GAMES - One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation - George F. Will

One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation - George F. Will (2008)

Chapter 6. GAMES


Raising Michael Oher

Even if you think football consists primarily of two regrettable elements of life—violence, punctuated by committee meetings, called huddles. Even if you wince at institutions of higher education engaging in the low practice of exploiting young, often black, men who emerge, after four years generating revenues for campus football factories, unscathed by education. Even if you think that if the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations had been really thorough they would have traced both scandals to connivings by college football coaches. Even if you think all those things, you are going to enjoy Michael Lewis’s book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Your enjoyment, however, will be tempered by dismay about some of what you learn.

Lewis tells an amazing true story in an appropriately mordant style, some samples of which are:

“When the coaches walked into the living room of the Tuohys’ lovely Memphis home, the first thing they saw was the Rebel Christmas tree: red and blue branches festooned with nothing but Ole Miss ornaments.”

“There were a number of colleges—and Ole Miss was one of them—for which the expropriation of the market value of pre-professional football players was something very like a core business.”

“Hugh was a football coach and so he tended to take an indulgent view of bad grades.”

The Evangelical Christian School “was as close to a church as a school could get. E.C.S. wouldn’t accept kids unless both parents gave testimony of their experience of being born again—and the stories better be good.”

Lewis’s subject is the salvation of Michael Oher, a black child virtually raised on the mean streets of Memphis. But Lewis also continues what he began with Moneyball, his 2003 bestseller explaining new thinking about how to construct baseball teams. He is advancing a new genre of journalism that shows how market forces and economic reasoning shape the evolution of sports. Oher, who today plays left offensive tackle for the University of Mississippi, is a valuable commodity because of the lasting impact on football made by someone who played on the other side of the ball.

After the 1981 regular season, Lawrence Taylor, linebacker for the New York Giants, became the only rookie ever named the National Football League’s defensive player of the year. He was six-foot-three, 240 pounds and quick as a cat, running forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He was, Lewis says, “a new kind of athlete doing a new kind of thing.” This is how Taylor described his thing:

“I’ll drive my helmet” into the quarterback, “or, if I can, I’ll bring my arm up over my head and try to ax the sonuvabitch in two. So long as the guy is holding the ball, I intend to hurt him…. If I hit the guy right, I’ll hit a nerve and he’ll feel electrocuted, he’ll forget for a few seconds that he’s on a football field.”

Terrifying, disorienting, and injuring quarterbacks is most of a linebacker’s job description. Taylor concentrated coaches’ minds on the problem of protecting quarterbacks. Most of them are right-handed, which means that when they are passing, threats from their left come thundering at them from their blind side. Hence the sudden interest in large and agile left offensive tackles. This interest intensified when Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, devised the West Coast offense. It floods the secondary with receivers. More receivers mean fewer pass blockers, so the left tackle has more problems to cope with.

Which is why by 2004 the average salary of an NFL left tackle was $5.5 million a year, second only to the average for quarterbacks. The five most highly paid left tackles were earning almost $3 million more than the five most highly paid right tackles. That is very good news for Oher, one of thirteen siblings from the nation’s third-poorest ZIP code.

He had finished the ninth grade, but the tenth was unlikely, and he was on track to be selling drugs, en route to jail or an early grave. His father was long gone, his mother was in and out of drug rehab. In his file from the public school system—he had been in eleven different schools in nine years—the numbers looked, Lewis says, “like misprints.” His measured IQ was 80; his “ability to learn” placed him in the sixth percentile. He had repeated first and second grades. The school system said that through the fourth grade he had performed at “grade level,” which is odd because he never attended third grade. He was almost nonverbal. Essentially unparented throughout his childhood, he scavenged for clothes, slept here and there in (sometimes slightly) less disorganized households than that of his mother, who when Michael was five was caring for seven boys and three girls, all under fifteen. Caring, that is, in her fashion. And not at all for ten or so days after the first of each month, when her welfare check arrived and she disappeared to feed her addiction to crack cocaine. On one occasion, lasting for weeks, his mother and seven boys slept in an old Chevy, washing themselves in a service station bathroom. For five years he lived in various households in a housing project with about a thousand residents and “no two-parent families: zero.” It is unsurprising that Oher, according to Lewis, became a teenager who “didn’t know what an ocean was, or a bird’s nest, or the tooth fairy.”

