Tuesday, June 25, 2002 Updated: June 26, 12:04 PM ET
Self-reflection and new jack jocks
By Eric Neel Page 2 columnist
Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture: On the shelf, Part 1 "Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography," David Shields (published in May)
Here's a simple but important premise: Writing about sports (or about anything else, for that matter) that pretends to be objective and analytical is always also about the writer.
What he asks, what he doesn't ask, what he watches, what he turns a blind eye to ... it's all bound up with how he imagines and understands himself. It's coded by his fantasies and fears, by the way he was raised and the place he grew up, by who first rejected or disappointed him, where he was when he saw his first game, how he's been playing down at the Y lately, and a thousand other barely remembered, half-understood things that make up his personality.
This is obvious, of course, but it's the rare writer who in any way owns up to it.
David Shields owns up to it in a big way, consistently, sometimes brutally, putting himself on display and under scrutiny as a way of getting closer to his subjects and ideas.
"The thing I hate the most in any kind of writing is self-righteousness," he told me recently, "where you pretend you don't have the same kinds of flaws your subject has. I'm trying to use myself and my own flawedness as a metaphor for general human experience. I'm trying to 'stand next to' a subject, whether it's Bobby Knight or Vince Carter, and use that subject to meditate on both him and me."
It's empathy by way of self-reflection, and self-reflection by way of empathy.
"We judge athletes as if we all don't have trouble performing our various duties from time to time," Shields said. "I know it's not likely, but I would love to see us replace judgment with a kind of emotional investigation where you take the theater of sports as an essential analogy of human affairs, and you see it as a place where you are just sort of fascinated by the play and the talent and the struggles of human beings, and you're fascinated with the ways in which they are, you know, like you."
Seeing himself as someone connected to and involved with what athletes do and go through, Shields turns out a series of uncommon and provocative discussions about what it's like to play, to watch, to be watched, to be judged, to feel weak, to feel strong, and to not quite know what to feel.
"Enough About You" isn't strictly a book about sports (wait for his upcoming "Body Politic," a collection of essays on sport and culture for that), but it's a book that knows a whole lot about why they do, and about ways they could yet, matter to us.
On the shelf, Part 2
"New Jack Jocks: Rebels, Race, and the American Athlete," Larry Platt (published in May)
Where Shields turns in, Platt leans out. He's a listener. (Check out his Playboy interview with Allen Iverson from earlier this year, and you'll see what I mean.) He presumes there's more than meets the eye in most everyone he writes about, and he goes looking for those hidden angles, those wrinkles of personality and motivation and experience that complicate our simple understandings of who athletes are and why they do what they do. (Check out his ESPN.com piece on C-Webb, and you'll see what I mean.)
At a time when we're all supposed to practice ad-hoc analysis and from-the-hip judgment, at a time when we're all supposed to "have a take," "New Jack Jocks" gathers the work of a writer willing to take his time, to wonder rather than judge, to ask rather than assume.
It's old-school reporting with a healthy dose of compassion. Conscious and suspicious of the ways athletes have been reduced to look like types rather than individuals, Platt comes at folks you think you know -- Latrell Sprewell, Iverson, John McEnroe and others -- on their turf, in their terms, from new directions and with new questions.
Along the way, he reveals athletes who are flawed, brilliant, powerful, timid, hungry, satisfied, intelligent and ignorant all at once; athletes, in other words, who are people.
From a friend
ESPN is a big company. All sorts of memos are floating around and meetings going down that I never hear about. So it was actually my friend Dawn who told me that Public Enemy frontman Chuck D's written a jingle for ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball."
I'm still processing the idea. On the one hand, I'm thinking, life is so cool, Chuck D and I sort of work for the same company and isn't it great he's still cranking out the work and won't baseball feel that much cooler with a PE vibe? On the other hand, I'm thinking, Chuck D's gotta be like, what, almost 40 now, and I'm wondering, does he need the work, are the online albums not selling, and does this kind of mainstream exposure represent some sort of terrible compromise from the guy who wrote "Shut 'Em Down" and "Fight the Power" way back when?
And then I'm thinking, "Fight the Power," yeah ... that was a mighty strong song in 1989, it might still have some life in it, you know, it might just be the perfect baseball fan's anthem for these labor-struggling times.
If baseball comes to a halt, this summer or next spring or any time, here's a plan: We all get old-school boomboxes and stand outside the owners' offices holding them over our heads and blasting "Fight the Power," like John Cusack in "Say Anything," when he's trying to wear down Ione Skye and appeal to her better, truer, angels.
One boombox won't do it. But a thousand boomboxes, in Milwaukee, let's say ... Bud's gonna hear that. It's gonna wear on him. It might even scare him a little.
Chuck D and baseball, I'm thinking. Yeah, I see it.
Darryl Kile's curveball was a joy to watch.
I came to it late, when I was in grad school in the Midwest in the 1990s. By then, there was a shake in it, an occasional rasp. But it was still so round and deep, it still had so much homespun gravitas.
No one sounded like Jack Buck. You turned on the radio and you knew immediately it was him. He worked a register all his own.
But it wasn't a poet's voice, and there was nothing precious about it. It was familiar, warm. You turned on the radio and you knew, whoever and wherever you were, you were welcome.
So much to miss.
Darryl Kile had one of those curve balls you'd stop to watch. SportsCenter highlights of guys dipping at the knees, leaning on their bats to keep from falling over. The kind of pitch that made you giggle.
Is it enough to say that thing was a thing of beauty? Is it enough to long for that pitch right now, to have in my mind's eye a ball tumbling on a sweet, wicked arc?
Of course not. But it was, and I do.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.