Why We Love Sports

I’ve heard Mike Greenberg use some variant of the above phrase a lot lately. In this season of discontent, especially for the National Football League, there is a kind of desperation when Greenie or Golic or others who draw paychecks selling us sports try to resuscitate that which they believe is best about it, or think *we* believe is best about it.  So, a quite ordinary weekend of football games is turned into an “amazing” one, just because there were some close contests. Or an undeniably touching and moving story is repurposed as the very essence of the character of the men who make their livings off athletics.

It’s all a bit tiresome. But this is not a prelude to another lament about sports media. Instead, it’s a bit of an introduction to what it looks like when someone captures exquisitely the transcendent possibilities of being a fan.

In that vein, I give you my old friend, Pete Coviello, English professor and – despite his protestations in the linked essay – Yankee fan.

Take it away, Pete:

How do we account for athletes? Are they simple collections of data? I’m not so sure, though neither I am much interested in turning them into stand-ins for our least imaginative values (“giving 110%”). Still, being unduped by the dipshit invocations of character and the like has seemed to require a pretending-away of much that makes games watchable, and players compelling, and sports themselves intricately joyous, in ways that do not reduce to metrics. So, writing in the key of backlash, the otherwise capable Tom Scocca offered this paragraph of pure performed unknowing:

Like most star athletes of his era, he kept his public persona intentionally blank and dull, but with none of the awkward self-consciousness of the similarly restrained Rodriguez. Depending on their allegiances, baseball fans could imagine him to be classy or imagine him to be pissy, and the limited evidence could support either conclusion.

Honestly I read this and thought, Dude are you fucking joking me? Blank and dull? To come to that conclusion you have to ignore, effortfully, the whole rich trove of things that make the player who he is and has been. I’m thinking of all those accrued micro-gestures and tics of personality that as a kid you imitate and as a fan you gather in in their accreted mass – like the reader of a character in a novel – until you have a character, real and fictional at once, over whom you can agree or disagree as your pleasure takes you. Blank and dull? That shrugs away the wry grin, the capacity for deadpan humor, the odd coldness he could sometimes show, the occasional arched eyebrow at some opposing player as they chatted around second; and this is not even to mention the right hand up to the umpire, the clapped hands rounding first, the downward lateral slash of the practice swing. All of that is blank and dull only if what you want is Mad Al Hrobosky.

And while none of that makes him the greatest Yankee of all time or even a good shortstop still I’d say the pretense that none of it is even there is its own kind of bullshit, a kind of trying-too-hard to be over any but the hardest of hard facts. Again and again I thought: this is like appraising a novel in the conviction that the character of the sentences, their curl and bite, does not matter, not at least in relation to what happens to whom and how. Reading the backlash, I was reminded of nothing so much as certain kinds of technocratic boy-critics, determined in their critical austerity to be unseduced by the frivolous distractions of pleasure.

Yes, I know I often sound like that which Pete is writing against here. But I’m a sucker like everyone else. And Pete’s expressed exceptionally well why that often feels so good.


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