Thursday, March 07, 2013

Stompin' Tom Connors and hoserism

Wednesday's news that legendary singer Stompin' Tom Connors had passed away at 77 is making waves across Canada, and for good reason. Yes, he was known for his odes to hockey, football and more, but his impact went well beyond that, and even beyond his songs. One of the most poignant statements he ever made came in 1978, when he returned his Juno Awards in a protest of the American-focused state of the Canadian music industry at that time; Dave Bidini has an excellent piece on just what that meant here. It wasn't a contrived or spotlight-seeking moment; indeed, after doing so, Stompin' Tom withdrew from the Canadian music scene almost completely for much of a decade. Instead, returning those awards was a natural extension of what he believed, what he sung about and what made him so important to Canada.

A Twitter hashtag I use a lot is #hoserism, and I think I can trace its origins back to Stompin' Tom. It's my version of Canadian nationalism, and it's a little different than how nationalism often shows up. I'm not out to prove that my country or my province is better than yours, or that everything Canadian's automatically better than anything from anywhere else, or even that the sports team from my country should defeat the sports team from yours (which proves so much, of course). For me, it's more about celebrating the uniqueness and the diversity of what we do have in Canada. I unashamedly like and celebrate a lot of Canadian things, from Rush to SCTV to the CFL, and I'm just fine with that, but they each have their own attractions, and it's not about yelling about how one of these things is the best level of Canadian culture and everything else is inferior. In my mind, that fits in with a lot of what Stompin' Tom wrote about. Many of his songs are about incredibly specific Canadian places, their glories and their problems, but you never really get the sense that he's trying to boost one part of the country over all others, or even that he's trying to criticize the rest of the world. Instead, he was showing off his pride in this entire country, and I think that's laudable. His "Stompin' Grounds" is a perfect example of this:

Perhaps most importantly, though, Stompin' Tom constantly fought against the idea that the only real Canadian successes were those who went and made it big south of the border. Personally, I'm fine with Canadians deciding that living in the U.S. is a better fit for their life or their career; everyone's situation is unique, and a lot of those Canadian exports have done great things for this country's profile. What Stompin' Tom really promoted was the idea that that's not the only means of success, though, that it's just fine to be focused on a Canadian audience. That's something I try to embrace personally, primarily writing about the CFL the way I do. Sure, I do some wider-audience stuff, and that's fun too, but I don't necessarily need to cover a sport that's popular worldwide to have a fulfilling career. There's no shame in liking and writing about Canadiana even if it doesn't make you a huge worldwide name. Stompin' Tom's career is absolute proof of that, and the impact he had on this country is one to be admired.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

On Michael Jordan and the value of access

Wright Thompson's ESPN The Magazine article on Michael Jordan at 50 is getting plenty of praise, and deservedly so. Thompson paints an excellent, nuanced portrait of Jordan, highlighting both how he's changed and how he hasn't since he quit playing. In order to do this, Thompson gains plenty of access to Jordan's life and his inner circle, and he uses it well: there's plenty of insight in his piece into what drives Jordan, and it's a worthy read. However, while reading it, I couldn't help but think back to an earlier magazine piece on Jordan, Brett Popplewell's December profile in Sportsnet Magazine. Both pieces are well worth your time, and they highlight different aspects of Jordan, so it's not like we have to unequivocally declare that one is better. However, if I had to choose just one piece I'd recommend to someone curious about Jordan's post-playing career, I'd go with Popplewell's. That might surprise many, as unlike Thompson's, it doesn't contain a single quote Jordan gave Popplewell.

Access has often been seen as one of the holy grails of journalism, and for good reason. It can be extremely useful to hear what players and coaches are thinking, to hear their rationale on why they made the decisions they did and to try and understand them as people. Moreover, access of the sort Thompson had can be the most valuable; spending more time with a subject than a quick interview in a locker room can be extremely useful, as can seeing how they behave at home and how they interact with friends. Some of my favourite sports books have followed these lines, spending a season around a team and portraying how they behave on and off the court; a few examples include Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds Or Less, David Halberstam's The Breaks Of The Game and one I'm currently reading, Roy Blount Jr.'s Three Bricks Shy Of A Load. In all of those cases, the authors used their access effectively to portray the teams and characters they covered in a deep way, and the books are better for it.

