COMMON SPORTSWRITER MALAISE
I came down with a dogged strain of common sportswriter malaise on the morning of Tuesday, January 23, 2001. It broadsided me in Tampa, on the floor of Raymond James Stadium, an edifice named for an investment firm and set amid boulevards of soul-murdering strip malls. It struck during my tenth Super Bowl Media Day, an annual event that persists despite both reporters and athletes finding it loathsome.
As about 2,300 reporters surrounded two football teams--one, then a break, then the other--it dawned on me in a howling rush that I had spent a fourteen-year career immersed in a vat of drivel, banality, and corruption, but especially drivel. I had taken the only brain Mother Nature had granted, and I had exposed it to almost fifteen years of listening to stale and preposterous utterances from managers, athletes, and sports-talk radio. It felt as if my brain had stored, as fluid, all the cliches and the fibs and the grotesque marketing and the extravagant nonsense, until one day the organ simply overflowed.
Woozy, I fled up the stadium steps toward the free breakfast buffet.
I cannot recall the precise rote utterance by an athlete or coach or reporter that wrought this cranial convulsion. I wish I could, but I believe the human mind has a mechanism that represses things that aim to turn it into mulch. At Super Bowl Media Day, some reporters seek insight. Some seek piffle. All receive piffle. There's such a debilitating barrage of piffle that it'd be yeoman to pinpoint particular piffle.
I know it wasn't when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis compared his double-murder charge and obstruction-of-justice guilty plea to the plight of Jesus Christ, because I weathered that session dutifully. I doubt it was New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn chatting with reporters about his marriage proposal to actress Angie Harmon on a late-night talk show, because I deeply feared that session and did not stray near. It could've been when, for the one thousandth time, across ten Super Bowls, I heard somebody ask a player whether his team could handle Super Bowl distractions, followed by the one thousandth identical answer of "Yes, we can because we understand why we're here." No one had ever said, "No, I don't think so, because some of the guys already have hired seven escort agencies and held three all-night orgies," which would've been mildly intriguing.
I just know that everything around me felt so hackneyed and so marketed, every conversation so artificial, that I could feel the last shreds of individual humanity draining from my system.
This malaise, epidemic among my colleagues, had beset me only in twinges before. For years I had stood in clusters of reporters listening to college basketball players recite the tired balderdash learned in sessions with college PR staffs, and every once in a while I'd feel a sudden flash commanding me to take my own pen and gouge out my own eyeballs. I'd heard almost fifteen years of athletes claiming they'd succeeded even though nobody respected them. That must've killed ten thousand brain cells. I'd heard almost fifteen years of coaches and athletes saying they took it one game at a time, as not a single contrarian in all that time ever dared to say he took it two games at a time. That must've killed a hundred thousand brain cells. I'd listened carefully to almost fifteen years of retired athletes doing TV commentary during games and studio shows or on talk radio, 97 percent sounding roughly like Dan Marino on The NFL Today.
That must've made me an idiot.
Athletes crediting a deity for a fleeting game outcome or extolling a deity once in legal trouble . . . commentators extolling purity because some places look pure, even amid the phantasmagorical corruption of American college athletics . . . athletes, managers, and commentators saying it's not about the money . . . American Ryder Cup players playing "for my country" . . . the preposterous refrain that the winner of a game "wanted it more" . . . "We just have to focus" . . . "They really have athleticism" . . . "A quarterback controversy" . . . "The people who criticize me don't know me" . . . "David and Goliath" . . . "Cinderella" . . . or the post-arrest staple, invented by PR handlers: "I made a mistake." . . .
It just all crashed in.
Still, after some free-breakfast comfort food--eggs, sausage--the bug went into remission, and even after the dreary Super Bowl game itself--uninspiring Baltimore Ravens 34, uninspiring New York Giants 7--I hopscotched a huge country without complaint, even seeing some poignant things.
At the Daytona 500 that February, the great driver with the gleam in his eye, Dale Earnhardt, died on the final turn of the final lap, and I saw a vast track enveloped in a loving mourn while a gnarled mechanic sobbed into a pay phone. At the annual sixty-four-team university basketball tournament that grips us every March so much that we overlook the phantasmagorical corruption, I saw gorgeous San Diego, always a privilege. At the Masters in April, I saw a single golfer born to an African American Vietnam War veteran and a Thai mother ensure that his Orlando coffee table could hold all four major golf trophies at once, proof that humanity, through careful parenting and tutelage, could tame its own menacing and spiteful invention, golf.
