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On Sports

The Sportsman’s Code of Chivalry

February 2, 2014 | by

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Two Sundays ago, I watched the AFC Conference game with some friends. Picture a Venn Diagram; label one circle “Fans of the New England Patriots” and the other “People Who Have Studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The person who exists at the intersection of those two circles was sitting on a couch across from me, anxiously eating chips and guacamole. As the Patriots slipped further and further behind the Broncos, talk turned to Arthurian legend, and to knightliness at large.

Peyton Manning, our group quickly agreed, was the Lancelot of quarterbacks. Like Lancelot, he’s unquestionably the most talented of his cadre—a fact confirmed when he was, to no one’s surprise, named this year’s league MVP. He’s also, like Lancelot, doltish and unbeautiful: in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lancelot is, to quote King Arthur, “the ugliest man I have ever seen”; Peyton can’t claim that honor, but he does have a grotesquely large forehead, scarred by the Riddell helmet he is forced to squeeze over it. And both Lancelot and Peyton are doomed to be surpassed by a dim younger relative—in the former’s case, it’s the unbearably pure Galahad, Lancelot’s son, the only knight allowed to glimpse the Holy Grail; in Peyton’s case, it’s his younger brother, Eli, whose childishly transparent expressions of disappointment have been turned into exemplars of gif art, and who already has two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one. Which made Tom Brady his Tristan: not quite as skilled, but achingly handsome.

Metaphors aside, there is a sort of gallantry we expect from our athletes. NFL players do not, of course, swear their troth to a code of chivalry; nevertheless there are rules, largely unspoken, to which professional athletes are expected to adhere. Off the field, if not on, while speaking to the press, if not while concussing one another, we want our athletes, like our knights, “to refrain from the wanton giving of offense”; “to eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit”; and “to live by honor and for glory.” Read More »

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Round Two

November 14, 2013 | by

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It was Tuesday and Mike Tyson was comparing himself to Machiavelli.

“After you kill the king,” he said, “you cut off his head and you be audacious. You say what you’re going to do to the next king. Speak foully.”

What great writer bears the most resemblance to Mike Tyson? At a talk at the New York Public Library, host Paul Holdengräber compared Tyson to Montaigne, Rousseau, and Orwell, all in the same breath. “Well, uh, that’s pretty profound,” said Tyson, who was there to promote his new memoir, Undisputed Truth. He might have had a different thinker in mind. “I think about Nietzsche a lot,” he writes in the book. Tyson the superman, a former petty criminal from Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the son of, as he put it, two people who “worked in the sex industry,” is by now a thoroughly American symbol. He found riches on the basis of physical strength and sheer willpower, then lost everything by the force of his scarred psyche. He’s currently aiming at the redemptive stage of his career. It isn’t the first time. He is tragic in a Greek kind of way. “I love war,” he told Holdengräber enthusiastically. “I love the players in war. I love the philosophy of war.” And he has the facial tattoos to prove it.

At the library, he walked the audience through the lineage of Frankish kings. He identifies with them because “they came from obscurity” and “I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to go back again.” Tyson is also an admirer of Pepin the Short, the first of the Carolingian rulers, a ruthless suppressor of revolts and the father of Charlemagne. At one point, he likened himself to Ben-Hur.

“Remember Ben-Hur?” Tyson said. “He became a wealthy man. He became a great conqueror for slaves. He became the best celebrity. And, wherever it was, he rescued the general of that ship, and after all that he couldn’t save his family. They put them with the lepers. His sister and his mother. Then he got his family from the lepers. He was a success.” There was a pause. “Look at success with me, myself.” Read More »

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In the Ninth

August 12, 2013 | by

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On Sunday I went to see the Yankees play the Detroit Tigers. It was a throwback to the Yankees teams of my childhood, with Andy Pettitte on the mound, cap still low, glowering. I’ve always been (and always will be) a Met fan, which is its own portion of anxiety, and the Yankees glittered out there in the Bronx, Pettitte and Jeter and company so much more put together and reliable than the Mets. A note on the gigantic screen in center field informed us that Pettitte had pitched for the Yankees in his twenties, thirties, and forties. My friend sitting next to me noted that you could hardly see what the score was—the numbers were that inconspicuous—though the advertising, of course, dwarfed it all.