But the father of a friend, seeking a Christian education for his son, took Oher along on a visit to one of the many private schools created after the policy of forced busing, intended to achieve racial balance, provoked the departure of seven thousand children from Memphis’s public schools. Oher came to the attention of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, parents of children at one of these schools. They are white; they are the religious right.

Taco Bell franchises had made Sean a lot of money. Nature had made Leigh Anne into a human firecracker, exploding with energy. Their evangelical Christianity made them receptive to the possibility of redemption in the here and now. And attending Ole Miss had made them football-crazy. They became Oher’s legal guardians. (One of Leigh Anne’s cousins called late one night: “All right, I’ve just had my fifth beer. Who the hell is this black kid in y’all’s Christmas card?”) They got Oher, with his fifty-inch waist, into a size-58-long sport coat and into the Briarcrest Christian School.

When Oher wandered into the school gym, a coach tossed a basketball to him, expecting him to take it to the hoop, as a six-foot-five boy might, or kick it into the stands, as a 344-pound boy might. Instead, Oher caught it, dribbled three times between his legs, spun and drained a three-point shot from the corner of the floor. A human mountain with moves like a point guard? Two words spring to mind: left tackle.

Getting Oher his high school diploma became quite a project for the Tuohys. No one in Oher’s family had ever had even a driver’s license. When Leigh Anne told him to get his backpack from the foyer, he had no idea where that was. But with the help of tutors, by the first semester of his senior year he had risen to 162nd in a class of 163. “He’s picking them off one at a time,” Sean crowed, “like Sergeant York.” The Tuohys found some interesting ways of getting high school credits off the Internet. (Lewis calls the Brigham Young University program of correspondence courses “the great Mormon grade-grab.” Sean, evangelical but broad-minded, says: “The Mormons may be going to hell. But they really are nice people.”) Anyway, Oher satisfied NCAA criteria for college eligibility.

Oher’s childhood of grinding deprivation might have put him on a path to riches. Lewis commits some perhaps dubious sociology when he declares that a miserable ghetto childhood can be excellent preparation for football: “It made you angry, it made you aggressive, it made you want to tear someone’s head off. The N.F.L. was loaded with players who had mined a loveless, dysfunctional childhood for sensational acts of violence.”

Be that as it may, there came a day when a bevy of assistant football coaches from the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and elsewhere came to a Briarcrest practice. There Oher and a wee 270-pound teammate faced off, one on one, for a demonstration collision. In an instant, Oher effortlessly shoved his teammate down the field. In a flash, the coaches fired up their cell phones. Lewis says the Clemson coach rushed up to Oher’s coach, saying, “I seen all I need to see,” and added that Oher could have a full scholarship. Later, Tennessee’s head coach watched Michael for half an hour and pronounced him the nation’s best. A national recruiting frenzy had begun, from schools in states Michael could not find on a map.

When Ole Miss introduced its new football coach, he announced that his first goal was to recruit Oher. The coach barged into the Tuohys’ living room, took a gander at Oher, and exclaimed, as Lewis renders it, “YAAAWWW BEEE BAAWWW!” (“You a big boy!”) Michael could not understand a word he said. That did not matter. He wanted to go to Ole Miss, where his newfound parents had gone.

There Sean Tuohy told the coach, Ed Orgeron, that Oher would have trouble learning plays from a book full of X’s and O’s, but could learn the plays if they were presented visually, using mustard bottles and ketchup bottles to represent players. Lewis reports:

“‘Coach,’ said Sean. ‘My faith believes that the Lord sends down gifts for everyone and our job is to find those gifts. Michael’s gift is the gift of memory. When he knows it, he knows it.’

“Coach O stopped scribbling and looked up. ‘I’m going to tell you one thing, Sean,’ he bellowed. ‘He’s got some pretty good [expletive] feet, too. You seen them feet? Now them feet: that’s a [expletive] gift!’”

