To a great degree the modern spectator is also the modern reader, the frequenter of FanGraphs or ESPN Insider or Grantland, the reader for whom Sports Illustrated is a quaint throwback to an era of pre-Internet innocence, to a time before irony, sabermetrics, or the postmodern imbrication of sport with popular (i.e., entertainment) culture. Sports Illustrated is something filched from your father’s toilet stand, something you lost your virginity to. For such a reader, the following reflection (Why I Hate Rick Reilly) may well seem like shooting fish in a barrel, like a karate chop to the groin of a downed opponent, like a tale told by a Gen X brat, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For these reasons, my Spectators, I hope you enjoy it.
Don’t get me wrong. Bill Simmons, founding editor of Grantland and guru of the new sports journalism, sometimes annoys me. His long-form mailbags and manic blog-style articles, his stat-spewing and theory-mongering, his shameless Boston homerism, his occasional rapid-fire alternation between rank nostalgia and smirking glibness, his lyric sports boners and counterfactual fantasias (“What if Bill Belichick and Cersei Lannister had a child and it became GM of the Patriots?”), these can all be sources of irritation and exhaustion. And anytime I see a footnote in the margin of an online sports column, I know to blame Simmons. But whenever I think to myself, enough, already, with this logorrheic blather, with this belated po-mo sports-journalistic stuntsmanship, I hove my cursor a mere inch below the Grantland banner on espn.com and click on the latest hymn from Amen Corner by Rick Reilly. Rick Reilly, “Riles” to his friends (like Lance Armstrong, see below), is the eleven-time NSSA sportswriter of the year, formerly of the backpage column “Life of Reilly” in Sports Illustrated, now a regular “essayist” on Sportscenter and featured opiner on ESPN’s frontpage. He’s Ray Barone’s idol and inspiration. And like Everybody Loves Raymond in the cable universe, Riles is the swirling, sucking vortex of sports journalism, patently awful and somehow unavoidable at the same time.
The reasons for my attitude toward Riles—and I distinguish here between the man and his game—are legion, but since I’ve promised the editors of Modern Spectator pith, I’ll confine myself to the most salient and thought-crippling elements of his repertoire. In the first instance there is his irrepressibly corn-pone idiom (“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is”), the device by which nearly all Riles’s points are made. Thus in one especially virtuosic column published March 26 on espn.com:
“The 33-game winning streak by [Jerry] West’s Los Angeles Lakers is a watered-down light beer compared to the Heat’s Dom Perignon streak of 27 and counting.” [In the name of journalistic acumen I should note that Riles is being ironically disingenuous here; he does not think that the Lakers’ 33-game winning streak of 1971-2 is really like light beer compared to the Heat’s Dom Perignon streak of 27 this season];
“After Julius Erving (Virginia), Rick Barry (New York), Dan Issel (Kentucky), Billy Cunningham (Carolina) and Artis Gilmore (Kentucky) [left for the ABA], the talent pool went downhill faster than Vince Wilfork on a water slide”;
“Every team seemed to have some walking Sears Tower in the middle who handed out contusions free of charge”;
“The Lakers made those 33 look easier than the People crossword.”
At one point in this piece Riles also hails reigning NBA MVP LeBron James as “LeWrong.” On March 22 Riles observes of a former gambling addict’s March Madness betting, “It was about juggling lies like chainsaws … [it was about] digging a hole so deep he wondered if light would ever find him” (leave it to Riles to find a way to dig a lightless hole with a chainsaw made of lies). On February 26 Riles pronounces that Texas A&M “is making the GNP of Kuwait off [Heisman winner Johnny Manziel] in jersey sales and T-shirt sales and ticket sales and donations and anything else it can dream up. To A&M, he’s Johnny Man-Sell.” “And what does Johnny get out of all that?” Riles asks himself rhetorically. “Zero cents.” (“EUREKA,” I say to myself, “through the play of language Riles is telling me that this all makes ZERO SENSE!”) In a trenchant moment of his courageous February 20 column “Ban the Belly Putter,” the so-called “long” or “belly” putter is affirmed to be “steroids with a leather handle.” And so forth, and so on, like Mitch Albom if he were possessed by the spirit of Henny Youngman. Take my wife—please.
This tic of style would be more endurable, could even be seen as some kind of warm-hearted shtick, if it were not for the palpable self-satisfaction with which these verbal flourishes are made, and moreover, if Riles’s elaborately ornate corniness did not actually bespeak an astonishing lack of penetration and insight. Let me take as examples here Riles’s coverage of two significant figures and storylines in the recent history of sport, the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong and of Tiger Woods. This is the lede of Riles’s January 17 ESPN column, the day before Armstrong went on Oprah to admit publicly what millions of people were already sure was true, what dozens of riders and cycling officials and hundreds if not thousands of journalists had been saying for a decade or more was true, that Lance Armstrong doped, that for years he engaged with others in a conspiracy to dope and to cover up his doping while winning a record seven Tour de France titles, that every self-righteous protestation of innocence since 1999 was a piece of lying theatre, that Armstrong was in short a fraud and a cheat in sport as well as in life:
Among my emails Wednesday morning, out of the blue, was one from Lance Armstrong. Riles, I’m sorry. All I can say for now but also the most heartfelt thing too. Two very important words. L. And my first thought was … ‘Two words? That’s it?’ Two words? For 14 years of defending a man? And in the end, being made to look like a chump? Wrote it, said it, tweeted it: ‘He’s clean.’ Put it in columns, said it on radio, said it on TV. Staked my reputation on it. ‘Never failed a drug test,’ I’d always point out. ‘Most tested athlete in the world. Tested maybe 500 times. Never flunked one.’ Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean.
