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What We Write About When We Talk About Writing About Sports: Grudge Match

Photo by sharyn morrow on Flickr

Photo by sharyn morrow on Flickr

William Bohl is a great writer for A Wolf Among Wolves whom I sit next to at Timberwolves games and we’ve often wondered at how differently we and others who are immersed in basketball see the game as opposed to more casual fans and the broadly-oriented sportswriters who occasionally stop by the media section. This is our attempt to figure it out.

Steve McPherson: When I was a little kid, your interests were laid out in the broadest possible terms: books, sports, music, etc. Ask me what I liked at about the age of seven or eight and that’s basically the order I would have answered in. When we’re young, we’re not broadly experienced enough to make fine distinctions about the content of what we enjoy doing. I mean, what’s your favorite book when you’ve read a couple dozen books? What’s your favorite album when you’re at the mercy of your parents’ tastes?

The stuff we enjoy about things like sports and books when we’re kids are somehow both the most tangible and the broadest elements of these things: the simple act of reading, the joy of dancing, the invigoration of running around on a field chasing a ball. But as we get older, it’s only natural to begin slicing these areas of interest into finer sections. We might like rock, but not classical music; poetry but not non-fiction; and, of course, basketball but not golf. We’re not necessarily close-minded, we just gain expertise as we pay closer attention.

Yet weirdly the impulse toward being broadly into the area of sports as defined by the sports page persists into middle and even (or especially) into old age for a huge chunk of the population. There’s often an assumption that if you’re into basketball you’re a “sports guy” and must therefore be at least somewhat versed in baseball, football, etc. and I can’t really figure out why. It reminds me of when I was working at Borders and had someone ask me, “Where’s your non-fiction section?” I wanted to say, “You see this section labeled ‘Fiction’ over here? IT’S EVERYTHING THAT’S NOT THAT.” How could you not want to dive deeper into what engages you rather than just float on the surface?

Let’s start with the thing that irks me the most about the sports generalist viewpoint: This idea of whether a given team is “worth your time.” This reduces entire leagues of multi-faceted teams all on different and unique trajectories to a “what’s good at this lunch buffet” recommendation. To me, this is only half a step away from straight bandwagonning, which is obviously the worst. In the NBA, this basically encompasses the idea that the only teams you needed to pay attention to this season were the Heat, the Pacers and the Thunder, given that no sports generalist would ever pay attention to the Spurs anyway. It’s the viewpoint that says, “Just watch the last five minutes.”

You miss out on so much of what makes pro basketball truly fun if those are the only teams you’re looking at, right?

William Bohl: Absolutely. True sports generalism means missing out on the little things, because you’re too busy hopping around from sport to sport (and team to team) to fully appreciate the finer details involved. That’s a foreign methodology to me, because the little things are why I fell in love with my favorite musicians, books, movies, athletes and teams in the first place. Diving deeper — discovering more about the mechanisms that make them interesting or profound — broadens and strengthens my desire to learn about them.

It’s a self-consuming creature, in some ways. Perusing superficial aspects of various popular sports would no longer be a fulfilling experience for me, especially now that I’ve come to appreciate minute details of one sport in particular (basketball). But not everyone turns (what usually begins as) a passing interest into their own personal rabbit hole of focused attention and learning the way you and I seem to have done with the NBA. And I’m sure people who love and appreciate baseball, hockey or football the way we love basketball feel the same, semi-provincial way about their own sports when neophytes wander in and wax ignorant about their chosen sport. To each their own.

Some people are just content drifting on the surface. Each sport has games and scores and statistics and seasons and coaches and stars and championships; I understand why the newspaper lumps all of them (and thus sports fans) into a single section (or group). While fans are smart enough to know the particulars of each one, fundamentally, all sports are alike. Fortunately we, as a society, are able to move beyond such broad categories; the internet makes it easier than ever to find your niche, your passion, and become well-versed and submerged in its culture and community.

But for some reason, the notion of a generalist sportswriter persists. This troubles me much more than generalist, casual fandom does. Despite the ready availability of qualified experts on the world wide web, major publications (both online and offline) employ Some Person Who Watches All of Them, a jack of all trades, and master of none. And I worry that in some markets — the Twin Cities, in particular — these itinerant critics shape the collective attitude of the fan base despite lacking adequate credentials to wield such power.