Oher was not a whale out of water at Ole Miss. Lewis says that the typical football player in Michael’s college class “had third-grade-level reading skills. Several had never taken math. Ever.” Michael’s three closest friends among his Ole Miss teammates had children. One had become a father at fifteen. Michael brought a teammate, Quentin Taylor, to the Tuohys’ home for Thanksgiving, and Taylor mentioned that he had fathered three children by two different mothers. Lewis writes:

“Leigh Anne pulled the carving knife from the turkey and said, ‘Quentin, you can do what you want and it’s your own business. But if Michael Oher does that I’m cutting his penis off.’ From the look on Quentin’s face Michael could see he didn’t think she was joking.”

She probably wasn’t. She and Sean seriously, ferociously, implacably care about Oher. They were the first adults to do so.

Last season Michael was named to the first-team freshman all-American team—as a “true freshman.” That is college-football-speak for a player who is not “redshirted.” And that is college-football-speak for holding a player out of competition for a year while he spends time in the center of his academic life—no, silly, not the library, the weight room.

On Friday nights, American high schools discover talent that universities refine on Saturdays, for the nation’s eventual delight on Sundays. Oher’s story is not pretty, but Lewis tells it well—and against all odds, it may be heading for a happy ending.

—NOVEMBER 12, 2006

The Man from Moro Bottom

On January 26, 1983, phone service throughout area code 205, which then included all of Alabama, crashed from overload. Was the cause a natural disaster? Yes. Something very natural—death—had claimed the University of Alabama’s football coach.

Allen Barra’s illuminating book The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant explains why Alabamians felt so bereft. It also answers a question especially pertinent since Thomas Herrion, twenty-three, a 315-pound lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, died in August of a previously undetected heart disease: Has football become grotesque?

After Bryant became a coach, and to his regret, football players became specialists—often dangerously large specialists. In 1964, all limits on substitution ended, bringing the virtual extinction of players who played “on both sides of the ball”—both offense and defense. Some teams swelled to more than 130 players until the NCAA cut scholarships to only—only!—85. This was the end of the “eleven men and sic ’em” football favored by the man who earned his nickname when, at the age of fourteen, he wrestled a bear.

For some Alabamians, Barra says, September 11 means the day in 1913 when Bryant was born in a place—it was not a town—called Moro Bottom, Arkansas. He played at Alabama and got most of his then record 323 victories there, where he won six national championships—as many as the top three active coaches combined. He would have won a seventh in 1966 if the country, including those who vote on team rankings, had not been so angry about the only Alabamian more famous than Bryant—Governor George Wallace.

But football helped change the face of the South. Before the 1963 Orange Bowl, President Kennedy visited the locker room of the integrated Oklahoma Sooners, but not Alabama’s. The 1969 Texas Longhorns were the last all-white team voted national champions.

Bryant—“My players are athletes first and students second”—had an agreeable aversion to hypocrisy and cant. He told players: “Ten years from now you are going to be married with a family, your wife might be sick, your kids might be sick, you might be sick, but you will get your butt up and go to work. That’s what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to teach you how to do things you don’t feel like doing.”

Bryant understood what football meant to the South. The Rose Bowl had been reluctant to invite Alabama to play in 1926, the era of Erskine Caldwell’s novels about rural Georgia, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. Alabama’s victory over Washington occasioned, Barra says, “the greatest statewide celebration since the shelling of Fort Sumter.”

The University of Alabama’s enrollment actually increased during the Depression partly because it welcomed Northeastern Jewish students who were excluded by quotas from many prestigious Northern schools. In the 1960s, the South’s most turbulent decade since the 1860s, Alabama dominated college football, and because an ABC television prodigy named Roone Arledge knew charisma when he saw it, Bryant became the craggy face of college football.

Also in the 1960s, unlimited substitution began making huge players practical as offensive or defensive specialists. Barra notes that Bryant’s 1966 team “looked like an average high school team today.” It went 11-0 and then won the Sugar Bowl. It had only fourteen players who weighed more than 200 pounds. The two heaviest weighed 213. The linemen averaged 195. The quarterback weighed 175.