However, there's often a lot of value to pieces written with little or no access to their subject as well, and that's what stands out about Popplewell's piece. It's an extremely well-researched, well-written look at Jordan after his playing career, and it gets there without a single quote from the man himself. In many ways, it's better for not having Jordan speak (technically, there's one quote from him, but it's an old one from a 1992 interview). Instead, we hear about him not primarily from the friends and associates Thompson quotes, but from the Bobcats' fans who watch Jordan's team, from the buskers in his city and from Popplewell's own writing. Both articles arguably have Jordan the crazily-intense competitor at their centre, but the accounts of Jordan's behaviour in Thompson's piece are tempered by comments from his inner circle about how critics misunderstand him (particularly, his Hall of Fame speech) and by humanizing, compassionate moments from Jordan himself. Given that this is Jordan we're talking about, it leads me to wonder how much of that's real and how much of that is him applying his legendary competitiveness to "winning the profile". Thompson's piece is no hagiography, and he does a good job of revealing and illuminating Jordan's flaws as well as his strengths, but Popplewell's seems to me to give a more accurate picture of the man.

Is that a call to throw out the old pillar of access, to move all journalism to the Deadspin tagline of "Sports news without access, favor or discretion"? No, it isn't. As mentioned above, there's significant value to access, and significant value to pieces' like Thompson's. I see the takeaway here more as that you can still produce some pretty remarkable journalism with little (while Popplewell didn't interview Jordan, he did interview some people) or no access. There's a long tradition of that in journalism too, as seen in articles such as Gay Talese's famous "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" piece in Esquire and many of the works of another Thompson, Dr. Hunter S. (whose "Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl" in particular might be my favourite thing ever written about a sports event, despite it including very few quotes from anyone involved). In my mind, that's an inspiring message as well, one to encourage people to get writing and keep writing regardless of if they're working for Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine or just their own independent blog. Not everyone can hang out in Michael Jordan's penthouse, but that doesn't have to stop you from writing something great about him.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Don't stop believing, Manti Te'o

Continuing our quest to be your number-one source of sports song parodies, here's the most appropriate (far more than some, at least) way to summarize the saga of Manti Te'o and his fake girlfriend. Is that...Journey? Why, yes, yes it is:

Just an internet girl, livin' in a made-up world
She took the midnight calls from anywhere
Just a ND boy, living in South Bend, not Detroit
He made the midnight calls goin' anywhere

A hoaxster in a online room
 A smell of pizza and pot fumes
On the phone, they can share the night
 It goes on and on and on and on

Media, waiting, up and down the boulevard
Writing profiles in the night
Te'o, deceived? Or lying just to find emotion?
Hiding, somewhere in the night.

Working hard to get his fill,
Looking for that online thrill
 Payin' anything to talk to her,
 Just one more time

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing "I'm used!"
Oh, this story never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

Media, searching, up and down the online trail
Deadspin breaking bad news in the night
ESPN, playing catchup, sending in Jeremy Schaap
He'll summarize interviews in the night

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to your feelings
For fake girls

