11/26/2019 0 Comments
(Strap in, this is two weeks of thoughts. We’re tentatively calling it “Takesgiving”. Also, send any comments or questions to Whichcarolina@gmail.com (or just text me if we’re on that level). I appreciate any and all interaction.
What are the circumstances of inspiration? What breeds it? What arrests it? And how does it gain momentum? I ponder these as I sit vigil over my keys. Where do I mine for those evasive take-shaped nuggets that will transform this blog into the WhichCarolina Gold Rush? I’m at a loss for answers, but perhaps it is my gain. If contented minds are idle ones, then may I never think again. We’re on the doorstep of Thanksgiving and Bowl Season (Christmas is ok, too, I guess), my family is healthy and happy to spend this life together, and November’s alchemy has turned my backyard a deep and rusty gold. I might be too happy for strong convictions, and there are worse problems to have. After all, this little reflection session wasn’t a total loss. I did think of this:
What do you call it when William Faulkner makes a good defensive play?
You’re welcome. These are The Things I’m Thinking About:
The Curious Intersection of Athlete and Celebrity. (A sizeable thing)
Athletes are, undoubtedly, our most awkward, and, consequently, most accessible celebrities. In the constellations of the People-Magazine Universe, they are our nearest star. Many hail from small towns and humble beginnings, with little access to the privileges and preoccupations of experienced wealth. The mechanism of their fame is simple and shared: we all play their games, and we would play forever if we could. They just happen to be better players. That athletes are able to leverage their play into a career is, perhaps, the greatest and most whimsical cheat code of our economic system. We are them, and they are us, in a way that a DiCaprio or a Trump never could be, and the nuances of their profession only exacerbate this relatability.
Sports figures handle a different kind of celebrity. They stand closer to us, they have to answer our questions, and they can only disappear from the public eye until the next game. Their success or failure affects us in ways that the next Adam Sandler flop just doesn’t---then they have to answer for it. It’s a strange intimacy that lays athletes bare and vulnerable to the public eye.
The uncomfortable irony of this attention is that athletes are the celebrity class least predisposed to handle it. Inherent in almost every other form of celebrity is the natural inclination toward an audience. There is something intrinsic in the connection between artists and the public. Actors and singers perform for the masses, and professional validation is based largely on the extent to which those masses embrace them. The link between performers and public is the point of the whole elaborate exercise.
It’s not so with sports, where success derives from win columns and box scores. There is nothing foundational about the relationship between athlete and audience. We watch them play, but they don’t play for us. Like so many other anonymous professions, success depends upon objective excellence; the difference is that we don’t pay 100 bucks to wear the jersey of the local plumber. Thus, the celebrity of sport sometimes wears as excess baggage for people just trying to do their jobs.
This is all to say that I owe a few apologies. I have spewed contemptuous words and thoughts at some athletes over the years: Kyrie, Durant, Lebron, Brett Favre, Patrick Reed, the list really goes on. I am not the only one. We love for athletes to look like idiots. Finding out that KD used burner accounts to defend himself on Twitter was almost as rewarding as the news that Brett Favre was just another dirty 40-year-old man with rescinded cell phone privileges. I’ve rejoiced at the thought of binding Kyrie’s press conferences into a “Magical Kyrie” series worthy of Gilderoy Lockhart. Their weaknesses are our gain! The most recent culprit is Antonio Brown, who rarely lets an opportunity for embarrassment slip through his hands. He is not a story, but a saga; and we have followed every memeable, tweetable step of the way.
I fear, however, that beneath our collective contempt runs a sinister satisfaction. We condemn the acts and the actors, but we revel in the carnage. It feels GOOD to see these immensely successful people, who we’re already conditioned to root against, flounder in areas that seem basic. Their all-too-human frailty becomes contortable fodder for our self-gratification. We can reassure ourselves that there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about these people living more remarkable lives. The more successful they are, the better. That just means there’s more to burn down.