Today, Scouts, Inc., reports that nearly 40 percent of the interior linemen who will go to Division I colleges in September 2006—many of these players not yet eighteen—already weigh at least 300 pounds. In 1980, only one NFL player topped 300. In 1994, the year a mortality study found that linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than the general population and that the largest players have six times the risk of cardiac death than normalsize players, the number of 300-pounders was 155. Ten years later, 370 NFL players exceeded 300, and 10 exceeded 350.

This season, the offensive lines of thirty of the thirty-two NFL teams average at least 300 pounds, and one team averages 323. Of the sixty-one offensive college linemen invited to last February’s NFL Scouting Combine, fifty-eight weighed at least 300. Of the three little fellows, one weighed 299 and two weighed 298.

After eighteen college players died in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt—it took serious carnage to cause that cowboy and warrior to flinch—compelled rules changes to make football safer. Today, it is unhealthy because of the kinetic energy involved in collisions between huge men—and because of what they do to become huge. Not coaching football was unhealthy for Bryant. “If I quit coaching,” he frequently said, “I’ll croak in a week.” He died twenty-eight days after his last game.

[NOVEMBER 7, 2005]

“Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer!”

Don Cole, aka the Heart Guy, was ailing and wore a beeper. He was a candidate for a heart transplant and was not supposed to ever be more than a two-hour drive from his Nashville hospital, in case it received a heart that could be transplanted. He said that if the hospital learned that he left the two-hour radius he would be removed from the list of recipients. So why, weekend after weekend, was he three and a half hours from Nashville, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama? “If I can’t go to Alabama football games, what’s the point in living?”

Then there is the couple whose huge RV resembles the fuselage of a Boeing 737. What sacrifices have they made for their devotion to Alabama football? “Let’s see,” muses the husband. “We missed our daughter’s wedding. We told her, just don’t get married on a game day and we’ll be there, hundred percent, and she went off and picked the third Saturday in October which everybody knows is when Alabama plays Tennessee, so we told her, hey, we got a ballgame to go to. We made the reception—went there as soon as the game was over.”

You can meet these folks and others of their tribe in Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania, a hilarious—and a little bit scary—book by Warren St. John, a New York writer who was born in Alabama. A few years ago, he returned to try to figure this out: “Why do I care?” About sports, that is.

To plumb the depths of the human fascination with contests, St. John went for total immersion. He spent a football season with the seriously hard-core fans. They are the ones for whom the phrase “Roll Tide” is an all-purpose exclamation-incantation-salutation. They are the purchasers of official Alabama coffins (red, with the school logo on the top and a white velvet “A” sewn into the lid—$1,999). These fans travel from game to game in their $300,000-to-$1,400,000 RVs, turning game day into a three-day festival of cold beer, artery-clogging broiled bologna sticks, ’Bama Bombs (Maraschino cherries soaked in PGA—pure grain alcohol) and sacramental events like the Bear Bryant Namesake Reunion at Tuscaloosa’s Bryant Museum.

The museum, which contains such relics as the jacket and slacks one fan wore to his five hundredth consecutive Alabama game, is across Bryant Drive from where the RVs gather, near Bryant-Denny Stadium and Bryant Hall, a dorm, and not far from Paul William Bryant High School. The reunion is for people named for Bryant, who coached the Tide to six national championships. There are almost six hundred such people.

Alabama’s obsession with football began, in a sense, on January 1, 1926, five months after the Scopes trial—about teaching evolution—gave the South’s despisers fresh ammunition. On that day Alabama’s Crimson Tide became the first team from the South to play in the Rose Bowl. The Tide won, 20-19. The South really would rise again.

But in every region, sport can produce a collective mind, or sometimes a collective setting aside of mind. In 1895, a French psychologist published The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, pioneering the study of the mental unity of crowds—people in the same frame of mind. “Freud,” writes St. John, “disparaged crowds as neurotic on the grounds that, like neurotics, crowds ‘demand illusions, and in fact can’t live without them’ and ‘are guided not by ordinary objective reality but psychological reality.’”

