This week’s blog post comes from TU Media Studies professor and 2019-20 OCH fellow, Mark Brewin. As the resident sports aficionado for this years’ PLAY seminar, Mark shares some of his favorite sports-related diversions to enjoy during this challenging time of social isolation (and basketball’s coronavirus-induced hiatus).
Tired of watching CNN and updating Johns Hopkins’ worldwide coronavirus map on my browser, I decided to take the advice of our seminar’s wise and illustrious leader, Dr. Sean Latham, and spend my time a little more productively, by thinking how Play can help us muddle through the current moment. Because I was the “sporting” representative in our group, I’m going to suggest some ways to use sports right now, in a seriously playful manner.
So, how to do that? I am avoiding ESPN for the most part. As nothing much is going on and the content is currently mostly filler. There’s MMA, but I hate MMA: a not terribly clever, ongoing con, on the level of the current President of the United States. Everything else has shut down, and there’s only so much interest I can muster in Tom Brady’s future with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You could re-watch old classic games, but this sort of thing has never done much for me. The drama of sports is tied to the moment. It is because we cannot be sure what will happen, because the narrative is not already determined as it is with a play or a novel, that we find the contest fascinating. Maybe I’ll get around to watching game seven of the 2004 ACLS, which will never get old. Other than that, no.
If you absolutely must troll through old tape, though, I would skip the underdog victories—NC State beating Houston in the 1983 NCAAs, the 1980 US men’s Olympic hockey team, and focus instead on specific teams rather than specific games. The point here is not the outcome of the match but watching group of human beings doing an extremely difficult physical task well, in coordination with others. Think of it as more of an aesthetic experience than a sporting one. Teams I have in mind are those who played a sport at an especially high level of excellence on a consistent basis: the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s or the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s in hockey; in basketball, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls or Stephan Curry’s Golden States Warriors (in the first half of the 2010s, before they signed Durant and started to win ugly); for baseball, as much as it hurts to say it, probably the Derek Jeter-Bernie Williams-Scott Brosius-Jorge Posada era Yankees. And for soccer, the team that made me fall in love with that sport—Barcelona circa 2009, with Messi coming into top form, Carles Puyol and his heavy metal hair still covering up for Pique on the back line, and Xavi weaving the whole thing together.
There are a lot of great movies filled with sports-related content that also have some larger points to make about the human condition. Hoosiers, Downhill Racer, and The Games (about the 1960s Olympic marathon) all feature flawed but fascinating central characters, in which the desire to win can overtake the demands of basic human decency. The internal conflicts at the center mean these are decent films to watch for non-sports fans (although a warning that some of the sexual and racial politics of The Games has not aged well.) The masterpiece within this genre, of course, is Raging Bull. It is a beautiful film, but I’m guessing that most people have already seen it. If not, then you should probably see it: coronavirus or not.
Chariots of Fire used to have a reputation of being over-rated (it won the Academy Award in 1981) but for the life of me I can’t see why. It is an inspiring story. The two main British characters at the center went on to very different lives. Harold Abrahams became a sports journalist and was strongly involved in athletics for the rest of his life; Eric Liddell went to China and did missionary work. The Church of England has a feast day in Liddell’s honor (February 22), which is as close as an Anglican can get to sainthood. Less serious options: John Huston’s Escape to Victory is a WW II-era narrative, basically a mash-up of a sports film and The Great Escape. Michael Caine plays a British officer who constantly gets into it with Sylvester Stallone’s wise-acre American in a prison camp. The two then get involved with a proposed match against a star team from the camp and an elite German squad, to be played before a cowed French audience in occupied Paris. The purpose of the game is to have the prisoners lose to the Germans and give the Nazis a propaganda coup (Guess what? That doesn’t happen.) The reason to see the film is the roster of other actors who play both prisoners of war and Stallone’s and Caine’s team-mates. They are all famous soccer players, including the great Pelé.