It’s a grotesque attitude to have about an athlete class that bears such an imposed, unmediated, and unpracticed celebrity. These guys are flawed public figures, if only because becoming public figures was never their ostensible goal. They are all still learning how to live beyond the sidelines, not unlike all of us. Does this mean that they’re flaws should be ignored? Of course not. But the roots of their fallibility are also the roots of their accessibility---the roots that make them so uniquely ours. Maybe they deserve a little grace.
Now to more whimsical fodder.
Chase Young, My Goodness (a slippery thing)
Gonna be honest, I haven’t watched a lot of Ohio State football this year. Somehow, the matchups were never what you’d describe as “enticing” or “good” or even “worth changing the channel for”. I have, however, followed Chase Young’s sack numbers with all the cynicism that my SEC homerhood could muster. “Sure he’s good,” I told myself, “but Ohio State’s dudes always look better than they are because of weak competition and the talent around them” (I’ve just discarded the Bosas as an inconsequential blip). On Saturday, Chase Young taught me otherwise.
Young is the first person I’ve ever seen who has low viscosity. He doesn’t go by the blocker, he washes over him. His body is fluid, and the o-lineman might as well be trying to stop a waterfall. He’s slippery and powerful and determined, like some gigantic irascible otter. I usually compare these guys to Jadeveon Clowney, the most explosive athlete for his size that I’ve ever seen. Clowney, though, doesn’t have Young’s amorphous amoeba-like flexibility that seems to just absorb its way to the quarterback. He’s a new stage of evolution, and, if I may, his dreads are a perfect accessory to his havoc.
EVERYONE IS OPEN! Right? (a medium-sized thing)
I just want to call everyone’s attention to the cheapest, most low-hanging fruit in the replay business. The quarterback just got sacked, or the bootleg got run out of bounds, or the defender deflected the pass, and the replay guy inevitably shows this: some receiver downfield with no one near him, jumping around wide open as a Sunday afternoon. This draws the expected visceral fan outbursts “Are you KIDDING me?!” and “How could you miss him!”. Then after the game, the team only lost because the QB just “ignored” all those “sure touchdowns”. I’m here to tell you, don’t be that fan.
Certainly quarterbacks do miss opportunities to hit open receivers, but rarely do these replays tell the full story. This isn’t just a game of catch. Sometimes there’s a 6’6” guy blocking the QB’s view to that side of the field. Sometimes the pocket is collapsing on that side of the field and the QB either has no base to throw off of, or is staging a retreat. Sometimes the guy was fully covered when the QB was going through his progressions. Sometimes, and this is the most egregious, the coverage doesn’t actually let the receiver go until it’s clear that the play is being run to the other side of the field. Wide receivers ALWAYS think they’re open. Don’t fall for their demonstrative pouting. Usually, it’s just venting over finally beating a guy and not getting rewarded. The reality is there’s a lot more that has to go right to complete a downfield pass.
Arm Sleeves and Ball Carriers (a small thing)
At least a half-dozen times this season, I’ve seen a ball carrier lose a football and then look at his arm sleeve like “WTF”. The arm sleeve is too slick to keep the ball tucked! I first picked up on this after the late Ray Ray McCloud fumbled during an early-season punt return, and I’ve watched it happen ever since. Ball carriers, disrobe your arms. The sleeves are only adding layers of frustration to your experience, and new levels of anxiety to the fans who really want you to HOLD ON TO THE DAMN BALL. Unless you play for Clemson, ditch the sleeves. Tigers, I’d hate for your arms to be cold on Saturday in Columbia.
A Bit about Gratefulness (a pleasant thing)
There’s a curious characteristic of my two-year-old: he understands “Thank You” much more than “Please”. We encourage them fairly equally, but the Littlest Gamecock doesn’t have much for “please”. He wants what he wants, I guess. What does he care if he emphasizes it with some extraneous p-word?