However, St. John believes in using Occam’s razor—that is, in first trying the simplest explanation of a phenomenon: “We can’t paint our faces and scream like maniacs at our desks, in the classroom or at the dinner tables with our families, so…”

Well, then, why does St. John care about the Tide? “I chose Alabama the way a baby bird chooses its mother: it was the first thing I saw.” We all acquire such allegiances, but there also is a regional twist to this. For Southerners, the myth of the Lost Cause is all very well, but winning is nice, too.

So try to think anthropologically about those ’Bama fans who fire up their RVs, break out their radar detectors, and sing “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer! Give ’em hell Alabama!” They are not just emulating the RVer who said: “We can’t be young but we can be immature.” They are pursuing what sportswriter Frank Deford called “that curious Southern combination of eternal knighthood and childhood.” Roll Tide.

[NOVEMBER 21, 2004]

Randy Shannon’s Realism

MIAMI—Occasionally—very occasionally—a football person says something that punctures the fog of George Patton-style rhetoric that football people emit. Before a Super Bowl in the 1970s (the MCMLXXs, for those of you in a Super Bowl frame of mind), Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas asked a subversive question about the game: “If it’s the ultimate, how come they’re playing it again next year?”

But most football people, and especially football coaches, are of the “Football Is Not a Matter of Life and Death—It’s More Important Than That” school of thought. However, when Randy Shannon, recently named head coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes, says that football can be a matter of life and death, that is not hyperbole, it is autobiography.

Shannon, forty, grew up in Miami’s Liberty City, which is what sociologists and other refined thinkers call a challenging urban environment. Shannon was three when his father was murdered by one of his friends. “They had an argument,” Shannon says matter-of-factly. Two of Shannon’s brothers and a sister died, from cocaine and AIDS. By age sixteen, Shannon was a father. He could easily have been on a glide path to a prison or a cemetery. Instead, because of football, he went to the University of Miami and became the first member of his family to earn a college degree.

After a brief NFL career with the Cowboys, he went into coaching, and now he is hopscotching around the country recruiting high school seniors, many of whom think college football is a certain path to the NFL. “That,” says Shannon, “is the mentality that has to change.” Less than 2 percent of even Division I college football players will have NFL careers, and most of those who do will be out of the game by the time they are thirty—the average NFL career lasts less than four years.

The Washington Post’s Amy Shipley reports that the University of Miami has more players—forty-two—on NFL rosters than any other school. Miami’s main rival—the Florida State Seminoles (a T-shirt favored by Miami students reads: “I think, therefore I am not a ’Nole”)—is second with forty-one. The University of Florida ranks seventh with thirty-five. But in the last ten years, those three teams have had, combined, more than one thousand players, all of them exceptional athletes but most of them not of NFL caliber. Which is why Shannon says that when visiting the home of a potential recruit, “I talk to the parents about everything but football.”

On a recent day, Shannon was in the Palm Beach area recruiting a wide receiver, and then was off to Omaha to make sure that a very large lineman was still eager to be a Hurricane.

Because South Florida is the incubator of so much high school talent (skill positions, Shannon says; for linemen, look to the Midwest, hence the Nebraska trip), during the off-season many NFL players come home to train at the University of Miami’s facilities. Shannon says his players “see the fancy cars, the gold chains,” so as he takes over Miami’s football program, he plans to “come in with a stern attitude.”

Stern adults got Shannon to the peak of his profession at age forty. A fourth-grade teacher told him, “You’re very smart—don’t let anyone tell you different.” A fifth-grade teacher, disapproving his choice of clothes one day, said, “Don’t ever come to school like that again.” When he was in junior high school, his football coach took the team to play a team in a juvenile detention center, a sobering experience.

Shannon’s rules for his players include: If you miss a class, you don’t start the next game. Fall below a certain grade point average, you can’t set foot off campus. A conservatively dressed man, with the elegant hands of a surgeon or pianist, Shannon wants his players to learn “how to respect life,” so when “they leave the university and the football program, they will go with confidence.” They will go, all of them, having taken a public speaking course.

