and, oh yeah, the dude puts up 30 points a game on otherworldly efficiency – becomes a screaming match about whether a RING means he’s great, or whether RINGS mean anything in the first place, or if he needs six rings to pass Jordan. The LeBron greatness conversation swallows itself whole, sucking in journalists like a black hole, and eventually, no one’s talking about basketball anymore. To summarize, it’s not the practice of narrative sports journalism I dislike, it’s the ubiquity of it.