“Thank you”, though, is more intuitive. One of the thrills of early parenthood was hearing him enthusiastically bestow an unprompted Thank You. Now, he gives Thanks Yous out like Halloween candy. You help him pick a shirt out in the morning? “Thanks!” You bring him some buttered toast? “Thanks Daddy!” This weekend, we got him a yellow truck with M&Ms on it. We didn’t really wanna buy it, but we could tell it was gonna take a federal subpoena to get him out of the store without it, so we caved. The next 36 hours were just a string of sincere Thank Yous. Every time he’d sit down to play with that truck (very often), he’d mutter under his breath “Thank You, Mommy and Daddy”. When we’d ask him what he was thankful for, he’d smile, and turn his little blond head up to us and say, “For getting me my truck”. It was the best 7 dollars we ever spent.
There’s something deep, abiding, and instinctive about gratefulness. We’ve never really explained being grateful to our son, but he recognizes it and understands it and practices it like it’s a compulsion as wondrous and sacred as jumping into a pile of leaves. It’s not because of the great example his parents have set. Like most run-down self-absorbed adults, I rarely spare a breath to give words of sincere thanks. But my son stops, looks you in the eye, and gives thanks with joy---like he was born to it. His spirit flows from a spring of gratefulness. All of us have this spring, I believe, if we just stop to clear away the leaves and twigs of this cluttered life. Happy Thanksgiving, readers, I’m grateful for each one of you.
Until next time, keep Carolina on your mind.
11/14/2019 0 Comments
If you’re feeling lonely tonight, call me. I’ll probably answer, haggard and delirious, as I barrel down a Lower Alabama backroad at about 1:30 a.m.--that’s 2:30 for my East Coast readers. Sweet Darlin’ will be comatose, the Littlest Gamecock will be out, and the only company I’ll be keeping will be those scheming deer. It’s a drive through the prettiest country I’ll never see, besides those snippets that get washed out in my high beams; and my mind will meander with the road. If the Honda Odyssey (Ol’ Shadowfax) had a feature that transferred the driver’s thoughts onto a document, I’d have this blog written before I hit Atlanta. Alas, it does not. So, before I careen over the threshold of the South’s largest, most crowded screen door into the inscrutable darkness west of Atlanta, these are The Things I’m Thinking About.
Load Management (but not by choice) (a large enough thing)
The NBA has been zesty so far. While no one in college basketball cares to be good, the NBA is just the opposite. Literally everyone besides the Knicks and the Kings are elevating their play. All over the league, has-beens (Isaiah Thomas), also-rans (The Phoenix Suns), and afterthoughts (Andrew Wiggins) have reawakened in a sort of reverse-zombie phenomenon. It’s a pleasant plot twist in a story whose advertised protagonist, Zion Williamson, was dispatched in the opening credits (Thanks, Ja Morant, for softening the blow).
Perhaps we should have expected this, as the extinguishing of the Warriors stirred nascent coals of hope in the league’s neglected backwaters. The most interesting stories happen when there is no true King--just ask Hamlet, MacBeth, or Game of Thrones. However, as so many in the league put their best feet forward, so many more are inexplicably preoccupied with who is sitting down.
In a season of “Future Stars” and “Unprecedented Depth”, we must bear the conversational rabbit hole of “Load Management”. For starters, there’s a hollow semantic debate about what “Load Management” even means. Is it resting in practice? Limiting minutes in games? Taking games off? Getting more sleep? Defecating responsibly? Is it any or all of these things? It’s a sparkly term people think makes them sound smart (like “ironic” or “literally”, two other words victimized by the rhetorical carelessness of moron discourse), so people rush to use it before someone else does. Talking heads have sacrificed hours of pontification to this spiraling maw of a topic.
