October 6, 2010

Sports Stars and Sports Writing

Category: Miscellaneous,Sports :: Permalink

In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace talks about his (and, by extension, our) obsession with sports autobiographies.  We read the things, he says, because

we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers.  We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough.  We want to get intimate with all that profundity.  We want inside them; we want the Story.  We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.  We want to know how they did it….  and of course, we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best (“How did it feel to win the big one?”) (143).

And yet, when sports stars tell their own stories, they are almost always disappointing.  In fact, they are often banal, whether they appear in books or in interviews:

Turn on any post-contest TV interview: “Kenny, how did it feel to make that sensational game-winning shoestring catch in the end zone with absolutely no I mean zero time remaining on the clock?”  “Well, Frank, I was just real pleased.  I was real happy and also pleased.  We’ve all worked hard and come a long way as a team, and it’s always a good feeling to be able to contribute.”  “Mark, you’ve now homered in your last eight straight at-bats and lead both leagues in RBIs — any comment?”  “Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time.  I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution, and all of us know we’ve got to take it one game at a time and hang in there and not look ahead and just basically do the best we can at all times” (152).

So these stars are stunningly inarticulate, especially right after a demanding game (which is something Wallace doesn’t factor in: ask me a detailed, heavy, challenging question right after a sermon or a lecture and I may not be as articulate as I’d like either; ask me how it felt to give that lecture and I’d probably say something banal: “Um … fine”).  But the inability to articulate and the tendency to the banal pervades the autobiographies, too, which are not composed on the spur of the moment after the game was won.

Are these athletes dim?  Hardly.  Their sports require “extraordinary mental powers”:

Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach’s diagram of a 3-2 zone trap … or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court’s corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it (153).

Where most of us, under such circumstances, would freeze up, overcome perhaps by our own internal voices, great athletes aren’t.  Wallace suggests that these great athletes aren’t analyzing what they’re doing or what they’re supposed to do; they’re bypassing the mind and acting:

The real secret behind top athelete’s genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself.  The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands as the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all (154).

He adds:

It may well be that spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.  And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence (155).

The same, it occurs to me, may be true not just of sports, but of a lot of work.  I spent a week out in the wilds of British Columbia planting trees when I was in college and I wasn’t good at it at all.  Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was that I was bored; I couldn’t turn off my mind and I couldn’t entertain my mind.  Where others simply got out there and planted, climbing every mountain and fording every stream in their way, I thought about it all and couldn’t get the job done.

One thing that’s going on here is what is sometimes called “poetic knowledge”: the knowledge that comes from experience, not from analysis.  What Tracy Austin could do with a tennis ball wasn’t the result of analyzing the game of tennis, let alone analyzing what she herself was doing, but was simply something she did.  So, too, with an experienced carpenter: Where I have to think about where every nail goes and how exactly I ought to hold it and what force I ought to swing the hammer with, a carpenter simply bangs in the nails — and he may not be able to explain all the questions I’m thinking about.  He just does it.

Another thing to consider in this connection is that, as Wallace illustrates throughout his essay, a high degree of poetic knowledge does not necessarily correspond to a high degree of analytical knowledge.  Put another way, just because you can’t talk about your touchdown — let alone about how you felt about it, when feelings are notoriously hard to put into words and harder still to put into words that are not banal or cliche — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stupid.

What’s particularly impressive, though, are those people who manage to achieve both great technical prowess and a great ability to think things through and communicate.  I’ve met several in churches, men who can work hard in construction without having to analyze everything they do (as I would) and who can then come to a Bible study and grapple with the text of Scripture or go home and read a book and follow a complex argument.  They’re the really impressive ones.  But apparently, if Wallace is correct, they aren’t writing sports autobiographies.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:03 pm | Discuss (0)

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