Strangest was watching Alex Rodriguez play, a man who has been so under the popular microscope recently for performance-enhancing drug use as to have articles considering his upbringing. Who thought that steroids were still a discussion? That felt like years ago too. Rodriguez is facing the longest nonlifetime ban in baseball history. But for some time, during this purgatory, until the appeals process wraps up, he’ll be playing nine innings a day in the Bronx and the other cities that this itinerant fourth-place circus travels to. My friend mentioned, as Rodriguez took the field for the first time, that he thought he remembered something about Rodriguez saying how he couldn’t hear the boos in the crowd these days, because they were mixed with so much cheering. Read More »

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Bergtraum v. Beacon

June 25, 2013 | by

The visiting team is already waiting at the fence when Murry Bergtraum High School coach Nick Pizza arrives on Cherry Street to open the gates to his field, which are kept locked. His players haven’t arrived yet, though the visiting team, Beacon High School, has already dressed on the sidewalk, a cluster of parents standing a few feet away, averting their eyes. No metal cleats are allowed in the complex, because the turf and dirt are that nice. The backstop opens up toward the Manhattan Bridge, and right field ends at the FDR Drive. The Brooklyn Bridge unspools to the south. The field is well dragged, and a custodian walks around its edges, using a leafblower to blow stray baseball dirt off the surrounding track. Back in October, the field looked different: after Hurricane Sandy, for almost a week, it was under three feet of water.

By the time Coach Pizza (“Brooklyn born and raised”) has changed into his uniform, his players are beginning to arrive, some of them on rollerblades, from Murry Bergtraum proper, a jail-like facility wedged between the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. “I got a good bunch of kids,” Coach Pizza says. “Gotta find that balance, get the classroom stuff out of the way.” Bergtraum, with a record of 3-10, is a perennial underachiever in Manhattan A West, while Beacon, 10-3, has won the division the past two years. One problem for Pizza’s team: eligibility. Too many players have failed too many classes to play. Hurricane Sandy didn’t help—early games had to be rescheduled, and Bergtraum didn’t have use of their field until mid-April, well into the season: after trucks of clay were redeposited over the infield, the locker rooms dug free of sand by the custodians.

Bergtraum High School, a once-proud jewel of the city education system that prepared students for practical careers in business, is now perhaps more famous for hallway riots and the fact that it’s one of the few large schools that the DOE hasn’t broken up (more positively, too, for its phenomenal girls’ basketball team). The student body, predominantly black and Hispanic, comes from all the far reaches of the boroughs, along the stretch of the J, M, Z, and L lines, necessitating commutes of over an hour in some cases. Read More »

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A Sport and a Pastime

May 9, 2013 | by

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Art credit Kiersten Essenpreis

Wikipedia has, of late, been in the crosshairs for its regrettable classification of certain American writers as “women authors” (and businesswomen) and its utility as a platform for petty “revenge editing.” You can watch battles play out in real time now, as people edit and re-edit each others’ work, manipulating facts and public perception at will. With very little power comes, apparently, no particular sense of responsibility.

And yet at its best, Wikipedia is, if not the objective repository of all human knowledge its founders envisioned, a rather delightful showcase of human weirdness. The enforced aridness of the site’s format only serves to heighten the brilliance of those moments when the peculiarity shines through. I was reminded of this the other day when I decided to look into the origins of the game red rover. (Why? Don’t worry about it.)

I had hoped to learn that the game had some sort of specific historical significance—maybe involving the Gunpowder Plot, or the Reformation, although I would have settled for the Black Death—which it doesn’t. (The name might, or might not, allude to pirates.) But the Wikipedia entry had greater treasures to offer the armchair investigator. I refer, specifically, to the following:

As with any game involving physical contact between players, there are those who maintain that its inherent risks, however unlikely, must be weighed against the pastime’s potential to generate personal enjoyment. For example, when the runner breaks through a link (or attempts to break through), it is worried that the action can hurt the linkers’ arms or body or knock these individuals to the ground. Practices particularly discouraged are linking players hand-to-wrist or hand-to-arm (rather, players should hold hands only), “clotheslining” an opposing player at throat height, or extending the hands so an onrushing player runs into a fist.

It’s at moments like this when misanthropy is most alien to me.

True, my interest might be keener than most. As a child I had an almost unlimited enthusiasm for red rover. From the moment I first played it—at the home of an intermittent best friend with whom I had very little in common (now a wedding planner)—I recognized it as my sport. (I suspect it may still be my sport.) Read More »

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The Poetics of Football

February 1, 2013 | by

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I grew up outside Boston, a resident of Red Sox Nation, but mine was not a sports-loving household. My father watches football regularly these days, but he didn’t when I was a kid. He’d watch a game if it was on, distractedly, while doing something else. The rest of us did not. We didn’t follow game schedules or scores. I’ve never been to Fenway Park, though my middle school was less than a mile from the Green Monster. When they tore down Boston Garden I expressed manufactured dismay—I’d never been there either. Until I moved to Chicago after college and bought tickets to a few Cubs games on the cheap, at a yard sale, the only professional sporting event I’d ever attended was an early round of the 1994 World Cup—South Korea versus Bolivia—which ended in a tied shutout.

 My sister and I played soccer. She was better than me. I figure skated and entertained deluded fantasies of making it to the Olympics, but I couldn’t get any height on my jumps and my spins were too loose and wobbly. Eventually I switched to ice hockey, which I played with the same poor-to-barely-adequate ability as each of my prior athletic endeavors. In college I spent a week on the women’s rugby team before quitting because it hurt. Read More »

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