There’s simply no discussion to be had. Sitting stars is, objectively, a good thing for franchises with comfortable paths to the playoffs. It’s a mental and physical break that expands roles for players further down the depth chart. None of these players are complaining about getting more run. Building depth while limiting chances for key injuries helps teams compete in the long-term. Greg Popovich knew this a while ago. Even back in 2006, I watched a Larry Hughes-led Cavs team vanquish my Bobcats while a healthy Lebron reclined in a velvet blazer. Of course it makes the league (and ESPN) uncomfortable because paying customers don’t get to see their heroes. Whatever. Let the moneymakers pitch their temper tantrums. If they don’t want these teams to sandbag during the regular season, then they shouldn’t allow over half the league to make the playoffs. If you covet the in-season competitiveness of college football, then contract the postseason. Don’t vilify teams trying to work within a competitive system you’ve designed to make you as much money as possible.
For the fans who can’t appreciate this, I don’t know what to tell you. Likely you’ve loosely applied the sacrosanct tenet of “showing up for work” to a competitive realm that bears little resemblance to a corporate 8-5. Take a deep breath; this is not a big deal. There are plenty of other reasons little Jimmy is lazy, the Socialists aren’t coming for you, and climate change is still a hoax---just ask Tucker Carlson.
What really annoys me, though, is my waste of 5,000 characters on a useless NBA storyline. This season deserves a loftier narrative.
What Are We Missing Out On? (a medium size thing)
As a sports fan, this question keeps me up at night. Too often, we assume that great talent can transcend any circumstance; that if someone was THAT good, we’d be able to see it. This fallacy dooms our analysis, and those athletes to whom we unfairly apply it. Minkah Fitzpatrick was one of those athletes. Based on his production with the Dolphins, people were more than happy to plop him into the maligned category of BamaBusts. It didn’t make sense. Minkah was transcendent at Alabama, a combination of size, speed, and smarts that made it look like Saban had pulled a body-switch with a first-rounder. Even Minkah’s talent, though, could not conquer lining up as a linebacker for the Dolphins and spending an inordinate amount of time in the tackle box. Now that he’s back at free safety for the Steelers, he’s had 4 interceptions and a touchdown in his last three games. He might be your Defensive Player of the Year.
Jadeveon Clowney’s story with the Texans started the same way. They drafted the best prototypical pass-rushing DE since Julius Peppers to make him play OLB in a 3-4 scheme. The man spent more time chasing tight ends and running backs than doing what he was born to do. Eventually, the Texans wised up, put his hand back in the ground where it always belonged, and he became a Pro Bowler.
This glaring misuse infects more than just football. The currently-rising Suns, for reasons more abstract than space itself, spent seasons trying to convince Devin Booker he was a point guard. Devin Booker, that consummate spot-up shooter and willing slasher, who barely even dribbled at Kentucky, a point guard? It was madness. When they finally paired him with a real distributor, it released the solar flare that is his season so far, where he’s scorching (please forgive me) the league for 25 points per game on 51% (!) three-point shooting.
These examples are myriad and troubling. When coaching, systems, and cultures conspire to squelch talent, we all suffer. Draymond Green, himself, says he would have been out of the league in two years had Mark Jackson remained his coach. How many untapped, unsupported Draymond Greens are out there, languishing in a situation that robs us of their talent? 5, 500, 5 million? It keeps me up at night. (But it also gives me hope that I might still be right about Shabazz Napier.)
A True Thrower of the Football (a smaller thing)
There’s a frustrating fallacy of football thinking that conflates having a great arm with being a great thrower of the football. The fact is, as paradoxical as it sounds, they are two very different things, and I don’t think you can teach either one. People with great arms win workouts. They can zip it, rope it, and sling it anywhere to anyone they want. They intoxicate people with their power, their potential, but it’s a fool’s infatuation. Give me a great thrower of the football, anytime.
