If you have ever read Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter, you would get an idea about the life of someone who chooses to write about sports. In this book the protagonist, Frank Bascombe, has failed in trying to write novels; therefore, he moves on to try his hand at sportswriting. While this changes his life, it also subsumes his former aspirations. It seems this is the lot of sportswriters; they are never respected by other writers who think writing about sports is for hacks and not worthy of being called literature.
This is the kind of “those who can do it do it; those who can’t teach attitude.” I have the utmost respect for teachers, and as an educator I can tell you how much work they “do” everyday. Unfortunately, in academe there is a similar misconception and attitude: Sportswriters are writers who couldn’t make it. They are more like Oscar Madison of The Odd Couple than anything resembling George Plimpton, who wrote about sports but seemed to get a pass from those literary stiffs puffing cigars and drinking brandy in some dark lounge.
Now, I have first hand proof of this. An old friend of mine (we were classmates when getting our doctorates in English) contacted me after many years. He was an English professor somewhere out west, but he had come home for the holidays. We were talking about what we were doing and writing, and the conversation came around to my being a co-head sports editor at Blogcritics. Well, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. After a few moments, he said, “Sports? Really?” The conversation quickly came to a close and I’ve never heard from him again.
This is not an isolated incident. Amongst those in academic ivory towers, there is definitely a looking down the nose at sportswriting. While most institutions of higher education boast about their sports programs (and they get millions and millions of dollars in revenue from them), their faculties are not inspired by writing about sports. What is it about sportswriting that bothers them so much? Is it that they are dismissive of the importance of sports in American culture? Or perhaps they feel it is beneath them to have to write about something that has no significance in their own spheres of reference?
There have been many great sportswriters. My current favorite is Mike Lupica, who writes a column in the New York Daily News. Mike has also broken out and written books like Million-Dollar Throw and The Big Field, but these are “sports” books, so that you have no illusions. No one is going to confuse Mike with Robert Olen Butler, but he is more a “write what you know” kind of guy, keeping with the famous Hemingway philosophy. Hemingway wrote about fish, guns, war, and women and he did pretty well with that; Mike Lupica is doing pretty well himself and does not require commendations from pretentious literary types.
Still, I understand the perception of sportswriting and sportswriters well enough. Four of my books have been published, and they all fall into the “literary ficiton” category. This doesn’t get me anywhere fast, but they were books that I believed in and care for. Each book I have written is like a precious child to me, and I still love them dearly even after they leave home and are out on their own, but I do have one book that I have kept locked up in a dark room, like Rochester’s wife for fear of discovery. It is a sports-themed book about growing up a New York Mets fan, and I have been working on it on and off for years, but keep stopping because I decided to invest my time in the others. It is that simple.
Sports has a deep place in the collective American imagination. There are people more loyal to their teams than to spouses or girlfriends. They live, eat, sleep, and breath team colors. They dream of championships and meeting their favorite players. Sports is deeply woven into the fabric of American culture, and perhaps that is why academic types despise it so much. They know they would never find anyone with the same allegiance to Beowulf, Paradise Lost, or any of the other stuff they try to ram down undergrad’s throats. As my friend (a blue-collar worker) has always said to me, “See how many people watch the Super Bowl and compare that to how many people go to your poetry readings.”
One other story comes to mind here. Years ago I was teaching in the English department of a college in New York City. One of my colleagues had come out with a book about baseball. We were talking about it one day, and a senior member of the department overheard us. “You have a book?” he asked my friend. When the older fellow saw the cover and realized what the subject matter was, his enthusiasm was lost as was the sparkle in his eyes. With a grumpy, “Well, good luck with that,” he turned and walked away.
Despite all of this, I enjoy working with other sportswriters as an editor at Blogcritics. I appreciate the craft of writing about sports. It takes not only knowledge of the game itself, but also the ability to put it into the right words, capturing motion on paper. The sportswriter also understands that everyone else thinks he or she is an expert analyst; therefore, that must be kept in mind as well as the fan’s allegiance to the team he or she loves. It’s emotional and personal and that has to be understood and respected.
It isn’t easy being a writer, no matter what others think. Hemingway said only heavy lifting was harder work than writing, so let us consider sportswriting the heavy lifting. Still, if you watch sports enough, you see the literary in it, the artistic stroke of the ball thrown by the quarterback; the poetry of the basketball as it swooshes through the net at the buzzer. This is why people write about sports, and there will always be those who will read what is written because they appreciate that someone loved what they love enough to write about it.
Now, someday I just might go up, unlock the attic, and take down my dusty sports book and start working on it again. I was going to wait until the Mets won another World Series, but the way things are going I won’t be around in 2100, so I guess I better get to it.
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