January 11, 2016. Posted for Super Bowl Sunday. February 7.
There’s a reason political reporters long to be like sportswriters and a good reason they shouldn’t be. Good sportswriting is a form of fiction. Sportswriters are allowed to read minds, attribute motives, pass off pure guesswork as insight, and not only take their sources---players and coaches, at any rate---at their word but encourage them to make those words...colorful. Basically, reporters and players collaborate in creating stories based on embellishments, exaggerations, and out and out lies. The best liars give the best quotes.
Sure, certain facts have to be reported. The final score, for instance. Who actually played and what they did when the ball, puck, or another player came their way. But the rest is subject to interpretation. Poetic license is granted to sportswriters and all their stories are just that, stories. Tall-tales, legends and folk tales in the making, and might as well begin like movies with the warning: “Based on a true story” or “Inspired by real-life events”.
This is fine with me. It’s part of the fun, and sports is meant to be fun. I’m a fervent believer that good fiction is more truthful or at least more true to life than most non-fiction. But it’s also part of the fun, and sports is meant to be fun. It’s entertainment. Games and fights and matches are entertainments. They’re staged events. Therefore, they’re subject to review and criticism as entertainments. And criticism is simply opinionizing, hopefully informed opinionizing, but still, when you get down to it, it’s just a matter of the critics writing about what they think about what they saw. That makes sportswriting writing. And all writing is about the writer and the writing---its intent, quality, and effect---as much as it’s about an actual subject. So the writer better be smart and talented and the writing better be worth reading.
It better be entertaining.
It’s more entertaining if it’s also accurate.
One more thing. Sporting events are comedies. I know, not to the fans of the losing teams and players, and not to the fans of the winners who have invested too much of their vanity and sense of self in their favorite teams and players. But, with a few exceptions, all games end happily in that everybody had a good time, including, when they look back on it, after enough time has passed, the players who lost. There are some unhappy stories. Sad stories can be told. But then the inherent tragedy is essential to the comedy. We need to laugh or we will cry.
This is a long way to go for me just to tell you I really enjoyed this New York Times story about the Vikings-Seahawks game by Michael Powell. It’s pure fiction, which makes it true, and it’s also funny. In fact, it’s practically a stand-up routine. Powell should consider a nightclub act.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who had been having a pretty mediocre day to that point, saw the football roll behind him. He scampered, picked up the ball and peered downfield.
His line of sight was consumed by three or four Vikings defenders, steam rising from their mouths as if they were draft horses, rumbling at him. “Uh-oh,” he thought to himself.
At halftime, the Vikings led, 3-0, prompting more than a few to speculate that it was simply too cold to think, much less to score.
For now, let’s return to the game, which through halftime appeared to make a star of cold that was borderline insane. The Seahawks’ Sherman noted that the ball did not fly right in temperatures like those more often found on the plains of Mars. Asked how he had managed, Sherman smiled. He was born in Southern California; this not his natural habitat.
“It was all good until my eyelashes froze,” he noted.
A hardy perennial of postgame news conferences is listening as players attribute their team’s pure dumb luck to Him and His Son. So Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor claims that he knew the kicker would miss and attributes his assurance to God. Cornerback Richard Sherman speculated that Jesus would have approved of the Seahawks’ team effort.
God, perhaps preoccupied with a tricky black hole, has so far declined to offer a comment. Jesus’ telephone number is unlisted.
Let me pause, also, to note that along with a few players recklessly running about the field in short sleeves, we got to watch the Vikings’ cheerleaders dance in the subzero temperatures and shake in their mukluks for slightly more than the cost of gas for their cars. This gilded league could of course take care of this problem of cheerleader poverty by rooting about in its loose change drawer and by forcing teams to pay a proper wage.
Commissioner Roger Goodell would rather pretend that these women are independent contractors.
Hmm. In that last one, Powell’s veering dangerously close to serious journalism.
You can read Powell’s whole story, Seahawks Pull a Win From Their Long Sleeves, at the New York Times. It’s a pretty funny story, unless you’re a Vikings fan.
Or if you think about a certain fact about football. Like I said, tragedy is essential to comedy. Comedy is funny because life is not.
This game, even with its silly God talk, came as a bit of a relief after Saturday night’s A.F.C. playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, which served, with its impressive stupidity and violent gratuitous hits, to demonstrate why football is so often indefensible. As player after player was laid out, as a quarterback returned to the field presumably in enough pain to keep the maker of Percocet in business for months, you are reminded once more that there is to football a recklessness about men’s lives.