Great throwers don’t necessarily hit the 60-yard go route, or rope that sideline throw from the far hash. They might not have the best arm, but they do the most with it. They anticipate breaks, and let the ball go early. They lead receivers away from defenders instead of trying to force balls between them. Great throwers alter velocities based on distance, understanding that a changeup will do for completing that 10-yard crossing route. Great throwers make the mundane look sublime, as they feather that wheel route right into the RB’s breadbasket, and give a lead on that wide receiver screen pass. Their feet are constantly moving, creating angles for throws that a lesser quarterback might just force. Big arms are a blunt instrument. Great throwers are a filet knife.
There are big arms, like Mitchell Trubisky and Jamarcus Russell, and there are great throwers, like Connor Shaw and Kellen Moore. The overlap of these categories holds the great NFL Quarterbacks. When you’re evaluating your prospects, just don’t forget the latter.
For the Mountaineers (a tiny thing)
As convenient as it was to be busy, I wasn't intentionally ducking this week's podcast. Thanks for adding your spritz to this cold shower of a football season. You held us to twenty nine yards rushing and made us mount a pathetic comeback in our own home. If the moniker of best football team in the Carolinas not named Clemson is something you'll accept, I bestow it willingly. Now leave me be, unless you're bringing a towel.
Until next time, keep Carolina on your mind.
11/8/2019 0 Comments
There are two definitive best times of year. The first one— look around you—is right now. At least in the blessed South, the leaves are performing their finale to the long show of summer. Days are warm, nights are cool, and Halloween has just let in that wafting scent of the holidays that simmers for the next two months. In this mulled beverage of goodness, sports might as well be the pumpkin spice.
College basketball is upon us, and NBA seasons are already being made and lost. We kind of actually know who’s worth watching in the NFL, and college football greets that time of year when every game is essentially the playoffs. Take a deep breath and enjoy where you are, devoted audience, in the thick of one of the two best times of year. The other best time, of course, is any time you’re skiing. Without further ado, these are The Things I’m Thinking About:
On Losing Deadspin (Not a small thing)
I don’t want to go on too long about this topic; lord knows its former writers already have (You wanna get bad press? Take a stick to a hornets nest full of people who literally make a living getting angry on the internet). However, I do feel their loss, if only because my protracted bathroom reading is taking a hit. Deadspin was far from a perfect site. Many of their writers had an annoying tendency to dress their blustery self-righteousness in the gilded rags of truth. In this way they were the Daryl Morrey/Chip Kelly/Urban Meyer of sports blogs—equal parts intelligent and off-putting. But they were intelligent, which elevates them above 97% of the tripe that gets cycled and recycled in the braying discourse of most sports platforms.
They weren’t vintage Gary Smith and Rick Reilly, but they didn’t descend to Barstool’s tepid clickbait or ESPN’s pandering wokeness. They were authentic in a way that few media entities are allowed to be authentic anymore. Some of this authenticity hit (read David Roth’s bitter melancholy on our current President), some missed, and some grated (We get it, Drew Magary, you’re irreverent. I like you, but I had to say it). There was value in that authenticity, in the feeling that you were connecting with an internet organism that lived on something more substantial than clicks. I can grudgingly accept that there are no more Gary Smiths, but as Sports Illustrateds crumble into SB Nations, allow me to pour a glass for the latest unique sports voice muffled by the din of corporate interests. You deserve better, Deadspin. Please, Bill Simmons, just don’t ever sell The Ringer.
Arguing About Basketball (A medium-sized thing)
Full disclosure, I’m a high school teacher, so stomaching half-baked arguments is just part of my daily balanced diet. However, few topics seem to incite the stupidity of the masses as much as, well, pretty much any basketball-related question. I have some squishy theories for why this might be. Everyone has played at least a little basketball, so maybe people think that lends near-professional license to their expertise; even though most of them wouldn’t know how to slip a screen, stop ball on a break, or beat a 1-3-1. They’ve PLAYED BASKETBALL, so they KNOW THINGS. What they fail to realize is that their experience of the game recalls pre-K finger-painting.