For the first time in more than a dozen years of loving to hate Rick Reilly, I was thunderstruck. Speechless. Really, Riles? For really realz? The lede of this important story, a story on which Reilly has in his own words “staked his reputation,” is contrived so as to (1) flaunt Reilly’s personal relationship with Lance Armstrong and (2) make the news of Armstrong’s forthcoming Oprah confession and hence public acknowledgment of a campaign of national and international deception and betrayal about Rick Reilly (Riles, I’m sorry). How could he do this to poor old Riles? Riles had been there for Lance through thick and thin! He’d defended him. Bet his journalistic good name on Lance’s being clean (!). And now the shit hits the fan and gosh dang Riles just about can’t believe it. Why? (and here is the third and really unforgivably wrong thing with this article) because (3) Armstrong always told him he was clean. Yes, and Saddam really had those WMD’s like Bush said, and Clinton truly did not have sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky, and Nixon was indeed not a crook, because they told us it was so. Now I realize that Reilly is not an investigative journalist. But as Riles’s Sportscenter colleagues are sometimes wont to say, C’mon man! The total lack of guile is sort of amusing in children under four when they say the darndest things (i.e., unwittingly violate social decorum in ways repressed adults wish they could), but in a grown up, to say nothing of a journalist, such guilelessness is a rather hideous thing, a brown stain in the middle of the carpet, and Riles doesn’t even have the decency not to advertise his incredible dupeage in a way that isn’t at once self-aggrandizing and ecstatically obtuse. I repeat: C’mon, man!
Just once more unto the breach, my friends. About two weeks ago, Nike ran a new ad for Tiger Woods, recently restored as the No. 1 golfer in the world after winning the 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Tiger Woods, winner of 14 major golf tournaments, who in November 2009 was involved in a domestic incident wherein while backing down or out of the driveway his then-wife Elin Nordgren may or may not have bashed out the window of his fleeing SUV with a golf club, whereupon myriad marital infidelities and sexual peccadilloes subsequently came to light, perhaps explaining why his then-spouse may have wanted to take a golf club and try to bash out his windows (or better yet his face) and correlating in a more or less direct way with a loss of golfing form and of course public humiliation and redress. This new ad, which features Woods brooding over a tricky putt, contains the tag line, “Winning Takes Care of Everything.” Below this it notes, “Tiger Woods, World #1.” Now this is guile. Appallingly cynical, appallingly true, and capable of being defended as totally innocent, as in Nike spokeswoman Beth Gast’s statement, “When asked about his goals such as getting back to No. 1, he has said consistently winning is the way to get there … The statement references that sentiment and is a salute to his athletic performance.”
But don’t try and get that past Riles. His March 29 column opens:
Sometimes you wonder where Tiger Woods gets his public-relations advice. Gary Busey? After a 2009 sex scandal that would make Magic Mike blush, it seemed as if Woods was finally coming around. Back to No. 1 in the world. Got himself a girlfriend he could bring home to mom. People even were starting to feel a little sorry for him. And then he allows Nike to release an ad that spits goo in the eye of anybody who was on the fence. It ran on social media after Woods won in Orlando last week. It was a picture of him with the caption: ‘Winning Takes Care of Everything.’ The only problem is, it’s a big whopping jelly-filled lie.
There ensues a little moral discourse about how athletic excellence (i.e., the re-attainment of the World No. 1 Ranking) does not compensate or atone for moral badness (i.e., marital infidelity/sleeping with hookers/breaches of golf etiquette like club-throwing and swearing on the course). Oh but yes it does, yes it does. Indeed that most compelling narrative of modern sport—the fallen hero expiating his sins by virtue of athletic triumph—depends as much on physical genius as it does on an abuse of public trust and adulation, which abuse is then disingenuously, through the churning of public relations machines and the sports-entertainment-industrial-complex, disavowed as a fall from grace in process of being redeemed by the athlete’s current pose of contrition and continued or renewed athletic (and hence marketing) success. Only in certain breath-taking, Oz-like moments of revelation, like Michael Jordan’s colossally ingracious Hall of Fame induction speech, or like Tiger Woods’s we-meant-nothing-of-the-like Nike ad, does the hoaxiness of the hoax become sublimely apparent, to the incomparable satisfaction of the true modern spectator, who continues to watch and love and root for sport, even though we know that the mythos of sport is not, perhaps has never been, anything apart from a juggling of lies like chainsaws.
If you are some other kind of reader or spectator or appreciator of sport in this our modern age, take Rick Reilly—please.
Matthew Augustine lives and writes in Scotland. He teaches at a university near a famous golf course.
In a way, I bet Reilly perversely enjoys being let down by the lies of sports. I bet he finds the spleen-venting and manufactured outrage cathartic, a satisfying release that helps him avoid the uncomfortable realities of those things beyond his grasp. When your buddy Lance leaves you high and dry, thankfully you can always enjoy Leno’s monologue.
— Chet Abrams Apr 16, 11:53 AM #
You could break down anyone’s writing style that is not conventional and knock it like you just did with the Sports Guy. Some of the things you found annoying I think are the best parts of his style. Obviously, millions agree with me on this.
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