I've always wished that college basketball could somehow become a year-round pursuit. But not like this. I don't remember an offseason with so much college basketball news, can you? There was one story after another, and Our Game never left the public consciousness for long. There was a test score scandal, recruiting violations, an extramarital affair with extortion on the side, some NCAA sanctions, and a vacated season too. There was drunk driving, and even some crack cocaine.
None of these stories were about ball and hoop. It was pure sportz
, all of it. This long, hot college basketball summer was all about human foibles and ethical relativity, and the ongoing saga of a governing body trying to rule something it doesn't even own
. This summer had as much to do with basketball as The Basketball Diaries
College basketball journalists, with no actual game-related material to write about, had to write something, anything
, in response to each of these stories. As pieces of a Sports-Industrial Complex that demands content and more content, they had to put their two cents in every time.
So they became lightning rods of moral certitude. USBWA members drew upon lifetimes of ball-watching to pound pulpits and pass judgements. They gave us opinions on subjects like drugs, sobriety and adultery -- opinions we never asked for. It was strange, jarring, and more than a little bit mind-blowing.
When sportswriters are sermonizing, something really odd is going on.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
A quarter-century ago, there was an abrupt change in the role of spectator sports in mainstream America. Suddenly, there were sports everywhere -- coast to coast, L.A. to Chicago. Hour-long highlight shows supplanted three-minute local news wrapups. USA Today was available all over the nation, in full color, with stunning action photos from the biggest sports games.
I'm old enough to recall what it was like before the "ESPN era" was recognized as such. I remember finding a 1981 Seattle Mariners
team picture in a Topps baseball card pack, staring at it for hours as I chewed my powdery stick of cardboard bubble gum. In the pitcure, the players stood on fake lime-colored grass in a weird dome, wearing sci-fi uniforms with tridents and stars on them. Seattle might as well have been on the moon. As far as I knew, 3,000 miles away on the east coast, it was
When my dad had his weekends of custody, I'd stay up late to watch the Boston Celtics play in San Diego and Phoenix. During the summers, I'd watch the Atlanta Braves play at San Francisco or Houston. When I watched games, I always had my early edition of National Geographic's "Our Fifty States" by my side (the one with the abstract flag and the purple mountains on the cover). During the commercial breaks, I'd read all about these strange places I was looking at on that giant 20-inch Zenith set of his.
America seemed so huge and vast and limitless. To a 11-year-old kid in 1983, a 10:05 pm start was an astonishing revelation. It was endlessly fascinating to me that the sky was dark outside, but that the sun was still up on TV. I was amazed that games in Los Angeles were played by the same rules as games in New York.
I tried to capture as much of the sports world as I could. I recorded NBA games from Cleveland and New Jersey and Detroit on my boom box, and I'd listen to the tapes endlessly. I was able to pull in AM radio stations from up to 1,500 miles away, and those Certron C-60's were like books I could always go back to, transporting me to mysterious cities I could only read about and dream of.
Maintaining that sense of wonder became difficult, and it's impossible now. ESPN brought the entire sports world into our living rooms 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As the number of channels increased, teleporting between stadiums stopped being impressive. Sports cities eventually became indistinguishable from each other, except for a few shorthand attributes. Complex, teeming metropolises were boiled down into simple, generic phrases.
During the 1990's, watching sports wasn't a privilege or a ritual anymore; it became an ordinary habit. There was nothing special or separate about sports anymore. The lines between the worlds blurred, and I remember when authentic jerseys became everyday clothing. I recall the first time I visited the ESPNZone in Baltimore in 1999; that's where I saw the famous Gonzaga-Florida Sweet 16 game
-- the one in which Casey Calvary became a last-second hero. It was a seminal moment in the history of mid-major basketball, but my own experience of it was diluted and weird. There were 30 other TV sets, all showing other games. The sound was off, and there were "jock jams" blaring from giant speakers.
American sports became commoditized in the new century. Each participant's effort was sucked into a giant sports battery, a percentage of a product, an iota of an industry. Sports became stuff
, a series of rapidly-moving images and Chyron graphics designed to fit neatly between blocks of 30-second manvertisements. Kids grew up in a world where sports came out of a giant faucet on the TV stand, and they'll never know any other way. Old people might them war stories about radios and newspapers, but there's no time for yesterday.
And somewhere along the line, the supply companies realized the games weren't enough, and they invented sportz
Then came the internet. First, it was a place to get scores. (I remember collecting NBA boxes from Q-Link to 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, the way my sister collected My Little Pony dolls.) Then fans used it to talk to other fans about being fans. The internet got bored with the actual games too. Folks bought into the same sportz storylines, the drug news and business details the TV sold them. And so forth, on forward.
When sports isn't about sports, something really odd is going on.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Once the Union was preserved forever, the United States stopped worrying splitting into two. So with the late 1800's came the combat-in-context of professional and amateur sports. If you're looking for a reason why the South never rose again, it's probably because it was too busy learning how to play American-style football.
For over eighty years, the history of sports journalism followed a linear and logical path. Writers from media outlets began to cover these games and races for the benefit of those who couldn't make it to the stadiums. In the early days of "sports-writing," these magical scribes had magical powers --some even gave college and pro teams the nicknames we still know them by. These fellows had the power to properly describe these new pastimes, in ways that made interesting sense to readers.
