In the far corner of my childhood bedroom, a copy of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract stood out among the mishmash of baseball cards and rolled-up posters that formed the obligatory bookshelf-cum-sports-shrine. Bulky, heavy, and dense, the Abstract was forbidding. Who had the energy, or the patience, to really engage with its contents? Each page seemed to contain its own world; there was no chance I could possibly finish it. But James’s book imparted a certain gravitas to an otherwise ordinary collection. The sheer amount of knowledge a book contained was proportional to the seriousness it conveyed. Even though I hardly glanced at James before age 18, the Abstract’s mere presence was a sign that I was a step closer to adulthood than one might have rightfully concluded at first glance. More important, it was proof that sports, the thing I loved most in the world, could be taken seriously.
It is easy to say that the vast majority of sports commentary—and, indeed, the vast majority of every aspect of life that even touches on the worlds of professional and collegiate sports—is embarrassingly childish. But this understates the case, because even as a child or teenager, every thinking fan is certain to feel that the entire circus is beneath his dignity. It is not just the inane, wannabe-macho commentary during every halftime show, or the ever-present backdrop of misogyny, or the incessant beer ads that run during time-outs. By high school—at the very latest—one could surmise that a deep love of sports was meant only for dumb jocks, and was therefore incompatible with the contemplative life. What intelligent person, after all, would choose to spend his Sundays with Terry Bradshaw’s grating folksiness and Mike Ditka’s roaring bluster?
If James and Ditka represented the two poles of the sports commentariat, surely the middlebrow fan could find a middle ground. This territory was for a long time occupied by Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann’s ESPN show, SportsCenter (and their book, The Big Show, which came along a few years later). Olbermann and Patrick registered the impressive accomplishment of making sports highlights even more compelling; yet neither had Ditka’s transparent machismo or James’s intimidating nerdiness. The brilliance of Olbermann and Patrick’s shtick was that their observations and analysis came from such a distance. Indeed, this constituted their entire mode of scrutinizing the sports universe. They probably felt the same passion as other sports fans, but their routine was so full of irony and sarcasm that they hovered above the spectacle. It was as if they, too, sensed that the wonderful world of sports was full of nothing so much as hot air, and thus the only way to preserve what they loved was to take a step backward. Why not gently mock and jeer and wink at viewers, empowering both them and yourselves in the process?
The Big Show feels dated today because Olbermann occupies such a radically different place in our culture, but also because ESPN’s television commentary has been dumbed down significantly. However, in a chapter portentously titled “How to Be a Sportscaster When You Grow Up,” the authors not only manage to outshine expectations with some enjoyable advice, they also preach the following:
Another part of the attitude adjustment may come as a shock. Do not take sports seriously. Take your work seriously: Be dedicated to it, know everything you need to know about it, enjoy it, remember that the viewer or listener may be fanatical about it—but maintain a healthy distance from it. The moment you think that a sports team or league or player is actually important, you become a servant of the “sports media complex” whose only purpose in being is to separate people from their money. Your dedication has to be to your viewer or listener, to the truth, and, lastly, and only to the degree that it does not conflict with your ethics, to the success of your employer.
MSNBC viewers will not be shocked to learn that Olbermann was the writer of this self-important passage. And yet, he neatly defines the Olbermann-Patrick ethos: artfully remain above the fray.
Olbermann and Patrick set the standard for sports commentary, even if they did not “redefine” it sufficiently (the term is taken from Bob Costas’s introduction). A legion of imitators, on both ESPN and other sports networks, did their best to mimic the anchormen’s detachment. The problem was that a smirking sense of humor can, shockingly, come across as obnoxious. Olbermann and Patrick managed to strike the right balance, but many of the next generation’s commentators were no more than smug, arrogant jerks (Costas ruefully concedes this). Despite their achievement, room remained for an entirely different approach that could still thread the needle between aggressive masculinity and statistical obsessiveness.
This might seem both rather obvious and easily attainable, but Bill Simmons threaded this needle more skillfully than his competitors. Simmons, a Boston-bred ESPN.com writer living in Los Angeles, is, without much question, the most popular sports columnist in America. He is extremely prolific and, for a sportswriter, quite intellectually curious. His first book, an account of the Red Sox’ miraculous 2004 season, was tellingly called Now I Can Die in Peace. His latest effort, a 700-plus-page history of the NBA, is biblically titled The Book of Basketball. From a distance, the book looks like a Tolstoy novel: its encyclopedic ambitions are clear. But as with all of Simmons’s work, it is written in (usually excellent) conversational prose and sprinkled with digressions, in-jokes, and bawdiness. It is the work of a true fan—an emotional, biased observer who seems to relish his subjectivity. Simmons might be walking the same line that Olbermann and Patrick once trod—the line that separates mathematical formulas from beer jokes (and believe me, the book contains plenty of both). But Basketball is not ironic or dispassionate. And it might just represent the next phase of sports commentary.