Duffy Daugherty, who coached Michigan State from 1954 through 1972, was an aphorist (“Football is not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport”) and a realist. Because of alumni demands for football perfection, Daugherty said: “A football coach’s main problem is that he is responsible to irresponsible people.” Shannon, who like 80 percent of his players is African-American, feels responsible to, and for, them.

[FEBRUARY 4, 2007]

The NFL: An Intensification of Reality

A fat lot Keats knew about autumn. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”? Fiddlesticks. It is football season, the distilled essence of modern life.

It is sex (pneumatic cheerleaders), violence (when the 1976 Super Bowl made the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders famous, a CBS producer said, “The audience deserves a little sex with its violence”), technology (quarterbacks electronically instructed by coaches wired to subordinate Merlins in the upper reaches of the stadium), committee meetings (huddles), division of labor (interior linemen specializing in third-and-short yardage situations), jargon (zone-flooding nickel packages and seam-splitting nose tackles, or something like that), and a hallmark of a commercial society—strategic parsimony about time.

Welcome to the National Football League, a cultural artifact that causes thinkers to commit sociology. Michael MacCambridge plumbs these depths in his fine new book, America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation. It is a rip-roaring epic of American business.

In 1920, eleven men met in a Canton, Ohio, Hupmobile showroom and assessed each other $100 franchise fees. In 1999, the fee for the Houston Texans franchise was $700 million. The eight-year, $17.6 billion TV deal signed in 1998 pays each club $84 million this year. The NFL has come a long way since the Philadelphia Eagles—named after the symbol of FDR’s National Recovery Administration—traveled by train to New York on game day to avoid hotel expenses and ate at Horn & Hardart Automats.

In 1952, the Chicago Bears-Dallas Texans Thanksgiving Day game was moved from Dallas to Akron in quest of better attendance—and drew just 3,000 fans to a field where, that morning, 14,800 had attended a high-school game. But a new appliance was coming, and soon the NFL supplanted boxing as the sport whose compact action seemed most suited to television screens. Of which there were only fourteen thousand in 1947 but 26 million in 1954.

By 1980, the League of Women Voters had to beat a hasty retreat from scheduling two presidential debates on Monday nights. (Carter might have been reelected if that year’s debate had been up against Monday Night Football.Few would have watched.) By the 1990s, the NFL had the power to transform Fox into a major player among the networks.

On the field, unlimited substitution was restored in 1950 and made most of the swarming players seem like interchangeable parts in large machines. That, and competitive balance, a product of equal team shares of the dominant source of revenue (national television contracts), led to the apotheosis of head coaches, and especially to the cult of the Packers’ Vince Lombardi. Both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey considered him as a running mate in 1968.

“The period of the early ’70s,” writes MacCambridge, “brought an odd sense of cognitive dissonance to pro football’s rise. At no other time in its history did the guiding ethos of football—teamwork, self-sacrifice, the concerted application of mental and physical discipline toward a single, united goal—seem more out of step with the larger cultural moment.”

The NFL, with its aversion to understatement, flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, when cultural change was accelerating, and the tone setters in American sports were Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. Soon the NFL produced the first black celebrity featured in a national corporate advertising campaign, for Hertz. O. J. Simpson. Oh, well.

This NFL season will reach a climax with the XXXIXth Super Bowl. (Roman numerals for gladiatorial spectacles.) It will be watched by many millions more Americans than will have watched the presidential inauguration seventeen days before. The fourth Super Bowl, in January 1970, was watched by more people than had watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon six months earlier. The ten-most-watched television programs in history are all Super Bowls. Most viewers have financial stakes in the outcomes, having bet on them. Super Bowl Sunday is second only to Thanksgiving in Americans’ caloric intake. “If Jesus Christ were alive today,” said Norman Vincent Peale in 1974, “he’d be at the Super Bowl.” But surely not in a luxury suite.

The best thing about NFL teams is the purity of their professionalism. None are appendages of institutions of higher education, so there is no damned nonsense about “student athletes.” When in 1957 Queen Elizabeth attended a Maryland-North Carolina game, she asked Maryland’s governor, “Where do you get all those enormous players?” He replied, “Your Majesty, that’s a very embarrassing question.”