The question I have for you, is: does that make me an elitist? A snob? In complaining about generalists, do I advocate the reverse? Highly specialized experts with no points of reference outside the boxes they’ve put themselves in… Isn’t that a problem that currently plagues academia? Why bring such fragmented punditry to sports?

McPherson: You’re making an important distinction here: There’s no real reason to hold sports tourism against the general population. I’m wired in such a way (as it seems clear you are as well) that I have a hard time not diving in, even as a consumer of entertainment. I can’t not analyze how the narrative threads are woven together in Game of Thrones, can’t not want to know more about the process behind designing video games. But I can understand people who just want to trail their fingers along the surface of things like sports and movies. People are busy — they can’t be expected to delve into everything, and there’s plenty of reward in just kind of half-paying attention to sports.

But where it gets weird, as you note, is where sports tourists are being told about sports by writers who are sports generalists. To me, it has this pied piper feel, where a veneer of experience is being sold to the public as real insight. There are certainly writers who cover multiple sports who understand that what they’re there for is the universal sports experience, who are able to harness that universality in illuminating ways. But when these writers begin to have specific opinions about specific aspects of specific teams that they’ve kind of watched on TV some and seen in person once or twice over a long season, that’s where it becomes problematic to me.

I think sports generalism was a little more palatable when the flow of information was a bit slower, actually. It’s not as if there are more NBA games played now than twenty years ago (I mean, I guess there’s been expansion, but you know what I mean). There was always a ton of stuff happening but with fewer outlets to deal with it — twenty years ago it was basically the newspaper, Sports Illustrated and SportsCenter for major generalist news outlets — boiling all that down a couple times a week made sense.

But now there are so many people with pinpoint knowledge out there writing all the time that it doesn’t seem so difficult to figure out a smattering of experts you trust and collate their ideas regularly, rather than relying on some blowhard who’s more personality than person to tell you what’s going on.

You’re also right, though, that I think this opens up the possibility of a kind of elitism or snobbery about specific sports, and America by and large has a bad reaction to that sort of thing. And believe me, I have found myself totally guilty of it. Sometimes when people find out I write about basketball, they’ll ask me some question so thunderously wrongheaded and backwards that I feel like it’s not even worth trying to back their knowledge of the sport out far enough to rebuild it. It makes me feel kind of like an asshole to even think that, so I usually just smile and nod. (See? I’ve actually become a true Minnesotan in my ten years here.)

But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s right to just throw our hands up at the things that divide specialties. I think it’s our job as specialists to bring the appeal of those specialized things out to the general public. Not that we have to approach things the way sports generalists do when they write their op-eds, but just that we need to find a vocabulary that connects people not just to the esoterica of the sport — the analytics, the play diagrams — but also to the pulpy heart of it. I mean, that’s why I got into it. I guess maybe the question is: How do we connect with people where they are, to show them that there’s a better way out there than the jockish swill that passes for sports commentary so much of the time?

Bohl: First things first: “Jockish Swill” is a fun phrase to say. It’s also a Twitter handle I’ve now claimed, just in case I ever decide to turn heel and spit #HotSportsTakes exclusively.

Regarding your question, about how we “connect with people where they are, to show them that there’s a better way,” I have no idea. The population at large doesn’t seem to appreciate or crave nuance. Before that statement is confused for smug condescension: I’m guilty of it. Sometimes, black and white explanations are easier than exploring the vast palette of gray, whether it’s about important things like religion or politics or lighter things such as sports.

Is it a question of short attention spans? To me, the majority of troubling hot takes happen on sports talk radio, but my experience is colored by the fact that I spend a lot of time in the car for my job, and can’t help but tune in, even if I think the conversation is absurd. Radio hosts are discouraged from spending too much time on a singular topic; they must jump around, attempting to hit on a plethora of subjects in order to appeal to a broad swath of listeners.

So generalism takes two primary forms, in stereo and in print. And some generalists do very well for themselves — Bill Simmons has built the Grantland empire from his beginnings as a writer of all Boston sports. Generalists such as Mike Francesa, Jim Rome, Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd (to name a few) are successes who made their mark in radio, each making forays into television as their popularity grew. Some are better than others at handling the variety and subtlety of talking all sports, all the time — specific discussions of each would be too lengthy for our purposes — but the point is, they’re successful. Whether they do more harm than good is also up for discussion, but again, that topic distracts from us, from what our objective ought to be.

