This Sporting Life: Meaning and Underpants

Originally Published: August 10, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

A few brief and scattered thoughts this week on the nature of fame, on the presence of absence, on the goods and on the greats, on life and memory and on what we leave behind, on legacy and heresy and parlor games, on the defining definition of "defined," and on what it all might mean.

If by "all," that is, you mean "some."


Sad news last week when we lost filmmaker John Hughes much too young to a heart attack at the age of 59. And whether or not you were a fan, you had to notice that all those hurried obits and rushed appreciations and the rapid-fire appraisals landed on variations of the word "defining" to describe his contributions to the movies.

In general what was being "defined" was the experience of being an American teenager in the 1980s, and the movies doing the defining were "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Weird Science" and/or "Pretty in Pink."

(For the purposes of today's column we're going to limit ourselves to those, and set aside "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Vacation" and the scores of other films, funny and not, in which Mr. Hughes had a hand. We're likewise going to set aside "Home Alone" in all its parts, and what that recurrent fear of abandonment said about John Hughes. We're going to set aside his marvelous career as a writer of satire at the National Lampoon. We're going to set aside his reclusive nature and the powerfully strange choice of "Edmond Dantes" as a pseudonym for his later work. Set all those aside -- as I did over the weekend, having gone from a long and very complicated column idea to a short and very simple one.)

When critics extolled those "defining" films, what they meant in part was that Mr. Hughes had captured the tenor of the times in which he lived and worked. That he and his films and his characters embodied somehow the age in which they arrived, unrolling and decoding the zeitgeist for the rest of us. His movies reflected the '80s even as they created them.

For Hughes that meant teen alienation and romance and candlelit loneliness, big hair, shoulder pads and wisecracking wishful-thinking shot through with sentimentality, convertibles and suburban sidewalks and harmless anti-authoritarianism, beer and underpants and legwarmers.

And whatever character was played by Anthony Michael Hall was reliably the surrogate for Hughes himself, the hyperverbal geek who would one day grow up to write it all down, get his revenge (just like Edmond Dantes!) and make himself famous.

Taken all in all what you see in these John Hughes movies is a look back at what adults wished they'd said when they were 15, what they wish they'd done and to whom, stitched together with a wonderful sound track. Which can be very powerful and satisfying stuff.

Which is why we grant that John Hughes in these movies "defined" (some part of) the '80s.

But let's also grant that John Hughes was not a great movie maker.

No one is going to confuse "Sixteen Candles" with "Citizen Kane," which leads me at last to my point: are the characteristics "great" and "defining" the same thing?

They are not.

Because it is possible to be great without defining your age; it is possible to define your age without being great, and it is possible to both define your age and be great.

Thus the basis for this week's column and parlor game (which you'll actually have to play in the Windstar on the way back from the lake over Labor Day weekend since nobody has a parlor anymore): Defining? Great? Or Defining And Great?

It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it, although you have to support your arguments, whether you're cataloging athletes or artists.

For example, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were all greats who defined the times in which they played.

Stan Musial, on the other hand, out of the media's gimlet eye and therefore a little overlooked by history, can be spoken of as being only great.

Bill Mazeroski, in his one moment of heroic greatness, became merely defining.

Or start with a time frame and cut your arguments to suit: 1980s baseball.

Dwight Gooden, Kirk Gibson, Darryl Strawberry and Fernando Valenzuela?


Mike Schmidt?


Rickey Henderson?

Great and defining.

In '80s music you might make the argument that Tears for Fears, Flock of Seagulls and Wang Chung were all defining bands. John Hughes would. They were not, however, great. Husker Du and/or Bob Mould were great but not defining.

U2, on the other hand, was both defining and great.

All of which, any of which, I'm prepared to argue with any or all of you in the comments thread below.

So let's do that this week and have some fun.

Great? Defining? Or great and defining?

Bring it.

Bueller? Bueller? Anybody?

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at