In Sports Illustrated’s recent fiftieth-anniversary issue, Jeff MacGregor wrote, “Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary.” Perhaps. But, then, most of what makes life sweet involves emancipation from necessity. The NFL is an acquired taste that Americans have acquired less as an alternative reality than as an intensification of modern reality, although why they want that is a mystery.

[OCTOBER 11, 2004]

Speaking SportsCenterese

If we had ESPN twenty-two years ago, we wouldn’t have any children.


You are in a ballpark with your twelve-year-old. The shortstop makes a sparkling play and your child murmurs, “Web gem.” As a slugger approaches the plate, your child says, with a hint of drollery, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” When the slugger hits one four hundred feet, the child says, “That’ll make the Top Ten Plays.”

Congratulations: Your child is bilingual. He or she speaks SportsCenterese, the lingua franca of ESPN nation, the capital of which is Bristol, Connecticut, where twenty-seven satellite dishes scarf up forty thousand feeds a year, the best of which are sent around the clock to sports addicts, such as the viewer who, in 1987, said: “Please show the Nebraska-UCLA game at 6:00 as I have a 5:00 Mass and would have to find a priest to replace me if you show it earlier.”

ESPN will be a quarter-century old on September 7. Measurements of “brand resonance” show that among 138 brands, including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, ESPN ranks first among men. Each week more than 90 million people are exposed to ESPN media—ESPN (there are locally produced SportsCenters in Canada, Brazil, a Spanish version for the rest of Latin America, China, India and Taiwan), ESPN2, ESPN Classic, (2.3 million page views in a peak hour), and ESPN The Magazine (a circulation of 1.7 million in just five years).

This stunning growth reflects ways America has changed in a quarter of a century. The change can be measured in money.

In 1979, when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network began, the average major league baseball salary was $113,558 and pitcher Nolan Ryan became the first million-dollar-a-year athlete in team sports. Today the average baseball salary ($2.55 million) has increased 2,241 percent and there are 1,702 million-dollar athletes. In 1979, broadcasters paid the National Football League $8.8 million annually; today, the fee is approximately $2.25 billion, an increase of more than 25,400 percent.

America is a lot richer than it was in 1979, but not that much richer. Something else is afoot, turning so many eyes—that is what pulls the tide of money—to sports. Perhaps people are drawn to sports because they really don’t mean a thing. In this politicized age, even—no, especially—cultural arguments are political arguments. Politics is understood as a series of angry confrontations, and war (on drugs, poverty, illiteracy, etc.) is a metaphor for policy. Perhaps, then, sports delight because they are a refuge—one of society’s few meaning-free zones.

Or not. Perhaps there is an opposite explanation for the unslakable appetite for the spectacle of sport, an appetite that has produced ESPN.

Michael Mandelbaum, author of eight books on international relations, argues in his ninth book, The Meaning of Sports, that sports are “a variety of religious experience.” Like religion, sports stand apart from the mundane and are a realm of special coherence and heroic example. The rise of team sports coincided with what Mandelbaum calls the twentieth century’s “social and political hurricanes.” Those were urbanization—people moving from countryside to town and from job to job—and world wars, unprecedented confusions and traumas from which people sought diversions. The twentieth century, Mandelbaum writes, “was the era of free verse in poetry, stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, atonal music in place of traditional harmony and melody, and abstract rather than figurative art. James Joyce succeeded Charles Dickens, Jackson Pollock filled the place Rembrandt had occupied.”

At a time when Robert Frost was comparing free verse to playing tennis without a net, sports became cultural counterpoints because they are transparent and coherent. Transparent because spectators can see for themselves what is happening, and why. Coherent in that they are defined and governed by rationality—rules—and reach definitive conclusions. It is surely not mere coincidence that sports and detective novels found mass audiences simultaneously.

These clues to the mystery of ESPN’s remarkable success may assuage any guilt you feel about the time you spend with the boys and girls from Bristol. But don’t get carried away. There has been at least one ESPN divorce in which the wife gave to her husband an improvident ultimatum: It’s ESPN or me. In at least ten harmonious marriages, the parents have named children ESPN, Espn, Espin, or Espyn. How many children have been named HBO or CNN?

