The role of sports in our lives is more complex than just ‘root root root for the home team’ and something to keep your eyes occupied whilst drinking beer.
While preening print journalists may wish it so, this has little to do with steroids, the fact that athletes live far detached from the realities of our lives, or that ticket prices keep going up. It’s been a long time since many of us harbored illusions regarding sports so it’s quite easy not to get disillusioned by recent developments.
Here is what I think are the two driving forces behind the complexity in men’s relationship w/ sports:
1) The fan’s need for individuality expression – There is still a place for the feeling of togetherness found when rooting for a team amongst fellow fans. But many fans want more than to be part of a collective whole; they want to stand out individually for their opinions and insights. This need has been bubbling under the surface for years – offline fantasy sports, people calling into talk radio, the thirst for a deeper understanding of the game than TV and newspaper reporters provide (like Bill James’ Baseball Abstract), etc. While the Internet didn’t invent this need any more than Gore invented the Internet, online fantasy sports, blogging, and reference sites have definitely provided a venue for satisfying this need. In doing so, we’ve become smarter fans of the game and, at the same time, have divided our loyalty from just the home team (and their rivals) to specific players that we’ve drafted onto our teams and have made extensions of ourselves. I read it somewhere recently and it rings true: Fans used to dream about being one of the players. Now they dream of being the GM.
2) The blurring of sports and general entertainment – Male conversation has (d)evolved into a deft (or crude) blending of music, movies, sports, TV, technology, current events, women, sex celebrity gossip, and – most importantly – humor. Our discussion of sports doesn’t adhere to the exclusive sections found on newspapers and websites. Sports are just one more area of reference for the increasingly referential modern male’s entertainment. While ESPN has played a key role in driving this amalgamation of sports, entertainment, and humor, there appears to be a growing discontent among sports fans for the ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’. There is a sense of staleness (Chris Berman, Joe Morgan), swarminess (Stuart Scott, Kenny Mayne), crassness (Skip Bayless, John Kruk) and pointless pontification (Stephen A. Smith) at ESPN. Where the true fan wants to indulge in insightful and/or hysterical content, ESPN seems content to just incite and/or indulge in hysterics (Boo-yeah on that wordplay!).
If ESPN’s Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons was the first to hit upon this sports/entertainment/humor mix, I think Will Leitch’s Deadspin blog has since carried the torch. I have enjoyed reading the Deadspin blog for a while now and snapped up the ‘God Saves The Fan‘ book even though I knew it might prove to be a retread of the site (aka The Onion compendiums).
Given Deadspin’s positioning as “sports news without access, favor, or discretion”, it’s not surprising that some of Will’s most successful essays take on mainstream media coverage. Several essays focus on ESPN and are a must-read for the fan who is tired of the ESPN shtick. The conflict of interest between the leagues and the media coverage is shown via stories that are more entertaining than most of the recycled crap in the 24 hour sports cycle but are squashed in deference to the leagues (like Michael Vick getting sued for giving a girl herpes and that he used the alias ‘Ron Mexico’ at the herpes clinic). Bad sports owners also get their due grilling.
The best part of the site – the mashup of sports, news, entertainment, and celebrity gossip – proves less effective in translating to book form. No writing can do justice to Carl Monday’s muckraking expose of library masturbation as the videos that Deadspin had embedded with the stories (the videos on Deadspin are no longer active). Here are Part #1 and Part #2 on YouTube.
There were a few essays that didn’t work for me (bashing Yankee Stadium for one). Despite the occasional misfire, I think this book shows that within the world of sports journalism, Will best understands the role of sports in the modern male’s life. We don’t just want the same clichés and vitriol from sportswriters – we want to laugh, think, or perhaps both. Granted you can find better ‘think’ pieces out there (especially on baseball) and more surreal sports comedy (see DJ Gallo’s SportsPickle.com or the sports page of TheOnion.com) but Will’s work is closer to the intersection than anything else right now.