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.


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