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

C'lay Travis Outkicks His Mental Coverage Once Again

Unsurprisingly, this is one of the first pictures that pops up for "Clay Travis".
The Deadspin story about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's oft-referenced girlfriend being illusory has spurred plenty of interesting reactions on what this means for the media, story verification procedures, his draft stock and much more. Unfortunately, it's also stirred up some of the worst detritus of the Internet. A case in point comes from C'lay Travis, who's covered college football for Deadspin, AOL FanHouse (RIP), and his current Outkick The Coverage site, plus hosts a Nashville radio show. What's Travis' take on this complicated, layered story that's still coming together? The only plausible rationale here is that Te'o is gay:
This is actually the only story that makes any sense at all. And even if it's true, Te'o will probably deny it because, unfortunately, football players aren't exactly the most welcoming of homosexuality. Otherwise, how are you the star player on a football crazy campus and having an online-only relationship with a woman you've never met? Even Tim Tebow thinks is ridiculous. If you're gay and girls are throwing themselves at you left and right but you continue to rebuff their advances, isn't one of the easiest stories to tell your teammates about why you don't hook up with any of these girls that you have a girlfriend? Even if, you know, that girlfriend isn't actually real. Couldn't being gay even make you more than willing to overlook the fact that your girlfriend didn't want to meet with you? It might be that on some subconscious level Te'o welcomed the hoax because it kept him from having to explain why he didn't have a girlfriend. Furthermore, given that Te'o is Mormon and attending a very religious school, wouldn't being gay be unacceptable to pretty much everyone around him? Having an online girlfiend is an awfully convenient cover. Again, this is just speculation and Te'o would probably deny it anyway, but it actually makes a ton more sense than any other wild theories being tossed out there, that Te'o used the online relationship as a cover for his hidden homosexuality.
To be clear, C'lay is far from the only person who's suggested this, and if this is in fact the case, there will be plenty of support for Te'o from this corner. C'lay has the dubious honour of broaching the topic in the least-tasteful, most-repugnant way possible, though. This is not "the only story that makes any sense at all". C'lay is not inside Te'o's head; he doesn't know the linebacker's motivations, he doesn't know how this apparent relationship unfolded and he certainly doesn't know Te'o's sexual preferences. So why has he come up with this speculation? Well, as seen from other parts of his piece, C'lay believes that all straight men are attracted to the same things and all men handle relationships the same way. Another choice quote:

Monday, January 07, 2013

Who do I root for? Team Grantland Rice

Tonight's BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama has college football fans everywhere picking sides, and for good reason. These programs both have incredible histories, and millions of fans have deep connections to them. For me, though, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Notre Dame football" isn't Rudy, or Joe Theismann, or Lou Holtz. It's what's probably my favourite piece of sportswriting ever, Grantland Rice's "The Four Horsemen". A selection of what makes this stand out for me:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below. A cyclone can't be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed. Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.
Since the publication of that piece, in the New York Herald-Tribune in 1924, a hell of a lot's changed in the sportswriting world. Plenty of those changes have been for the better; so many more people have an opportunity to write for a big audience now, whether that's through traditional outlets or non-traditional blogs, and that's led to a much greater diversity of information and perspectives than was ever available in Rice's day. I think we've partially lost something along the way too, though; especially in the traditional outlets, there's been a lot of blowback against far-flung analogies and loquacious wording. To me, that's a loss. Not everyone needs to write like Rice, one of my favourite sportswriters (unlike the site that bears his name today) and his contemporaries, but I think there's a lot to admire in what they did, and it shouldn't be so casually dismissed.

One of the main criticisms of extensive analogies like the one Rice uses here is that they trivialize real-world events (cyclones, death, destruction and the like), and that's partially fair. Yes, football (and other sports) are nowhere near close to actual battles or disasters, and they shouldn't be seen as such. From here, there's always plenty of room for analogies, though. It's like reading or watching fantasy or science fiction books or novels; you know it's not strictly reality, but that doesn't make it invalid. That's why this corner will always support brilliant efforts along those lines, such as everything ever done by Bring Your Champions, They're Our Meat. It's also behind our ongoing silliness in everything from Tebow showtunes to Lord of the Rings/CFL comparisons. Of course, they're not strictly accurate, and they don't tell the whole story, so there's always plenty of room for traditional news pieces as well. It's just worth pointing out that sometimes it can be much more enjoyable to read something where someone lets their imagination fly. Imagine if Rice had today's editors hacking and slashing the above piece of his? You'd wind up with something like this:

"Notre Dame beat Army 13-7 thanks to the efforts of four stars in front of a crowd estimated at 55,000."

And I doubt that game recap would be remembered almost 100 years later.

This touches on objectivity versus fandom a bit, but that's a complex issue that deserves more discussion of its own. Suffice it to say that from this corner, there are plenty of merits to both approaches. Root for whoever you like or don't root at all, but don't let anyone else make that decision for you. Over here, though, rather than root for Notre Dame or Alabama, I'm firmly in the corner of the sportswriters, particularly those who are willing to take a few leaps Rice-style rather than insisting on dull, just-the-facts takes on everything. That's why I'm wearing this shirt tonight; it's not an endorsement of the Irish, but an endorsement of one of their most famed chroniclers:

War Damn Sportswriting. Roll Tweets.