Unconventional Conventions

Published on December 13th, 2011

Alex explains why the sports media bothers him, with a focus on Ray Allen’s jump shot, 1% milk, Tim Tebow, and Steve Nash.

Every season, I watch somewhere in the vicinity of 150-200 full NBA games, and the only reason that number is going to go down this year is because of the lockout-shortened season. I might not be paying my full attention to these games when they’re on – I’m sure that my posts will get significantly worse after Christmas, as I begin writing with meaningless Raptors/Hornets match ups going on in the background – but they’re always around me. The unfortunate thing about all of the basketball I watch is that I’m only watching basketball. Even as I’m writing about Knocked Up as an allegorical text or why AC Slater’s hair is a visual representation of Reaganomics, the game playing in the background is still just a game to me. And while I realize how absurd it is to apply film theory to Mario Lopez’ hair, it keeps my brain moving, which is something that essentially stops when I’m focusing on sports.

I put this method of thinking into just about everything: movies, my choice of shoes, how MTV reality shows represent a certain segment of society*, etc. No matter how much basketball I watch, I can’t seem to think about it in any other way than Xs & Os, and of course the stupid war analogies that are always applied to sports. Every time I watch a basketball game, I am reminded of why this is by the normally awful commentators. They offer the most simple-minded analysis possible, and if they work for ESPN, try to spawn a catch phrase by ramming idiotic quotes like, “Momma, there goes that man!” down our collective throats. Nobody thinks about basketball as a metaphor for why the only milk I’ll drink is 1%, and that bothers me.

*That segment being douchebags.

This is not a basketball-specific problem. All professional sports have this issue, except for maybe baseball, which offers so much time in between pitches that the commentators often forget that they are calling a sporting event and talk about their cottages for an inning and a half instead. There are entertaining commentators in all sports, but John Madden as I knew him was more concerned with turducken and the colour of the mustard stains on his tie than the actual game. Bill Walton* was so hyperbolic that you could almost never take his points seriously. When Hubie Brown dies (and if you saw his face during any of the games he called last year you know that could be any minute) there won’t be a single smart professional basketball analyst left. There are a few people who do a decent job, of course, with good coach, better broadcaster and tabloid enthusiast Jeff Van Gundy being the first to come to mind. But for every Van Gundy there are ten useless analysts like Jon Barry, or frustratingly stubborn people in the studio like Ric Bucher and Mike Ditka. And even the best analysts, like Van Gundy, Cris Collinsworth, and Jon Gruden are good for their ability to analyze the actual game down to its smallest detail, not for analyzing it as more of a whole.

*The greatest and most entertaining sports commentator in the history of Western civilization, a man whose retirement from the broadcasting booth due to back pain was the greatest tragedy since Shakespeare put quill to parchment.

 

 

 

The bigger problem, however, may lie with the sports writers themselves. If you check out any major news outlet’s sports coverage, a story about a game will invariably begin with a paragraph about a certain player’s performance, or the winning shot if it happened to be an exceptionally close game. There will be post-game quotes from players, which are occasionally humourous but almost never particularly insightful, and then a brief overview of the important moments in the game. This is reporting, and that’s fine. The issue comes with editorial pieces, which rarely stray from the most common sports clichés possible, and are typically predictable. You know that in any given article, Michael Wilbon is going to name drop that he is friends with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, Bob Ryan is going to be ridiculous, and Mitch Albom’s writing will make sense but be mostly clinical and boring. The closest person to what I’m apparently advocating for is Bill Simmons, but even he is extremely hit or miss*. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is how most sports writers seem to be fairly liberal people, yet continue to write in the most conservative fashion at their jobs.

*Although Simmons at his best is probably the best sports writer working in the mass media right now. 

Professional sports are fairly abstract, but for some reason people still seem to believe the only way to discuss them is in the most literal way possible. Outside of the obvious shiny trophy, what is accomplished by winning the NBA title? The players already have their contracts set, and the financial bonuses for winning a championship are inconsequential for most players in comparison to those contracts. These athletes are not really playing for anything tangible: looked at objectively, winning a 16-team tournament shouldn’t add that much to your life. But it does. For completely irrational reasons, winning the championship in your chosen sport is apparently the only way one can be satisfied, and judging from Kevin Garnett’s interview with Michele TaFoya after winning the 2008 Finals, it matters a lot. Garnett had already earned more salary for playing basketball than almost any other NBA player in history, but he was unsatisfied without being able to hold a champagne-covered Larry O’Brien trophy. This innate motivation to achieve something professionally that only comes with inconsequential financial benefits attached to it is an odd way to live your day to day life, so why does everybody feel the need to discuss it so conventionally.

The inherent problem with sports is the conservative thought that permeates everything, and this is something that is kind of unavoidable. In order to be a star athlete, one has to basically throw everything out the window in order to do drills all day. These athletes often have one focus – to get better at their chosen sport – and do little else but become as good as they can. If they don’t win a championship in their chosen sport, their life will be a failure. The reason nobody has a good answer to why they want to win a championship is because if they stopped to think about it, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to practice their bounce passes for an hour a day when they were thirteen. And as these players continue to work hard and get better, they’re consistently either the best or second best players on their teams until they reach the NBA; punchlines like Adam Morrison or Jason Kapono were actually kind of good players in college. I know I’ll never be as good at anything as even perpetually confused goofball Kapono is at basketball, and I’m fine with that. At least I know that arriving at a 2007 Raptors game an hour early specifically to watch Kapono shoot is a ridiculous thing to do with your Sunday.