Far below the media giants listed above are people like you, who have achieved some level of status within the writing community. Far below people like you are anonymous peons like me, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but with voices nonetheless. What we have in common is our love of and devotion to writing about basketball. When it comes to how we discuss it, then — how to appeal to people — I think there are two important rules:

1. Be accessible and plain-spoken enough to not alienate those who are casually interested. It’s a problem that seems to plague baseball writing. The obsession with analytics leaves the “uninitiated” feeling behind the times, which results in people reading about (and listening to) less of the discussion. Use advanced stats and insider knowledge as tools, but don’t rely so heavily on them that it obfuscates your message. (Question: does using the word “obfuscates” obfuscate the point I’m making here?)

2. Treat the subjects as people. I’m not advocating fluffy human interest stories as game recaps or feature pieces — asking Kevin Love how it “felt” to record a triple double, and such — but it’s important to treat the players and coaches as human beings, with strengths, flaws, histories, agendas, etc. Too often, professional athletes are treated as number generators, or as representatives of their draft position, or as dollar figures. Becoming interested in one player’s story, however great or flawed he may be, can lead to a deeper understanding of the game as a whole.

Did I miss something? Is that too simplistic? We aren’t going to change the way people think all at once, but if we reach a few and change some minds, can we declare victory?

McPherson: First of all, regarding your claim that I have achieved “some” level of status within the writing community, I would only like to point out that “some” includes a vast array of amounts, including hardly any at all. But what I’d really like to drill down into a little are the two rules you laid out, which I like. There were a ton of topics flying around the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year, but one that keeps running like an undercurrent through all advanced analytics discussion is how to communicate them in an effective way. I definitely think people who are all-in on stats can get sucked into a kind of tunnel vision where the hardness, the precision of numbers begins to make them feel like there is inherent truth in them that everyone should be able to see immediately.

But not everyone is wired to look at a bunch of numbers and just see it. Most people, I would argue, need a path laid out for them. The best people with analytics are the ones who can lay that path out and do it clearly. Zach Lowe is, of course, a terrific example of this. I think as disciplines become more specialized, the more important it is to have specialists who can speak to a broader audience — people who play inside-out, to use a basketball metaphor. Generalists are basically gunners, hovering on the perimeter and jacking shots not by design, but just when the ball gets kicked their way. We need more writers working from the elbow, basically.

Your second point about treating subjects as people is also spot on, I think, and is actually one of the ways that I’ll go to bat for Bill Simmons (full disclosure: I write for Grantland). Although he’s as susceptible as anyone (myself included) to occasionally treating players and teams in a rough, callous manner that neglects their humanity, at his best, he can really dig in and give you a terrific human portrait of the sport. Before FreeDarko, before TrueHoop, reading Bill Simmons was what began to make me feel like sports could be more than just the straight-laced, by-the-numbers stuff I saw in the newspaper. The podcast he did with Steve Nash a couple months ago reminded me of this. Of course, that also required Nash being at a point in his career where he can more or less be honest about more or less anything, which is great. But what the Nash podcast showed me again is how there’s a human element in relating to players that I think a lot of writers on the low end of the spectrum (including myself) neglect. I’ve heard other writers remark on how a guy like J.A. Adande or others will work a room of players. They don’t dig for quotes, don’t always have their recorders out and in guys’ faces. They just talk to them. They build relationships, sometimes over years.

And maybe that’s a deficiency of some of the more “bloggisist” among us. Since our relationship to the game is generally borne of fandom and often grows through intense and private viewing of games and box scores, our sense of what’s important is often a weirdly combustible mix of the subjective and the objective. We often have strongly personal feelings about how important being objective is.

Somewhat ironically, it seems like we’ve come back to what Buddhists call the Middle Way — the path between extremes. I say ironically because that would seem to be exactly what sports writers who are generalists should be all about, yet I think we share some sense that in a time when inflammatory rhetoric and comments and clicks trump reason, the way of the generalist has become its own kind of extremism. To do our own best work, it would be good to not just slag sports generalists, but to learn from them and take some cues about how to approach a broad audience. It would be nice to see those generalists lean a little more on the work of specialists, but that’s out of our control. Craving causes suffering. A good Buddhist knows realizing that is the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path.

Now hand me the sports section.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, The Classical, A Wolf Among Wolves, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.