Another reason for such wanton ignorance is that the version of basketball most prominent in the American fan’s consciousness is based on a game of one-on-one. Who needs team defense when you can slay a dude with an Oh So Famous? Why not spot-up from 30 feet if it’s something you CAN do? Fans have a tendency to reduce entire games to matchups between one or two stars, and then draw sweeping conclusions based on which stars could beat each other head-to-head. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to conclusions like “Lebron James is way tougher to guard than Steph Curry”, and “Kyrie is the best point guard in the NBA”. It’s an irresponsible oversimplification of a beautiful game based on cooperation, communication, and complementary parts. An individual can have a dramatic effect on a basketball game, but separating stars from their fit within a framework reduces the matchups to the lowest form of entertainment: The Superhero Movie. Morons love Superhero Movies. It’s possible they love the NBA for the same reason.
I’m sure there are more reasons why I have to deal with stupid basketball opinions, but for now these will do.
The Aging of a Take (A larger-than-I-expected thing)
As a budding take artist just familiarizing myself with this strange trade, I’ve had a bit of an uncomfortable epiphany: everyone is eventually right. One of my least favorite phenomenons of the Take Trade is that pundits rarely admit even the chance of their fallibility. In fact, premier Take-havers like Bayless and Stephen A. even double down on their beliefs in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Over the years, I’ve found it maddening. What I’m finding now, is that it’s just smart gambling.
Humans are, by definition, inconsistent. We are tragically flawed and fallible, each of us capable of resounding highs and devastating lows. That Take-artists rarely admit defeat shows their belief that this human frailty will eventually make them right. Colin Cowherd looked like an idiot for his take on Baker Mayfield last year, basically calling him a fraud as the first pick in the draft. He got skewered for it. People even rejoiced in Baker—I can’t believe I’m about to use this word—trolling Cowherd on his own show. Now, Baker looks lost and Cowherd gets to be right. This is usually how the conversation about quarterbacks goes. You thought Flacco was good? The haters are laughing. Minshew? What about that two-interception game before he gets replaced by Foles?
It has never been more immediate than in the case of Cam Newton. Cam has had an historic career for the Panthers, but now the buzzards are circling, ready for their long-awaited payoff. “He never could play from the pocket, all that running ruined him, he’s just not a competitor,'' they squawk. 2015 is a distant memory that they don’t have to honor, because in this moment they get that sweet satisfaction of rightness that so goads the human mind. The flock even pecked Peyton Manning’s crumbling body to shreds at the end, and he finished with a dang Super Bowl. It’s a vicious, cynical way of operating in this arena of opinions, but it’s effective. It also reminds us that no matter the heights we reach, the buzzards eventually find us all.
Kentucky Basketball (A small thing)
It’s not supposed to be this way. This team isn’t supposed to beat #1 Michigan State on November 5th. A bunch of cobbled-together ultra-talents, where sophomores count as veterans, isn’t supposed to be good enough to take down Cassius Winston and his capable sidekicks on a neutral court. Where is the gelling process and the growth curve? Where is the uncomfortable reality check that Calipari’s teams are supposed to get slapped with early in the year? Apparently they went ahead and skipped this step. Ashton Hagans looked in control, Nick Richards has evolved, and some waterbug out of Texas named Tyrese Maxey became a star in 40 minutes (the man had 26 points on 7 made field goals). If this team follows the habitual growth of a Calipari Kentucky team, we should all be terrified of who they’re going to be by February.
LSU-Alabama (Another small thing)
What I wouldn’t give to be in Tuscaloosa this weekend. I bet the tailgating on that massive, stately quad started last Tuesday. There’s only one road into that lovely town, and I bet it’s been a one-way street all week. I wanna get a gyro at Hooligans with some mint sweet tea. I want to walk along the Black Warrior River as cars spill into campus. I want to sit alone in a Moe’s Barbecue, over half a smoked chicken and collard greens, and listen to the conversations. Say what you will about the Deep South, but there’s nothing like living there the week before a true barnburner. It’s like every action and interaction has been set to the soundtrack of a drumline. I don’t know who’s going to win. Honestly, I’m not sure I really care (maybe a slight lean toward LSU). I just wish I’d snagged an invite to college football’s best party.
