July 26th, 2006 06:13 EST
The Pure Chanciness Of Life
Some of journalism’s classiest writers appear not in the op-ed pages but in the sports section. Op-ed pundits tend to pop their buttons with self-importance. They can be stuffed and stuffy. That’s rarely true of sports writers. They know more about the pure chanciness of life than most writers. In fact, they know more about a lot of things, such as personal triumph and defeat.
An example of the beauty and elegance that often appears in sports sections is Selena Roberts writing in The New York Times on Wednesday, July 19th. Few write about baseball as gracefully and insightfully as Roberts. Of the great but baffling Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez, she writes: “Three errors or not, his oiled wrist motion puts a cursive loop on his throws.” You will search a long time to find anything as pure or insightful on op-ed pages. A-Rod, as he’s called, “is either loved too little or loathed too much,” she writes.
This is an intersection of sports and poetry, and thanks to writers like Roberts such intersections are not uncommon. In the average newsroom the news editor doesn’t covet the sports desk’s news hole, and vice versa. But all too often in news meetings the sports desk withholds its best story in order to have a good front for the sports section and the news editor fails to weigh the best sports story against other front-page candidates.
This not only leads to avoidably boring and hidebound newspapers, it deprives sports of would-be enthusiasts and readers of much good writing. This is an agreed-upon disconnect, and it takes a talented and determined editor to override it. But it should be overridden more often, because our own lives are a lot more like sports than politics, and that’s why sports are so popular. We can relate to an enigma like A-Rod or a happy warrior like Derek Jeter (the Yankee shortstop and team captain) more readily than we can to a dyspeptic John Bolton representing us at the United Nations.
Many aspiring journalists eschew the sports desk because they aspire to fame and think that covering a state legislature or Congress is more likely to gain them recognition than covering baseball. They’re probably right, but very few front-page stories ever achieve the gracefulness or thoughtfulness of Selena Robert’s story about the struggling A-Rod, and very few politicians are as interesting.
The ancient Greeks understood this, and we in our time make noise about understanding it when we hype the Olympics, but mostly we perceive the Olympics as a commercial opportunity. The Greeks, on the other hand, understood that games are the stuff of life and that nobility on the field inevitably turns up in all our endeavors. When the young Alexander of Macedon brought his 45,000 soldiers to Asia Minor and hurled them against 350,000 Persians, he understood,--as the Persians did not-- that he had brought athletes to Gaugamela.
At a moment in history when trans-fats have turned us into an obese, discontented and polarized nation, it would behoove us to consider whether sports should be so compartmentalized. After all, wouldn’t it improve the climate if our politicians were better sports?