Delights popped up as years galloped by. When the Boston Red Sox won the baseball World Series in 2004 to end an eighty-six-year drought that had become a national cliche, I got goose bumps at the amphibious parade that ran on streets plus the Charles River. At Athens 2004, I saw a female Korean archer score a mandatory 10 on the last chance in the threadbare 1896 Olympic stadium. In October 2005, I saw a football game between Southern California and Notre Dame that beat the best theater. I saw Roger Federer play tennis. I saw Tiger Woods play often.
It's just that the remissions began thinning.
At the very sporting events that filled the daydreams of my sunny Virginia childhood, I'd feel a fleeting and deadening sense of triviality, the sensation tripled during any NBA regular-season game. With access to the very athletes I once yearned to meet as a child, I'd find myself wishing such access unavailable, the feeling tripled at any Major League Baseball game. I grew so weary of Lance Armstrong's defensive preening that his face on the screen triggered a neuromuscular response wherein I'd reach involuntarily for a remote control, even in a bar.
And college sports. Since childhood, I'd loved college sports, that American oddity featuring gigantic TV audiences and filled stadiums with 60,000 or 80,000 or in some cases 100,000 seats. I'd always perceived it as a continent of fine athletic drama dotted with episodic sleaze. Only after about twenty years of learning about universities slipping illicit cash payments to coveted high school athletes, bribing the coaches of coveted high school athletes, treating high school athletes to weekends of lavish dinners and (sometimes) prostitution services on "official visits," fudging the academic records of college athletes to keep them eligible, having tutors do the schoolwork of college athletes to keep them eligible, using corporate sleaze to wring ever more money from the sweat of unsalaried college athletes, and so on, my thick skull awakened to the thought that maybe it was a continent of sleaze dotted with episodic honor.
It got tougher by the year.
In 2002 we Americans endured another tired baseball labor strife that clouded the season with potential cancellation. We had a former Most Valuable Player estimate that half the players took performance-enhancing drugs. We staged an Olympics in Salt Lake City in which a figure skating judge with a fur collar admitted trading scoring favors. At least she's French, we thought--you know, not like us.
In 2003 we had a row over the Augusta National Golf Club's boys-only membership policy, which is its right but also pitiable. We had a basketball player we liked very much, Kobe Bryant of Los Angeles, arrested on rape charges. The number-one sports star of the year? That would be THG, the performance-enhancing drug we learned about that year. To top it all, we had an American coup de grace in Texas: the shooting death of a college basketball player, followed by his coach's fear that past illicit payments to the player would get exposure, followed by the esteemed coach trying to persuade his assistants to brand the deceased as a drug dealer (thus explaining the good bank balance), replete with the coach saying, "Reasonable doubt is there's nobody right now who can say we paid Patrick Dennehy . . . because he's dead."
In 2004 we had a big, tired hissy fit over Janet Jackson's nearly exposed breast in the Super Bowl halftime show after decades upon decades of cheering cheerleaders with nearly exposed breasts. We had hockey player Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punching Steve Moore during a game, knocking him unconscious and fracturing a neck vertebra. The exhausted, drivelous, please-don't-tell-me-any-more story line of the Los Angeles Lakers finally reached preposterous denouement when the team had to trade the most awesome bloody force in the game, Shaquille O'Neal, because he and Bryant could not coexist. We had a brawl in Detroit during which a fan threw a projectile at a basketball player and basketball players took to the stands slugging fans. I went eagerly to the Athens Olympics and spent the first Saturday night camped outside a hospital with Greek reporters, awaiting in vain two Greek sprinters who may have faked a motorcycle accident in a feat of drug-test avoidance.
In 2005 we Americans spent an entire autumn hearing daily if not hourly about one narcissistic football receiver in Philadelphia. We spent our second straight summer in New York speculating about the intra-team compatibility of one profoundly dull third baseman. I'd begun to realize a twenty-first-century maxim that may have nagged at many fans: sports suck, but I'd hate to live without them.
Then came Friday, March 17, 2005, the nadir de nadirs, when I spent an entire day of this gift of a lifetime watching the congressional baseball steroid hearings.
There you had a daylong view of a committee in Congress. Nobody should ever have a daylong view of any aspect of Congress, where we send some of our most heinous citizens so that we don't have to live among them.
