Sports + Literature = Sports Literature?

The task of devising the curriculum for “Sports Literature” was not this writer’s but that of a friend who teaches high school English and who had recently been given his slate of classes for the next fall’s semester. Because I’ve been out of the business of teaching books for a couple of years now, the best I could muster in the circumstances was intellectual curiosity. What, I wondered, to teach in such a course? And with what consequences? Some obvious suggestions—Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Don Delillo’s End Zone—presented themselves with an initial incandescence of excitement that gradually guttered out with the realization that “Sports Lit” would, by virtue of its constituency (mostly jocks and jock sniffers according to my friend), cast any book into gloom.

It’s obvious, and easy, to suggest that books about sports—at least books that are complex and challenging enough to be called “literature”—are just too sophisticated for an audience whose expectations don’t include being challenged to think. I wonder, though, if what might be called the problem of literature has a specific inflection when its subject is sports. For my part, I’m inclined to believe that at least one way of looking at sports and literature suggests that they simply cannot occupy the shared conceptual space that a conjunction like “Sports Literature” circumscribes.

I should confess a prejudice upfront: for a long time I was reluctant to concede that sports have any human significance whatsoever beyond constituting a colossal and inexplicable waste of energy, time, and money. Times and opinions change, but I continue to feel a strong twinge of reflexive distrust of commonplace encomia to the “meaning” or the “significance” of sports offered by sports writers and TV commentators and the like. I feel this way because for me meaning and significance are the province of literature, and I experience a certain territorial jealousy when people insist that sports have important things to tell us about “Life” or some other equally abstract notion.

What sort of things? Usually some variation of the following: how groups of plucky, determined underdogs triumph over seemingly invincible adversaries; how self-interested individuals come to appreciate teamwork over individual accomplishment; how success requires exercising extraordinary discipline in the face of the constant temptation to take it easy or relax.

This is problematic—not because these things don’t happen but because, a jaded observer might observe, exactly the opposite happens at least as often and probably more so. Sports might, for example, illustrate: the copious rewards of concentrated power and capital (the New York Yankees); the glory that attends shameless ball-hogging egoism (Michael Jordan); the primacy of unique and inexplicable genetic bequest, rather than “hard work,” as the essential factor in the achievement of great athletic success (examples abound but I’ll offer up the sacred, and convenient, cow of Babe Ruth on the altar of my cynicism).

So I’m pretty comfortable these days with appreciating the often quite beautiful self-contained narratives of a given sports contest, especially their perfect encapsulation of a beginning, middle, and an end that no one can predict. What I can’t get on board with are those larger narratives—I’m afraid that here no other term but “meta-narrative” will do—whereby sports are given a larger significance than their intrinsic aesthetic or dramatic appeal.

This is partly because my experience of competitive sports at some level of competence eventuated in a thoroughgoing rejection of one sports meta-narrative in common circulation; this rejection was confirmed, indeed informed, by a short story that for me should be indispensable to any course titled “Sports Literature” even as it instances its inherent problems: “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”—the best known work of the now largely overlooked Alan Sillitoe.

I’ll very briefly summarize the story for readers who don’t know it:

It’s the late 1950s and our protagonist is one “Smith,” a British youth and not-so-petty criminal who has been sentenced to a stint in a “borstal”—kind of reform school / juvenile delinquent center—where he has displayed an incredible aptitude for cross-county running. The story ends at the big race, the county championship. There Smith is the favorite, and he doesn’t disappoint the expectations of his teachers, supervisors, fellow inmates—at least not initially. But, then, striding across a clearing with a tremendous lead over his fellow runners he suddenly and inexplicably stops and refuses to move as one runner after another courses past him and spectators yell hysterically for him to finish. It is an entirely inexplicable moment.

Inexplicable, at least, to spectators but not to readers. For we have been privy to Smith’s thoughts, which reveal that he has decided to lose the race in this rather stunning fashion on purpose. More than an act of self-sabotage or perversity, it is Smith’s way of saying that he is “at war” with the world of bourgeois propriety and striving and the attempt to reform his deviousness and cunning by putting him on the path of respectable effort and its conventional rewards. Smith will have none of this. He wants to live life on his own terms—and while that life looks to be perilous at best, it’s all his, good and bad. I don’t think it’s too much to say that the story’s point has something to do with a decidedly unintellectual young man’s intuitive and powerful recognition of the importance of asserting one’s existential freedom in whatever fashion one can given the immediate circumstances.

Even this greatly compacted account should suggest one significant element of the story—its utter repudiation of one of sports most cherished meta-narratives, the one about kids from rough neighborhoods who turn their lives around through the discipline and hard work required of this or that sport, the one where the otherwise marginalized can find not just respectability but fame and fortune. After all, the type is the aforementioned Ruth, who took up baseball while doing an extended stint himself in reform school.

And that meta-narrative is one variation on another, perhaps more commonplace, the gist of which is that young people, especially teenagers, need the experience of competitive sports to channel their wayward energy and inclinations to some productive purpose, one that teaches responsibility and a sense of common purpose and the importance of dedication and effort in achieving, well, whatever it is people are supposed to achieve in life.