Until next time, readers, keep Carolina on your mind.
There are a few broad motivations for putting fingers to a keyboard. Some write for release, some to release others. Many write to say something, but some, perhaps in their quieter moments and spaces, write to find out what they have to say. This blog might be Exhibit A for the latter motivation. I apologize if I lack my trademark effervescence™, but as my brain begs for hiatus, I boldly noodle into the mind’s swampy subconscious for that great catfish of inspiration. Things may get a little muddy, but the essence will be clear; and in a departure from Dr. Strangelove, I cannot deny you, reader, my essence. These are The Things I’m Thinking About:
Why Sports? (This is a big one.)
There blows, barren and cold in the outskirts of every sports fan’s mind, a harrowing insecurity: that none of this stuff matters. This existential fear arrives like a tornado, unexpected and greedy for wreckage. If it hasn’t yet hit you, go ahead and start building your storm shelter. It will, at your weakest, make you worry that you’ve sacrificed countless hours, inordinate amounts of brain space, and decades of emotional investment at the altar of a hollow god. That these fears are as prone to embitter our triumphs as our defeats is just part of their cruelty.
Of course it wafted in after the Georgia game, the greatest Gamecock sports victory since that 2017 Final Four run. The chorus cries, “We beat Georgia!” But did we, though? My name is not in the box score, nor have I bitten the wooden spoon and scooped out my pound of flesh for the Athletic Department. One group of kids in Garnet beat another group of kids in red on a field in the Georgia hills, at a game with a ball shaped like an egg. There seems no reason that something like this should matter, no cause for it to affect our conversations, our moods, hell even our self-images. Yet, it does. The uncomfortable paradox of sports is that something so practically meaningless is so terribly important. Sports have meaning. But for some reason it’s hard to explain exactly why. Allow me to try.
The older I get, the more I fear these games function, chiefly, as buckets for emotional vomit. Responsibilities mount, stress builds, tension intensifies, while crying shoulders and sympathetic ears evaporate in the steam of adulthood. It’s no surprise, then, that Neyland Stadium became a daycare facility last weekend (with no chaperones). Every dropped pass, unsuccessful play call, and (God forbid) unfavorable whistle morphed 90,000 Tennessee Volunteers into a blubbering, squealing collective tantrum. Spit-soaked boos and sweaty gesticulations literally washed over me in ejaculated waves of frustration. The replay guy was God, sometimes treating his hemorrhaging masses to six or seven helpings of an unfortunate call until their fervor crescendoed to frenzy. In this pornography of self-pity, it became clear to the level-headed visitors how little the actual game mattered; these people just wanted to scream.
I wish I could say this fury was an aberration in a visiting stadium--but it’s just not. I’ve been intentionally shaken, spit on, grabbed, massaged (not in the good way), jostled, rubbed, poked, and prodded by opposing fans (sometimes by entire sections) in their stadium, each time during a game they’ve actually won. Ironically enough, they’ve been as likely to touch me and berate me when they are winning as when they are losing, in all situations reducing me to an emotional conduit. Sports, at their saddest and most necessary, are this channel for catharsis; a last bastion of the Dionysian where people can acceptably drain their feels-barrels in petulant performance. Is it pathetic? Certainly. But if rage must go somewhere, then sports are a (relatively) safe outlet. Opiate of the masses, indeed.
But a cynic I am not. If sports at their worst are an outlet for humanity’s darkness, then at their best they are a stage for its light. I want the world to look like team sports. There are clear, enforced rules that both sides have to follow, and every game starts at 0-0. Talent and hard work matter more than who your dad is, or what you look like; and jerks are usually benched, not promoted. It doesn’t take four years and $100,000 to learn to dribble, shoot, and pass; and the skills you learn provide immediate and tangible help on the field of play (thanks, college.). Finally, team matters; and, therefore, people matter to one another. Do sports always live up to these lofty pretensions? No. Calls are missed, talent doesn’t get an opportunity, hard work isn’t rewarded. However, it’s the fairest place left in competition, and that’s a beautiful thing.