[SEPTEMBER 7, 2004]

The Movie, and the Truth, About Texas Western

A Division I college basketball program is not the sort of enterprise easily confused with a seminary or a seminar on ethics. But according to what is currently America’s most popular movie, forty years ago one such program became a nation-shaking, history-shaping moral force. The movie, although not too noble to palter with facts, is no more parsimonious with the truth than movies often are when turning history into entertainment.

Glory Road celebrates the 1965-1966 basketball team of Texas Western College (which in 1967 became the University of Texas at El Paso). The Miners included seven black players, most recruited far from mining country—the South Bronx, Gary, Indiana, and other mostly urban places. The drama was that five of them started the 1966 NCAA championship game that Texas Western won, beating an all-white University of Kentucky team, 72-65.

The game was not quite, as the movie insists, David against Goliath. Granted, the Kentucky Wildcats, then college basketball’s aristocrats, were college basketball’s winningest team in the 1940s and 1950s. But Texas Western had lost only one game and was ranked third in the nation as the tournament began.

The game’s racial dimension looks much larger in retrospect than it did then. In the movie, a Texas Western official urges coach Don Haskins to abide by an unwritten rule: Play one black at home and two on the road—three if behind. And another white character scoffs at the idea that blacks might be “the future” of basketball. But Ron Rapoport of the Chicago Sun-Times notes:

“A decade before the game that supposedly changed basketball, the undefeated 1955-1956 University of San Francisco team won the NCAA championship with a team that played four blacks—Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Hal Perry, and Gene Brown. In 1958, the coaches’ all-American team was all black—Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas, Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Bob Boozer of Kansas State, Guy Rodgers of Temple, and Elgin Baylor of Seattle. In 1962, the University of Cincinnati started four black players when it won the NCAA championship, and Loyola University of Chicago started four when it won in 1963. Frank Deford, a distinguished writer, covered the Texas Western-Kentucky game for Sports Illustrated and did not mention the fact of five black starters. Neither did the New York Times nor the Washington Post. Already the ascendancy of blacks in basketball was such that the four best players in the NBA were Chamberlain, Russell, Baylor, and Robertson.”

In the movie, Haskins tells his team the day before the game that he will play only black players the next night—he used all seven—in order to make a social statement. But former Georgetown coach John Thompson, a black man famous for his bluntness, minced no words when talking to Eddie Einhorn for a book, How March Became Madness, a history of the NCAA tournament, that Einhorn is publishing next month (with Rapoport’s collaboration). Thompson told Einhorn that Haskins said his only goal was to win, so he played his best players.

And what of the movie scene where the players’ motel rooms are trashed and racist epithets are painted on the walls? One of the players, Nevil Shed, recently told Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred, “Could have happened.” Kindred calls that Shed’s way of handling “the fiction.”

Although the movie shows Haskins emphasizing basketball fundamentals and telling the players that “showboating is nothing but insecurity,” the movie also makes much of the black players successfully seeking his permission for the more flamboyant style of play they learned on city asphalt. This much is true: Between 1967 and 1976, the NCAA banned dunk shots, even during warm-ups. What do you suppose that was about?

In his just-published At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, Taylor Branch writes that when in 1950 Kentucky lost to City College of New York’s integrated team, Kentucky’s legislature flew the flag at the capitol at half-staff. Two months after the 1966 championship game, a black player received an athletic scholarship from one of Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference rivals, Vanderbilt. Kentucky’s coach, Adolph Rupp, was born in 1901 and probably was not much different than his peers in his time and place. According to Branch, Rupp “complained of incessant calls from his university president: ‘That son-of-a-bitch wants me to get some n——in here. What am I gonna do?’” But Kentucky had no black professor until 1965.

When Rupp retired in 1972, his team was all white. Today, Kentucky has a black coach, Tubby Smith, whose fifteen-man team includes ten blacks. They play in Rupp Arena.

[JANUARY 22, 2006]