Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Open Letter to Rick Reilly about why Sports Suck

Hi Rick,

How are you doing? I worry about you sometimes. You've made it your personal and professional mission to write columns about “human interest” sports stories, stories meant to warm our hearts. Like last week's story of a father and son separated due to some bad luck who find each other thanks to Facebook. Uh, and the son is a defensive end at some small university, so I guess that counts as a “sports” story. Or your fawning profile of Texas quarterback Daniel “Colt” “Pistola” McCoy, who is under a lot of media scrutiny but is also, surprise, an ordinary guy who likes to fire guns at trees when not watching DVDs on his laptops. Or your even more fawning profile of the Williams sisters, tennis players, of whom you say: “Their achievements rank with any set of sisters in American history” Or how about that story about Little League, where you criticize a over-litigious mother while practically getting an erection over a kid who broke his arm but found a way to participate in Little League anyway (you really, really like Little League, don't you Rick?).

Anyway, I worry about you because nearly every single one of your columns is an attempt to justify sports as character-building, or noble, or pure, and the reason is obvious: if sports were just a diversion that helps distract us from our soul-sucking day-to-day existences and helps advertisers reach out to the coveted 18-to-34-year-old-white-male-with-disposable-income demographic, if that's all sports was, your devotion to them would be pathetic. So you sift through all the commercial garbage that surrounds sports and seek out the good, the honorable, the cuddly—no matter how banal or maudlin or tangentially connected with sports it is.

That kind of pathology can't be healthy for you, Rick. You're in constant denial, working so hard not only to produce your column but to keep the words “it's just a game” out of your head. And finally, in your last column for, your pathology spilled out onto the page and revealed probably more than you wanted it to.

You start out with the story of your journalism professor telling your that you were “better than sports.” Then you explain to us why you “will never be better than sports,” mostly using the lazy writer's friend, the rhetorical question. For fun, I've decided to answer some of them for you:

“Sports fans can be buried in a coffin that is painted in their favorite team's colors and logo. Anybody buried in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra coffin lately?”
No, that would be insane, just like getting buried in a Green Bay Packers coffin. Instead, people donate millions of dollars to the Chicago Symphony because they love it so much.

[after an anecdote in which football players conspire to let their autistic teammate score a touchdown] “Ever see that on Wall Street?”
Well, I imagine some financial companies do hire people with Asperger Syndrome because those people tend to be good with numbers and complex math problems. There's a
Danish software company (Google doc) that hire only people with Autism, which seems more useful and less condescending than “giving” a kid a touchdown.

“College football teams fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Seen the history department do that?”
And Hitler drew bigger crowds than that. Your point?

“If sportswriters are so trivial, why did Frank Sinatra want to be one?”
Maybe because he was drunk all the time.

Speaking as a Sonics fan, whose team got moved to Oklahoma city because the NBA thought it could make more money there, sports is not some magical realm more virtuous than the cold, cynical real world. What about those NFL players who have brain damage as a result of entertaining us? What about my Sonics, or the Hartford Whalers, or the old Cleveland Browns, who were moved from their cities by selfish men for selfish reasons? What about the culture of drugs and booze that permeated professional sports for decades? What about the culture of steroids that permeates them today?

If you want to hold sports up as an example of the good inside us, I can hold it up as an example of everything that's wrong with us. For every kid who found meaning and purpose in putting a ball through a hoop, there's another kid who was humiliated and felt like shit just because he couldn't hit a baseball.

Sports is a vessel. For a lot of people, especially men who aren't encouraged to share their emotions, it's a way to express themselves. We can be sentimental about sports (I know you can) because it occupies a masculine place in society. No one will call you a pussy for crying over the World Series. And some people fill their lives with sports, just like people fill their lives with math, or literature, or music, or politics. It doesn't make sports magic, Rick.

Oh, and I doubt your journalism professor was attacking sports when she told you you were “too good for sports.” She probably meant you were too good for sports journalism. Because while journalists have uncovered corruption, called attention to the plight of the unfortunate, and told the public what it didn't want to know but needed to know, sports journalists don't do any of that. They cover a game for a living and try to get quotes from millionaire athletes who hate their guts, which is pretty depressing. Your professor wanted you to put your talents to work for a cause that really mattered. Oh well, looks like it's too late for that now, doesn't it? Have fun writing about the kid with one leg who's playing in the Little League World Series.

Rick Reilly: Why Do I Love Writing About Sports? This Column Should Answer That Question [ESPN]
(Shout out to

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