I first read Sillitoe’s story in the summer before my senior year of high school, and if it did not prompt it at least confirmed my own defection from the world of competitive sports—a defection I must note upfront that was not nearly so dramatic as the fictional Smith’s. In terms of consequences it cost me very little except, possibly, a college athletic scholarship of whatever sort is given to promising middle distance runners. And the moment of quitting was a phone call to my coach explaining why I wouldn’t be showing up for August practice the following week, so no public spectacle or disgrace of any sort.

What led me to this decision? Well, it started in the sort of dingy locker room in which so much of the drama of high school athletics takes place, at least in the popular imaginarium of movies and commercials. Only here instead of being inspired by an energetic pep talk I and three teammates were being subjected to a tirade by the aforementioned coach for a dismal performance in the state 4 x 800 relay, an event for which we had, at the midpoint of the season set a school record. Since that point, however, our times had steadily declined, culminating in being blown out in the semi-finals.

The tirade consisted, at least in part, of being called (I quote directly and regretfully here) a “bunch of pussies” and “cowards” as if we were, say, deserters from the Allied army during the invasion of Normandy rather than scrawny, pimply-faced, suburban teenagers plainly exhausted from a running regimen bound to leave its enlistees, as it left me, racked with shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and chronic knee and back pain.

This sort of episode is, of course, so often dramatized in sports movies and such as to be a cliché; as far as I can tell, though, it’s always presented as a necessary antecedent to some eventual triumph. And indeed, that’s how “Coach” himself presented it. We would simply have to train much harder that summer to prepare for an even more arduous fall season of cross-country, which would be our chance to redeem our miserable performance.

In a sense, then, it was inevitable that I would come across “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” on the summer reading list for my senior year English literature course. The title alone was enough to intrigue me. Reading it belonged to the host of the surpassingly intense experiences that are, perhaps, the special reward and pain of adolescence. I was not smart enough to pick up on what I now think is some profound ambivalence in the story about Smith’s prospects in life, but I was smart enough to recognize that the loneliness of the titled indexed a repudiation of authority of any kind that claims the prerogative of dictating an individual’s values in life, especially when it claims to be doing so for his or her own good.

In other words, Sillitoe’s story helped me to give shape to an otherwise inchoate and petulant resentment perhaps best expressed as “Fuck this shit!” It also gave my life that sense of extra-dimensionality that literature provides, an at once finer and larger illumination of my own experience than I could have ever come up with on my own. I figured that whatever it was that sports were supposed to offer I could do without it. Needless to say, when I said as much to my former coach in that very difficult phone call his response was exactly what one would expect—that quitting at anything in life is the equivalent to quitting at everything and that sports are how, this is verbatim, “boys become men.”

I figured, too, that if he was an example of the kind of “man” competitive sports produced, I’d be a lot better off finding my way to adulthood along a different path. At the same time, Sillitoe’s story compelled me to cast this small and rather mundane drama as a conflict of two ideologies, or at least an ideology and an unequivocal repudiation of it. This remains for me the beauty of Sillitoe’s story. Since Smith is smart and reflective but not at all philosophical in any technical sense, the account of his choices has an immediacy that more sophisticated critiques inevitably lack.

Of course, this should all be a matter for the archive since it’s been a long time indeed since I put on a pair of racing spikes for a 5K. The need to make meaning out of sports and the culture that surrounds them is, however, perennial and it’s not infrequent that my general distrust of this impulse transmutes itself into outright disgust. Here, for example, are some quotations from an article that David Plotz contributed to Slate not long after the Mike Rice affair at Rutgers University (it is about a high school basketball coach whose behavior, according to Plotz, was of a piece with Rice’s and which certainly surpasses by a wide measure anything I ever experienced):

So is there something wrong with me given that I feel truly sorry for Rice? I didn’t like my abusive coach, but I kind of loved him. None of the abuse ever bothered me. Not the shoving. Not the [thrown] water bottle. Not the insults…[including, apparently, liberal use of the term “faggot”]…

And, in conclusion,

…I’m certain that the abuse I would abhor today made me a better basketball player and a better teammate, and possibly, even a better human being.

The kindest term I can think of here is imbecilic, even as I recognize that the piece is a half-hearted exercise in provocation. The problem for me is not that Plotz commends the reformative power of what is plainly repulsive and criminal behavior but that the framework for his commendation—sports make people better—is so commonplace.

Maybe that’s my problem rather than the problem with sports. I recognize that the meaningfulness, the extra-dimensionality, I find in literature is precisely what many people find in sports, either through participation or spectatorship. So my unease with “Sports Literature” is at least partly born of a snobbish belief that people would be better off finding their most intensely realized sentimental experiences in poems and novels and not in narratives about baseball or football games or whatever.

That’s a dubious belief for sure, but I’m more confident in the conviction that literature at least has room for a profound rejection of the kind of triumphalist narrative that pervades sports appreciation, whereby life’s best and most intensely felt moments are predicated on someone or some other team’s defeat (“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”) and whatever individual and collective superiority it’s supposed to evidence. As far as I can tell, there’s no place in sports but plenty in literature for appreciating, indeed celebrating, what Smith very finely describes as “crossing country all on my own, no matter how bad it feels.”

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