One of the strange things about people who write for a living is their tendency to dismiss the subjects most important to people who don’t write for a living. Even as sports has taken up a position at the center of American life it remains peripheral to American literary life. The literary world treats books and articles about political events with utmost seriousness — even as a fantastically large number of Americans, to judge from their talent for avoiding the polls on election day, don’t have the faintest idea what all the fuss is about. Books and articles about sports, and the ideas underpinning sports, remain on the bottom shelf, alongside the self-help books and celebrity memoirs. And yet sports is the one thing Americans can be relied upon to feel passionately about. There may be Americans glued to C-Span, but their numbers are overwhelmed by ESPN’s addicts. There may be political leaders who inspire loyalty, but there aren’t any — so far as I know — who cause grown men and women to paint their faces and tattoo their chests and howl like werewolves. For every little boy or girl who wants to grow up to be a member of Congress there are, oh, about one million who intend to become major league baseball players or professional basketball players or ice skaters or gymnasts. Americans’ deadly seriousness about the games they play is probably not a good sign for their democracy, but it is unquestionably a sign. You can’t govern what people care about. And what people care about is the writer’s path to their inner lives.
The chance to help to rectify this imbalance between what people care about and what good writers write about has been one of the pleasures of being asked to make the final selections for this year’s edition of Best American Sports Writing. Here we dignify the work of writers who happen to have tackled material that is, in one way or another, related to sports. They won’t be winning any literary prizes, but their work is important. They aren’t merely writing about sports. They’re describing who we are.
I should confess up front that this is a collection of stories with no very good theory to unify it. I’ve just picked out the twenty-seven magazine and newspaper and Internet articles that I found the most interesting, of the seventy-five or so thrust upon me by the man who actually edited this volume, the shockingly diligent Glenn Stout. (Glenn apparently has read every article about sports ever written in America.) Several writers are represented here more than once: they are not blood relations of mine. So far as I know, I’ve never met any of the writers whose work I’ve selected. Literarily, the pieces don’t have much in common with each other. Some are among the most finely written things on any topic; others are distinguished less by the quality of their prose than by the beauty of the story they tell. They range from elaborate narratives to simple opinion pieces, and they illustrate, among other things, how many different species of writing can be herded into literature’s null set: “nonfiction.” Their subject matter is also all over the place: basketball, baseball, football, arena football, golf, boxing, pool, scuba diving, poker, cheerleading, cycling, poaching, softball, rodeo, track, wrestling.
Still, taken as a whole, I think these stories add up to a bit more than the sum of their parts. For a start, they suggest certain trends in American sporting life. The most striking of these is the rapid eliding of the distinction between sports and competition. In a free market economy, premised on competition, that distinction is always under siege. The American businessman has drawn for decades on sports metaphors to enliven his work and make him feel more interesting — and less sedentary — than he is. Now it seems that anyone with a hobby that involves mostly a lot of farting around seeks to infuse his activity with the dynamism of an actual athletic event in which people sweat and suffer. Poker on ESPN should have been treated as an early warning signal. Poker players used to be guys avoiding their wives. Now, apparently, they are professional athletes.
As a nation, we seem to be replacing actual movement with the idea of movement. We treat our most fattening activities as intense calorie- burning exercise. Among the side effects of this trend is to make it possible for the aged, the infirm, and the obese to experience, as competitors, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We may be a nation of fat people, but we’re still all players! (We aren’t alone in this desire; anyone who has watched Englishmen “compete” at darts knows that there is no limit to what might be considered an athletic event if the audience is willing to go along with the ruse.) In a nod to the trend, this collection includes pieces about not only poker but also fishhhhhing, scuba diving, and cheerleading. I remain unsold on the idea that poker belongs in the same category as, say, heavyweight boxing. My unthinking prejudice against cheerleading, however, was changed by Pamela Colloff’s delightful piece on the subject. Like a lot of the writers in this book, Colloff takes on a far bigger subject than she pretends. Her ostensible target is a Texas cheerleading camp and the response of serious cheerleaders everywhere to attempts by the Texas legislature to ban sexually suggestive sideline dance routines. But her lovely piece is also about people striving and setting higher standards than their audiences for themselves. If, as Colloff tells us, more than half of the deaths and disabling injuries that have occurred in American high school sports in the past twenty-two years have been suffered by cheerleaders, cheerleading is either a sport or an act of insanity.
As a rule in American sports writing, the less physical exertion the activity under inspection requires, the more likely the writer is to make fun of it. No one here pokes fun at boxing; every boxing piece I’ve ever read treats the sport with the seriousness of a heart attack. Poaching bass from golf courses, on the other hand . . . well, there may have been a funnier and less reverent sports story written in America last year than Charlie Schroeder’s account of the quest for big bass in the water hazards of America, but I haven’t read it. As I write this I can hear the serious sports reader muttering to himself, Poaching fish from golf courses is not a sport, it’s a crime, and no responsible editor of a collection of America’s Best Sports Writing would treat it as such. I couldn’t agree more! But I also feel that, when the criminals exhibit the competitive fanaticism of Michael Jordan, exceptions must be made. And unlike, say, playing poker, poaching bass from golf courses has the same internal logic of a real sport: the bigger the fish, the harder it is to steal. As a golf course poacher explains to Schroeder, “If you find a pond with big bass in it, it’s usually one that has no trespassing signs around it and requires a nighttime mission. The more protected the ponds are, the bigger the fish are.” Another trend, touched on by this collection, is the intellectualization of sports. It’s all getting a lot more complicated out there, on the court and the field. Or rather, just off the court and just off the field. There has been for some time now, in many American sports, a kind of informal R&D movement seeking to uncover their hidden secrets. Interestingly, the movement is manned almost entirely by outsiders. Statistical analysis is finding a new home in American sports and leading people with a gift for it ...