- Jeff MacGregor
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We live in a very Great Age of Greatness.
Consider yourself very greatly lucky, because at no time ever in the whole great course of human history have great things ever been quite so very reliably great, and remarkably, heroically epic and very awesomely great, and greatly, remarkably awesome and quite so heroically epically remarkable as they are at this very great moment in time.
I know this because I read about sports.
I read about sports in this, the Great Age of Exaggeration.
In fact, if Charles Dickens were alive today, "A Tale of Two Cities" would likely begin "It was the best of times. Seriously."
So I can say without fear of contradiction or accuracy or proportion that what you are about to read is very likely the Most Important Single Sports Column Ever Written Anywhere By Anyone Since The Invention Of Moveable Type By Steve Gutenberg On The Set Of The Movie "Cocoon" in 1439.
Boldface italics underlined.
As this year's NCAA basketball tournament helps demonstrate, The World Economy of Empty Modifiers is burning red hot with hyperinflation, completely out of control, and the usual habits of our modest exaggerations are lately utterly unrestrained. Awesome! Red hot! Utterly!
Some of us can remember a time when a loaf of bread could be described with just an adjective or two. Now to describe anything at all requires a wheelbarrow filled with superlatives. I see my colleagues shuffling down the street, gaunt, harrowed, insatiably hungry, wondering where their next descriptor is coming from.
In sports this means The Greatest Game Ever Played Anywhere has become a weekly occurrence.
There's no ceiling on hyperbole, no floor on overstatement, so no limit to the depth and breadth and reach of our empty, anti-historical sporting rhetoric. Limitless! In all directions! Every game everywhere living up to the awesome hype of this exclamation point (!), because no one anywhere can remember anything farther back than breakfast.
And it was the Best Breakfast Ever!
The Morning After The Greatest Game Ever Played!
Boldface caps underlined.
A couple of things are likely at work here: the ubiquity of instantaneous networking technologies, for one. With no time to think, not much thinking gets done! Not a moment for reflection! Hurry! Say something! Especially if you're on TV! Or 14 years old! Awesome!
And the clutter across that crackling mediascape demands that you SHOUT to be noticed, that you fire off all your flares just to keep your paycheck. So you holler and Cry Out in the New Age Language of Indisputable Absolutes. Best! Ever! (A kind of weird phenomenon, this, using the old-line carnival language of advertising at a time when advertising itself is all about concealment and stealth and viral understatement and cool.) Paradox!
But not irony!
Or is it?
I can never remember!
So the ease of expression cheapens opinion, too, a double whammy of democratization and inflation that undercuts meaning even as I taptaptap into my smartphone the Top 5 Top 10 Top 5 Lists of All-Time Sports Lists! As a species we try to make order out of chaos, and our listicles and charticles and fat cartoon pie graphs are a way to do this. But it forces us to further shorthand the very thing we seek to find, which is some nuanced truth about ourselves.
Voltaire already told us that this is the best of all possible worlds!
And in a cult and culture of youth, with the paranoid demographics of empty-headed teen consumerism driving the bus for us all, Fill-in-the-Blank is the Greatest Of All Time, way back to last Tuesday! Because anything before that doesn't much matter! Once you've got Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan and George Washington and Amy Winehouse and LeBron James and Tiger Woods and Abraham Lincoln and Lady Gaga and Randy Neugebauer and a working VISA card, what else could you possibly need to make a world?
This is the end of history, as proposed by both Francis Fukuyama and Harpo Marx.
So, sure, Collapse of Western Civilization as we know it, blahblahblah.
Except that exaggeration has been the coin of the realm in sports writing from the very beginning.
Here's Homer, in Book 23 of "The Iliad": "Swift-footed, god-like Achilles", which sounds like simple sucking up, until a few lines later we see "God-like Menelaus" and realize that Homer was indeed an awesome homer, and a serial overstater. "God-like!" In that one chapter more than a dozen god-like instances, from godlike Achilles to godlike Odysseus, from godlike Leonteus to godlike Phoenix. Good God!
And from Homer to Grantland Rice to Jimmy Cannon to me it has gone on and on and on.
With no real harm done, but this: At some point all those words lose their meaning. And things spiral out of control in both directions, best and worst, until everybody everywhere sounds insane about everything, from the NCAA tournament to the Tea Party protests.
Disconnecting words from their meaning isn't important until it is -- as George Orwell was at great pains to remind us. In the doublespeak language of the military/industrial complex or corporate/entertainment complex lies the seed of a terrible future in which war is peace and freedom is slavery. And "Lost" gets six seasons without answering a single major plot point.
All of which is worth considering in this, The Latest Age of Meaningless Extremes.
At the time of this writing (The Best Of All Possible Times!) the New Jersey Nets remain tied for the worst record in NBA history.
If only they hadn't mistakenly won that extra game. Then they might stand alone as the worst team in history -- or the Best Worst Team Ever.
Underline italics boldface.
That would have been great.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At no time ever in the whole great course of human history have great things ever been quite so very reliably great, and remarkably, heroically epic and very awesomely great as they are at this very great moment in time.