Craig Sager And The Radical Act Of Caring: David Roth's Weak In Review

In a frightened and frightening moment, it can be difficult to get anyone to admit to caring about anything. But everyone cared about Craig Sager.

by David Roth
Dec 16 2016, 9:45pm

Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The ballplayers wanted to be clear about this, clear enough that they were willing to interrupt their righteous windy tweetstorms and op-ed pieces to make it understood: they did not care. This was instructive, if also confusing, arriving as it did in the middle-to-end portion of what could easily have been mistaken for some comparatively impassioned dudely grouching about the new clause in Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement that prohibited teams from compelling rookies to dress in women's clothes as part of the rookie hazing process. Aubrey Huff managed to get the words "rediculous" and "snowflake" into a tweet that also included the word "sensitive," twice, and several other lower-tier emeritus Diamond Kings from the first George W. Bush term weighed in with similar sentiments.

The culture was humorless and oversensitive, it was contradictory and if you think about it even ironically enough discriminatory in the name of promoting tolerance, but also it didn't really matter and you didn't really get it and they didn't really care. In another time, or another context, it would be surprising to see all these admittedly quite similar goatees issuing the same high, squeaking sounds of distress in not just the same tone but in harmony. That is, not just in the new syntax of our moment—that explains those snarling "snowflake"s, which has emerged as the surging Fuck Your Feelings movement's consensus word of the year—but in the same series of salty hypotheticals and rhetorical tropes. You can find most of these in the op-ed written by Los Angeles Angels closer Huston Street, or you can take my word for it that most of these arguments begin with a rhetorical "what's next" and tumble comically down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is the banning of Halloween and "comedy." The last words of the second to last sentence in Street's piece are, "and I don't really care that much."

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The idea of not caring was not always difficult to parse. When a drunk Jay Cutler either did or didn't yell "don't care" at a fan who was trying to talk to him in a Chicago bar bathroom, he was telling that dude that he did not care—not about the connection the fan was trying to make, and not about the fan trying to make it, and also not about appearing to care about either. These are short and simple words, but they have two sides. It may be that all these Don't Carelords were sincerely unbothered about the end of a regressive if mostly goofy clubhouse tradition, which would make their vehement responses to the news something on the order of a bad case of rage hiccups.

But it seems likelier that all this performative not-caring is more in line with The Way We Don't Care Now, which is a fundamentally defensive and fearful reflex dressed up like a bold warrior truth. It is an abstracted, double-bank way of saying what and who you do care about without admitting to the weak and potentially dangerous position of caring about anything at all. Enough of the rhetorical viruses currently loose in our national language share this trait—the embedded but deeply denied taking of offense in complaints about an oversensitive culture, the implied wish to be cared about more than the people we have decided not to care about—that it begins to seem like something other than an accident. What looks for all the world like stupid, simple cruelty reveals itself, through the shape of the shadow that cruelty casts, as something much more like fear, and like shame. It's not easy to cower and bluster at the same time, but in this age of innovation-approaching-miracle, we have hacked it.

That the world is not made for us is a fact that every adult knows, if only because of how relentlessly the world reminds us of this. A culture that fetishizes self-justifying myths about its own virtue and reason leaves those adrift in the culture to figure out why we somehow have received something so different from what we deserve. There is a truth staring out of all this, and the contortions of our language and culture over this last falling-down year are proof of how difficult it can be to look that truth in the face. This is the other side of every conspiracy theory, the fundamental fantasy that ensures the most desperate lies are also the most poignant—the insistence that powerful parties have conspired grandly against you carries a corrosive and far more convincing echo, which whispers that those parties are in fact paying you no mind at all, and never have. The bottomless and brutal truth of that abandonment is what people drown out as they storm into little white text boxes or scream in crowds; if the last thing left is an imitation of power, then that is what we'll get. And that is what we are getting, up and down the culture, more of this shameful signifying abandonment and high-handedness, as graceful and dignified as a child clomping around in daddy's shoes. That's what we live with and what we live in.

It's also a lie, and that is a useful thing to remember. For all the pitiful posturing of this week and the weeks before, these last few days also gave us a reminder of that.

When you actually feel something. Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Sager died this week at 65, of cancer. The broader community of people that care about the game mourned his passing, in the same earnest and rather startlingly heartfelt way that they celebrated the remission that allowed him to return to the sidelines during last year's NBA Playoffs. Explaining Sager to someone who is unfamiliar with his role on TNT's broadcasts is both more difficult and simpler than it seems. His job was, officially, to ask people questions during and after games—a coach between quarters or at the half, some sweaty player after the final horn. His job, unofficially, was to be a sort of character in the broader television show that each game represents.

Sager leaned into this, embracing his role as a straight man to a series of much taller and more recognizable mock-antagonists—as the object of Gregg Popovich's world-historic impatience, say, or the inspiration for Kevin Garnett's rapid-fire insult comedy/fashion criticism. The questions and the answers didn't ever matter much, or at least never mattered nearly as much as the character that Sager inhabited. From the fond recollections that have followed after his passing, it seems safe to say that Sager really was that person—self-possessed and goofy, confident and ego-less, sincere in his love for his work and the people around him. His collection of supremely terrible suits—monstrosities in shades of nitrate-y meat and hallucinogenic wallpaper and disco waterfowl, without one ever being repeated—marked him as a clown, but everything else suggested that he was an admirable man in a public but mostly unimportant job. For all the inspirational heft his disease thrust upon him, he was mostly admired for his ease and comfort in himself as much as his struggle against the undefeatable. He seemed like a very good guy, in other words, and NBA fans accepted him as that. The broader community of basketball mourned him as that.

These are uneasy times in our professional sports, as they are everywhere else. Baseball is rich and grouchy, the NFL is a mess of imperial delusion and consecutive offsides penalties. The worst that can be said about the NBA, at this moment, is that it's top-heavy. Otherwise, the NBA and the culture around it seems oddly both more enjoyable and more joyous than its peers; just as rich, but a lot more comfortable. There was a grace to the way that the league and the community around it embraced and cared for Sager in his illness and celebrated him after his passing, but there is nothing really extraordinary about it except for how strange and extraordinary that emotion looks in this huddled and defensive moment.

For as long as people have lived together, we have been afraid—of being forgotten, of being alone, of cancer, of death. The world gives us plenty to fear, and the order of things is such that there are forces we cannot defeat. In a community, even one as loose as that of people who enjoyed watching Craig Sager ask Erik Spoelstra questions while dressed like a psychedelic loveseat, caring is the currency; the exchange of it is how that community expresses and sustains itself. There is nothing in that exchange of care that makes us safer, really. It just reminds us that we're human. That's a vulnerable thing to be, but consider the alternative.

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