The Least Important Important Thing
Our Sports Columnist Bids Farewall
Photo via Flickr user Dustin
This is David Roth’s last column for VICE. He’s leaving after accepting an offer to work for SB Nation. We’re bummed he’s leaving, but also excited to see what he does at his new home. Since he’s on his way out, we asked him why he thought writing about sports was worthwhile in the first place, and this is what he said.
There are problems in this world—massive, brutal institutionalized avarice; a widening and increasingly ill-tempered distance from one another and the uglinesses that follows from that; the very concept of Food Network's yowling linen-encased butter-beast Paula Deen. One problem that we do not have, though, is an insufficient amount of talking about sports. For all our individual and collective failings here on Earth, we’ve had unparalleled success in creating opportunities for ourselves and others to project and identify and parse and seethe and yell and read and cheer and boo about sports-y things. There are more than enough media venues on which one can watch strident overenunciators pretend to be outraged about NBA players and their tattoos; there are more than enough Quease and the Gristle Man sports talk radio duos teasing the fetid, sudsy ids of their audiences. The oceans rise and the deserts creep in on us and various vital pillars wobble and fissure, but we will not starve for lack of supremely confident buttheads who’ll have ready-made, surprisingly heated answers at hand when asked whether LeBron James is a True Winner.
All this does not exactly suggest that we're capable of the sort of reasonable conversations we'd need to have in order to address the dual problems of global climate change and Paula Deen's line of signature butters. But while the conversations themselves aren't always worth savoring, caring and talking about sports are basically good things. The problem is that though sports are basically great, what's great about them are the aspects least easily argued about. If all you knew about sports was what you read or heard or saw on television, you'd have a vague sense that sports are What Brings Us Together and inherently virtuous, but also infuriating and under assault from various familiar threats—entitled youth, millionaire thugs, any number of other grumpy-uncle mutterings you can fill in yourself. There would be a sense, from watching the various pleather-y squeakers that play-fight about sports for a living on TV, that all this is Very Important. There'd be no sense of what's fun about sports, let alone worthy of exalting, or why anyone would ever want to watch.
Which is strange, actually, because convincing people to watch is not just the reason why sports media exists, but the only thing it’s there to do. I would not and should not be writing about sports if I didn't think they were a way to better understand and enjoy a complicated moment-to-moment existence—not to mention a pretty righteous excuse to tell that existence to fuck off for a couple hours, because you are watching the NBA Finals and drinking a beer. For sportswriting to mean anything, it has to be grounded in that most important thing, which is that both the writer and the reader agree that this is something worth caring about.
And when it doesn't work—when some ulcerous heel overenunciates through some ghoulish race-trolling or some clammy disciplinarian issues a high-altitude scolding or a fatuous Human Sports Entertainment Brand vapidly reaches into the bag o’ catchphrases—it's fundamentally because the sportswriter in question has broken faith with that central agreement to not just care about this stuff, but love it at least a little, and at least enough to know that it's more complex and more interesting than any individual take on it.
You can feel the importance of that mutual appreciation and affection most acutely and unmistakably in their absence. This is where all that poker-faced kidulty partisanship and dim pomp and the other various varieties of bloat come from—a forgetting that the thing itself is engrosing enough without all the high-definition lily-gilding or raised voices, and a lack of trust that the people on the other side of the equation are smart enough to know that. Sports can work in the same way that art or music or film can—evoke the same big feelings, hint at the same big things—but they function as a business, with all the cynicism and condescension that come with that.
This is part of what makes the worst aspects of the sports discourse simultaneously so painful and so deadening: the sense that we are being sold something by someone who thinks we’re foolish, and that we need to be tricked or bullied or dazzled into buying it. The curmudgeons and partisans and bias-milkers try to bring us together around sports as our smallest and angriest selves; the leagues can only understand the real and lovely communal aspect of sports fandom as an American flag the size of a football field, with a sponsor's logo placed tastefully in the corner. The sportscentric media generally dedicates itself to telling us how important all this is, how big and buyable it is. But of course we already know that what's really great about sports is smaller, freer, truer, and more open. It's why we're there, together, in the first place, watching. We wouldn't come back if we weren't already in love.
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