But not, perhaps, as beautiful as the games themselves. I recently got back into organized basketball after about an eight-year sabbatical. The results have been intoxicating. Every shot is a thrill, every pass a joy. Even calling out picks and switching on defense is a damn rush. I ride the high all week. It reminds me why basketball will always be part of my life: because I love the game in every way I can get it. Sports are a potent recipe. You get to play, solve a puzzle, form relationships, work out, watch a soap opera, and chase a trophy all at once. I can’t think of another activity so rich. It’s no wonder we live it vicariously after all our playing days are over.
That this vicarious experience is shared makes it all the more meaningful. Our world is a fractured, disjointed relational hellscape. Myriad media rabbit holes and red herrings erode our shared experiences and inside jokes. The last ten years have all but eliminated the uniting effects of an Anchorman or a Dodgeball on our collective consciousness. Even the things we all watch tend to be consumed at different times based on different conveniences. Except, that is, for sports. Sports we watch together. In times where a sense of belonging is ever scarcer, we are sharing, considering, and discussing sports all at once.
College sports, especially, thrive on this belonging. They are regional teams that usually draw regional players, who live on a campus where many fans also spent one to eight of the most formative years of their lives. I met my wife on the same street where I swapped surgery stories with Marcus Lattimore, gave Jadeveon Clowney directions, and watched Captain Munnerlyn dust a sprinter in a 40-yard dash--he didn’t even tie his Jordans. It’s no wonder we keep going back to these places and teams when time offers less and less to belong to. It’s also nice to be able to ask an awkward coworker, “Did you watch the game last night?”, and have a decent chance at a conversation. Whether a fantasy league with old friends, an excuse to go back home, or just something to talk about with your dad, sports are a bridge. May they always be.
I don’t know what’s gotten me so wistful. Perhaps the changing of the seasons. Maybe because the Littlest Gamecock has gotten in the habit of strolling up to strangers and discussing his visit to “Big Cocky’s House” (his name for USC’s football stadium. Obviously I’ve never been prouder). Maybe it’s just mid-season and I‘m feeling reflective. Like the meaning of sports, it’s hard to put my finger on it. Perhaps it is this very ineffability that makes our devotion to sports so meaningful. Were we to understand it, to corner it and give it words, sports might lose their mystical power. Then I’d have to write about politics, or something that actually matters.
College Football Might-Have-Beens (A much smaller thing)
College football is the best because it’s an entire season of playoff matchups. Teams essentially have no margin for error, as the great ones in the months-long saga move closer and closer to one another with every victorious chapter. The great games loom on the narrative horizon like climaxes in a story. This year, though, teams have stumbled before reaching those matchups of destiny in some painfully unsatisfying ways. Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois took the sheen off their Ohio State matchup. Washington had to get two bad losses before their defining game against Oregon. Even Georgia’s loss to South Carolina makes this weekend’s Florida matchup feel like a ho-hum battle for the SEC East. Virginia’s ACC Championship bike collapsed before the training wheels came off. The list goes on and on. Tua possibly being hurt for the LSU game is just another nail in the coffin of my excitement.
NBA League Pass (A small thing, indeed)
This is the first year that I’ve thought, “Damn, I think I have to get LeaguePass”. Honestly, who in the NBA isn’t worth a look? The Hornets are bad, the Wizards are a joke, and I have irreconcilable differences with how Kyrie plays basketball, but besides those teams I’m pretty much here for it. I’ve never seen so many good teams that could be great, decent teams that could be good, and bad teams that could get interesting. Watching those stories unfold has me on the verge of treating myself to an early Christmas present.
Until next time readers, keep Carolina on your mind.