And there we also had a row of grotesquely coddled baseball players who should never speak on television for such duration in any culture concerned for its well-being. One wagged a finger at Congress and said he'd never taken steroids, when by July he would test positive for the steroid stanozolol even though it's remarkably hard to flunk such tests. Another, whose cartoonish muscles abetted his then-record seventy home runs in a summer of 1998 that unleashed poetry about baseball's return to national glory, kept saying he hadn't come to talk about the past. ("Steroids is bad," he said in his opening statement.) Another, invited for his alleged intellectualism and because he previously called steroids a problem in baseball, basically said he hadn't really meant steroids were a problem in baseball. Another claimed translation issues after spending years doing interviews in English. The most credible of all became the one on the end, the handsome former player everyone resented, the first-time author whose just-released book regaled a naive nation with touching steroid tales such as players shooting up each other in their rear ends in restroom stalls.
Then, every once in a while on another base day in Congress, there would come an unspeakable moment in which one congressman or another would, before our very eyes, morph into blubber and start fawning over the presence of the baseball players.
As the first edges of darkness clinched the day as spectacularly misspent, my Tampa malaise had set in again: Wow. I think I might detest sports.
From an upbringing decidedly anti-cynical, I had transmogrified into a threat to foist cynicism upon children in my circulation area plus any finding me by accident on the Internet. With no right to complain given all the crummy jobs in the world compared with mine, I figured I'd ride to retirement or death with flaring depression. On the plus side, I had drained some of my vast reservoir of gullibility and reduced the saccharine content in my copy. I'd begun to leave the house for sporting events fancying myself a chronicler of sin rather than of feat, and reassuring myself it's important to cover sin.
Then, in 2006, I happened upon a cure I'd never imagined and that my numerous ambivalent colleagues hadn't tried. I merely and unexpectedly moved to another country for the oldest reason in the book--love--and alighted an ocean away from SportsCenter playing morning highlights that recur until you want to primal-scream. When Virgin flight 46 from JFK to Heathrow landed, I would step out into not only another country but the country with the world's most popular sports league, soccer's English Premier League, or Premiership, a league so dynamic it compels Bulgaria and Burkina Faso, stokes the curiosity of half of China and big chunks of Colombia, and prompts young men from Mauritius to think up Manchester United songs that denigrate Liverpool.
I would inhabit London, the central nervous system of Planet Earth circa 2006.
After eighteen mostly wondrous years covering five Olympics, twenty-five major golf tournaments, four Wimbledons, eleven Super Bowls, ten Kentucky Derbys, one Sunday night romp up the Champs-Elysees in July 1998 with a bunch of French people who might've abhorred soccer but seemed to enjoy winning, seven baseball World Series, seven Rose Bowls, five Sugar Bowls, five Fiesta Bowls, three Orange Bowls, basketball from Hawaii to Alaska to Kentucky to Athens to Sydney, nine Indianapolis 500s, three Daytona 500s, and one tractor pull, among other events, I found myself purged of free media credentials, free media shuttle buses, and free media buffet lines. I bought tickets as do real people. I went to stadiums and sat as a fan among the completely irrational other fans. I breathed amid the wisest, savviest old fan culture on earth. I relearned arts forbidden in press boxes, including applauding, cheering, and even jumping up and down like a buffoon.
And crucially, I came upon a league chockablock with facts I didn't know, legacies that hadn't grown exhausted, and astounding fan noise I couldn't wait to comprehend.
I felt confounded at mysterious words such as "Hotspur" (that's the nickname for the North London club Tottenham Hotspur), "Everton" (that's an actual and first-rate club set in Liverpool), and "Sven-Goran Eriksson" (he's the dour Swedish former coach of England's national team). I pictured "West Ham" as some gumdrop village somewhere in the countryside, when it's a storied club in gritty East London. I feared I would mispronounce the words "Arsene Wenger" in public, for he's the revered Frenchman who manages Arsenal, the globally revered North London club. I could not for the life of me define "bung," but I felt relief when I learned that's an illicit and illegal payment, because illicit and illegal payments had a ring of familiarity from American college sports. I had only just learned the home city of the mystically titled "Aston Villa." (It's Birmingham.) Only after marveling at the sublime TV talent of soccer's foremost studio host, Gary Lineker, did I learn he'd actually played the game and played it for the national team, belying the habit of former players of becoming unenlightening cliche-spewers. I suddenly learned that in addition to the Premiership, the European Champions League, and the FA Cup, clubs played for a fourth annual trophy formerly called "League Cup" but by now named for a Canadian beer (the Carling Cup).
Excerpted from Bloody Confused! by Chuck Culpepper. Copyright © 2008 by Chuck Culpepper. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.