Short, dry match reports are as old as sportswriting itself; an increasingly sports-crazy public wanted much more than that. Fans quickly learned that there's a difference between what happens and how it feels, and readers counted on writers to paint atmospheric word-pictures. By the 1930's, sportswriting developed into a high art form. Great innovators like Grantland Rice described sports action in heroic and purple terms, drawing allegorical parallels between the games and life itself. Invoking warriors, poets and composers in equal turn, they imbued human contests with all the grave gravity of The Iliad
Radio, and then television, gave fans remote access to the games; sportswriters had to keep getting better to remain relevant. They needed to add value to events that an absent audience were able to experience for themselves in real time. Some did this by profiling the participants, by taking readers inside the locker rooms, and by enhancing the public's understanding about the motivation of the excellent athlete. Thanks to sportswriters, the public learned enough about Joe DiMaggio and Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali to make them fascinatingly human as well as famously legendary. Some writers added opinions, opened dialogues with fans, and sparked debates. Powerful voices like Red Smith spoke their minds in print, and occasionally became part of the stories themselves.
And then, in the 1980's, there was way too much of it. Sports became unavoidable. All the mystery and mystique disappeared, replaced by repetition and cliché. To suggest that there was poetry in any of these games was ridiculous, even needlessly pedantic. Every game everywhere was on some TV channel or another, and everyone had an opinion about what was happening on the screen. Now everyone has a medium to broadcast their thoughts, and can share their thoughts about other broadcasted thoughts. Game recaps can be written by computers, if they aren't already (one of my projects for next summer is to write a PHP script that will parse a boxscore and return a 600-word gamer).
In an age of 100,000 sportswriters, is there any need for sports journalism at all anymore? When everybody's a sportswriter, nobody is.
With tens of thousands of outlets all rehashing the same material, the American sports media in the 21st Century is a furnace that always needs bilge to burn. Three decades ago, it was still an engine capable of driving innovation and inspiration. There's a subtle yet critical difference between filling a void and filling a box, between doing something for its own sake and doing it because there's four minutes of TV time to fill.
What's happening now may look like progress, it might appear to be positive change, but the reality is that something really odd is going on.✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
There's something wrong with the way sports are presented to us.
It's a nagging, gnawing feeling that many of us in Hoops Nation share, young and old. We know it's not just the Sports-Industrial Complex; the new online sports revolution has it wrong too. Both ESPN and Deadspin are at fault, and neither are pointing the way forward. We've all had difficulty putting our fingers on why, and we've spent a lot of effort and words trying to figure out exactly what's missing.
We have to go backwards to find the root reasons for the Sports Bubble. Something happened a quarter-century ago. some kind of break or rupture in the century-long continuum of modern American sports. Somewhere back there, we lost the basic thrill of human competition, the idea that conflict between any two opposite forces is compelling -- no matter whom or what is involved. The pleasure of vs.
disappeared, replaced by joy-free judgement, perceived quality and interpreted importance. When sports became a consumer commodity, sports became boring. How could sports ever be boring?
We still have plenty of wonderful secrets left in American sports. Small-college Division I basketball is our chosen passion, but it isn't the only unexplored, uncared-for corner of the sports world. There's men's indoor volleyball, and women's pro soccer. Don't forget college bowling, field hockey and the WNBA. There's indoor American-style football, and an obscure outdoor version played by females. The first and greatest sports, those in the track and field program, hide in the shadows for 206 weeks until a new Olympiad is marked and celebrated. These are all wonderful games, and they all provide rewards and thrills to those with the open-hearted patience to watch and learn.
Our Game is set apart, here in the 251-team Hoops Nation
below the Red Line
. Every year for two weeks, we ascend to the popular consciousness, and our specialized knowledge becomes the public's obsession.
Remember how Stephen Curry came out the shadows with a rich, unbelievable backstory? George Mason 2006 came from a parallel world that most D.C.-area sports fans had never even acknowledged. Butler, we never asked for, State, and Southern Illinois emerged from out of real actual cornfields. Down here in our world, teams and players can still exist in obscurity, far away from the clutches of the Sports-Industrial Complex. When they materialize on the public stage in March, they appear in the same backlit fog that accompanies any strange group of heroes.
There is still plenty of mystery left here for the next generation of sports thinkers to consider. In 2009, a kid staying up late at an university in the Eastern time zone can still come across a Big Sky or WCC score. He or she can still wonder and imagine. A pair of teams three hours away are playing the same sport with the same rules, under the same American flag with the same anthem played beforehand. Behind that scoreline, coaches and players are competing for the same ultimate prize, chasing the same dream as the ones at your school: a spot on the Big Bracket, the opportunity to play for the National Championship on national television.
Our chosen land is so vast and ever-changing, so truly undiscoverable, that it will never be properly charted or mapped. Even though I've traveled to hundreds of games over the past six years, I've only found a fraction of this world. There will always be more stories, more coaches and players and teams, more journeys and more challenging circumstances.
That's why we'll never waste time on generic underdoggery. We don't have to bother pretending that this pursuit is about small, helpless entities that achieve success far beyond the size of their dreams. All of that is cheap grace and romanticism we've gladly left to others. We are discoverers, voyagers and warrior-poets... and you thought we were all extinct. The Mid-Majority's mission is to bring the past to the present, to reconnect with the sense of mystery and joy that disappeared a quarter-century ago.
We exist in a parallel universe, one where the ESPN era never happened.
We want to live the old ways, to be crotchety by choice. When TV and sports blogs are orbiting farther and farther away from the sports world, we curmudgeons are the only real revolutionaries left anymore. Our chosen ideas and concepts survived for four generations, not just one. We celebrate competition, and find it fascinating at face value. The game and the season are beautiful enough.
We want to keep using this new technology to channel understanding of this all-too-hidden world. We want to provide a window into this wonder, to introduce you to players and coaches and places you don't know. And we'll do that by following the same precepts and goals that guided sports journalism for over eight decades: information, atmosphere and actual informed opinion.
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