Why I love my job
Someone once asked me, "Why write about sports?" Here's the answer
This column appears in the December 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine, which is the ESPN 100 year-in-review issue.
When I was a college sophomore and just starting to write for the Boulder sports section, my journalism professor edged me aside, looked me in the eye and said, "You're better than sports."
Lurching into my fifth decade in this business, I still think she's wrong. I will never be better than sports. This is why:
Sports is real. It can't be faked. If you're Henry Fonda's son and you want to act, you get to act. If you're Chelsea Clinton and want to govern, you get to govern. But just because you're Nolan Ryan's son doesn't mean you get to pitch in the Show. Money, family, looks mean diddly in sports. If Tom Brady suddenly can't throw the 30-yard out, he's benched, dimple or no dimple.
Sports is Oprah for guys. I knew a Boston dad and son who hadn't spoken in five years. Some disagreement that just grew too big to see around. But when the Red Sox won it all in 2004, the son came home. They hugged and cried and laughed, and if you think it was about baseball, you don't know men.
Sports fans can be buried in a coffin that is painted in their favorite team's colors and logo. Anybody buried in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra coffin lately?
Sports has mercy. The big and strong take care of the small and weak. In an Illinois prep football game this year, a Downers Grove South kick returner broke into the open at the 40 and was gone. Except, when he got to the 1-yard line, he stopped and went out of bounds. He and his teammates wanted to get an autistic teammate the only touchdown of his life. He got it on the second play. Ever see that on Wall Street?
Sports is woven deeper into American life than you know. You may change religion or politics, but not teams. "I was raised a Packers fan and taught my kids the same," writes a mom in Milwaukee. "Everyone comes to my house for games. My oldest son is battling addiction, and he comes too. We shout and curse and eat green and gold food. Whatever the joy or drama in our lives, we live and die with the Packers together."
No wonder Obama watches SportsCenter.
Sports has no gray areas. It's black or white, win or lose, hero or goat. Nobody has to form a committee to figure it out. Not true in dance or art. Who was better, head to head, Matisse or Monet? If it were sports, we'd know. (Matisse, 13-8.)
Sports is unscripted. President Obama just went to China, a trip choreographed from touchdown to takeoff. He knew exactly where he'd sit and eat and what he'd say. Knew it before he left. And yet, in the PGA Championship this year, a nobody named Y.E. Yang came from behind to beat the god named Tiger Woods. No wonder Obama doesn't watch Headline News. He watches SportsCenter.
College football teams fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Seen the history department do that?
Sports has honor. In a Texas girls high school volleyball playoff this season, one of the East Texas Christian Academy girls suffered a head injury and was taken away on a stretcher. The East Texas girls were too upset to continue and forfeited. But their opponents -- Summit Christian -- refused. They insisted on rescheduling. They said they couldn't win that way. And yet last year in Alaska, Senator Ted Stevens (R) ran for reelection despite seven felony convictions.
Sports has the best words, and every CEO steals them. It's a slam dunk. It's a grand slam. It's a complete whiff. And yet, in 32 years, I have never heard an athlete say, "That was just a total filibuster out there!"
If sportswriters are so trivial, why did Frank Sinatra want to be one? Hell, the first Heisman winner, Jay Berwanger, turned his nose up at being the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in 1936 to write for the Chicago Daily News. Berwanger said, "It paid better."
Sports has a heart the size of a knuckleball mitt. A man in Oahu named Chris Pablo once found a golf ball stamped with the words BEAT LEUKEMIA. Weird, since he'd just learned he had leukemia. Pablo decided he hadn't found the ball, the ball had found him. His story got out and, next thing you know, hundreds of people volunteered for bone marrow donation. Now there are purposely lost balls on courses all over the country that say BEAT LEUKEMIA. Golfers find them and feel obligated to help. Sometimes they don't just save $3 -- they save a life. Lastly -- and most important -- sports is the place where beer tastes best.
So here's to you, professor. I'm glad to know I'm not better than sports. But you did show me I'm better than one thing: advice from professors.
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Be sure to check out Rick's latest project, "Go Fish."
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RICK REILLY, 52, has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times. His new book -- out May 4, 2010 -- is called "Sports From Hell: My Two-year Search for the World's Dumbest Competition." It's the account of his search for the dumbest sport in the world.
Not to give anything away, but a good bet would be either Ferret Legging or the World Sauna Championships. It also includes embarrassing attempts by Reilly to try Nude Bicycle Racing, Zorbing, Chess Boxing, Extreme Ironing, the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships and an unfortunate week on a women's pro football team.