Field of Dreams is a fable, but of the right kind. While it provides us with a false picture of American society, it is at least one worth striving towards. Might be a good tonic when you are feeling especially low any time in the next few weeks and wondering whether we can get ourselves through this mess.
If you would actually prefer to read something, I have several books to suggest: Levels of the Game, John McPhee’s non-fictional account of a game between two young American tennis players, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, in the 1968 US Open. At several points McPhee alludes to, but never explicitly mentions, the central drama of the game, which is that in this tournament Ashe had the chance to become the first African American man to win the Open. BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, a book in a box that allows you to shuffle the chapters to create your own story arc, is a bit of a cheat for this list. Soccer figures only peripherally to the main narrative. It is more of a framing device, as the main character has been sent by his London newspaper to cover a Manchester City game. Nonetheless, the notion of play is key to the book’s form and its theme. Finally, The Rider, by Dutch writer Tim Krabbé, who took up professional cycling only after he had established a career as a journalist. Krabbé was also a championship chess player and wrote the novel on which the creepy suspense film The Vanishing was based. Like McPhee’s book, the entirety of The Rider’s narrative is limited to a single event, in this case a cycling race.
The single greatest piece of sports prose fiction I have ever read was “Pafko at the Wall,” by Don DeLillo, which was published in Harper’s magazine in 1991 and then became a chapter in the novel Underworld. For a reason that no one has been able to satisfactorily explain, baseball seems to be the sport most congenial to the American literary class, or at least the white male subset: John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and Bartlett Giamatti’s “The Green Fields of the Mind”—which memorably begins, “It breaks your heart. It was designed to break your heart”—are other classics of this genre.
Though American football is a somewhat ugly sport, it’s inspired some pretty good writing, such as DeLillo’s End Zone and Ben Fountain’s novel about America during the time of the Iraq War, Billy Fountain’s Long Halftime Walk. Because of its military-industrial overtones, football serves as a nice analogy for modern American empire. If baseball is who we would like to think we are, football, maybe, is who we really are.
Online sports prose, for those who don’t want Amazon employees to have to move any more product right now, features two outstanding examples, both of which are no longer current but have kept their websites up. The more famous of these, Grantland, might just be the single greatest source of sports journalism since the turn of the century. Its very existence absolves Bill Simmons of a whole host of other sins committed against modern popular culture. Less famous is the Brian Phillips-edited The Run of Play, devoted to soccer. Phillips, who grew up in Ponca City, OK, is simply a great writer on almost anything. His book, Impossible Owls, includes a lot of good stuff on sports and other subjects.
My last general set of suggestions deals with documentaries, both written and filmed. Hoop Dreams is a classic and, like Raging Bull, may be a little too obvious. But if you haven’t seen it, you should see it: again, even if you don’t like sports. It is as compelling a dissection of race and class in America as you’ll find almost anywhere. The literary equivalent to Hoop Dreams is Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about high school football in small-town Texas. Hollywood took up Bissinger’s book and made him rich. While doing so, by turning it into movie first and then a TV series, it also stripped out all the politics of Bissinger’s original work. Laurent Dubois’ Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, is another good non-fictional account of sport with politics thrown in, although Dubois’ story about the victorious 1998 French men’s World Cup squad is more optimistic in tone than Bissinger’s. Dubois’ book came out in 2010, though: one suspects that he might have written a more sober account now.
Other good sports docs include: The Two Escobars, about the intersection of international drug cartels and World Cup soccer, and the recent Diego Maradona, about the player other than Pelé who has a claim to being soccer’s GOAT. A great movie that is non-fiction but not a documentary: The Damned United, about a complicated, infuriating, and brilliant English soccer coach named Brian Clough.
We’re almost done, but I wanted to add some sports that you can do alone or online. The latter includes a whole raft of modern digital games—Esports. For the former: well, running. And cycling. Just remember to take a wide berth when you pass someone.
Okay that’s it. I could go on for longer but the purpose of these kinds of lists is to be incomplete. If you want to argue with anything here or point out some obvious missed titles, let me know in the comments section.