Sports writers love Steve Nash. This is partially because he is an incredible basketball player, but it is mostly because he is an interesting athlete. Nash is one of the few athletes who has been written about interestingly more than once; in 2005-2006, it was briefly en vogue to write about how Nash’s way of playing basketball was similar to Communism. Esquire published a piece about it, and NPR did a story following up on the idea. This was all because Nash had mentioned in a New York Times story that he had been reading The Communist Manifesto, which he read to get some more perspective on a Che Guevara biography he finished previously. Nash has stated that he does not care for war, and he likes soccer, which in a pre-Beckham America was like admitting your favourite Backstreet Boy is Howie D. But Nash is unconventional in the basketball world, and that’s why writers love him; this is a guy who excels at a sport that relies on jumping, yet I have never seen him jump more than sort of glide around half a foot off the ground. And when sports writers circle around him in the postgame, you never know when Nash might say something that reminds them of themselves. Sports writers spent their time in college being forced to read things about Karl Marx and Guevara, not running the weave in practice, so naturally they’ll gravitate to the player who might say things that will line up with their own tastes. That is not to say Nash is the only unconventional interview in all of professional sports (see: Shaquille O’Neal, Jeremy Roenick, etc), but he’s one of the few truly unconventional people.

As I watch Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby addressing the media about his latest concussion setback, it’s impossible to ignore how annoyed he becomes with the questions he is asked. After answering the fairly standard questions, he then starts to be asked what are essentially reworded versions of the same questions. This happens to pretty much every pro athlete, every day. Reporters ask the same repetitive questions, and then they ask them again, hoping to get something slightly different for their story. Instead of asking something new that might lead to an interesting quote, they just ask the question that will get them the answer they need. The only way this line of questioning can become interesting, however, is if the answer they need is incredibly difficult to find.

Tim Tebow is both the best and worst thing to happen to professional sports this year. The unfortunate aspect of his success is how ESPN has decided that, as opposed to being the biggest story in North American sports, he is the only story in North American sports*. But on the field, Tebow is still exceptionally fun to watch, if only because he’s only kind of playing football. Tebow was written off as a quarterback with accuracy problems so unfixable that he would never be an effective starter in the NFL. And despite his team’s current six game win streak, and their 7-1 record with Tebow as starter, it’s still unsure whether or not this is sustainable**. Even as Tebow has improved his passing in recent weeks (albeit against an awful Minnesota secondary in two weeks ago, and his numbers against Chicago are skewed because his receivers dropped an inordinate number of passes), his ‘will to win’ is what is helping Denver the most. Apparently, Tebow just wants to win so fucking badly that he makes the defense better, or he helps Matt Prater kick game-tying 59-yard field goals, or he tells coach John Fox what plays to call, and only Tebow makes sure that his team has a chance to win in the closing minutes. This is a ridiculous thought, but there is no proof that it’s untrue. As Tebow lead another improbable drive against Chicago on Sunday, announcers Kenny Albert, Darryl Johnston, and Tony Siragusa had almost nothing to say; they just kept laughing, and Johnston was noticeably confused by everything, continually saying, “This was an unwinnable game!” in an exasperated fashion. This is how most Broncos games have been called since the Thursday night game when Tebow scored a last minute touchdown against a sloppy New York Jets defense. And that’s what is interesting about Tebow. He’s not beating football teams; he’s beating conventional thought. Every time the Broncos pull off a last minute comeback with their stellar defense and an old-school offense built around running and Tebow hitting the occasional pass, they’re saying ‘fuck you’ to the other team, ESPN, and professional sports in general. This leads to Skip Bayless having a daily morning heart attack on ESPN’s First Take, or Bill Simmons to do podcasts where he repeats how confused he is by Tebow, and generally requires all ESPN talking heads to repeat their same opinions over and over until the show is over. Nobody has figured it out, and it’s unlikely anybody will so long as they’re trying to explain it in football terms.

*Last Thursday’s 2pm SportsCenter was devoted entirely to Tebow, and called TebowCenter.

**The Broncos have been playing some pretty bad teams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In every media product, all I want is creativity. I want somebody to read last year’s NBA Finals like it were a film, as opposed to merely saying, “This Mavericks comeback is just like something out of Hoosiers!” Don’t tell me what basketball resembles; tell me how that resemblance matters. Compare a 2008 Kobe Bryant to Stalin, and explain to me why the beauty of Ray Allen’s jump shot might be the only thing that makes me believe God exists. With all of the people who analyze sports online, on television, and on satellite radio, somebody should have the skills to explain these things. Somebody must be able to tell me how an unathletic Paul Pierce beat Kobe Bryant in his prime in the 2008 Finals, or how Dirk Nowitzki was able to beat a team featuring LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in a way that doesn’t involve Xs and Os. I saw the Celtics play defense in 2008, and I watched those Heat/Mavs games too. I know how they won already. What I want is for somebody to explain to me how I can apply that reason to my own life.

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