As with presidential election, sports often prove we don't really know each other
- More than a quarter-century of parachuting in and out of unfamiliar places to talk with people unlike himself has given the author an understanding of how divided America might really be.
On this first day of a changed country, voices admonish others for failing to comprehend the breadth of these United States. For failing to realize that the distance between the country’s shorelines is measured not just in the few thousand miles of purple mountains and amber waves, but also in the differences in the sensibilities and passions between Americans in one place—geographically, but emotionally and spiritually as well—and Americans in another. And in our collective inability to recognize those differences or to embrace that our own experience is not the only experience.
This is just one aspect of a presidential election that will be studied for generations and might resonate for nearly that long. It is widely felt today, though perhaps as much as any group, by journalists clustered on the coasts of the nation who did not sense the magnitude of the anger to their east or west. Sportswriters would recognize this paradigm. (Pause here. Big Pause. This is not to equate the transfer of power in the U.S.—especially this transfer of power, so jarring to so many for so many reasons—with the trivialities of our ritual games. The stakes are immeasurably lower. But to those of us who have been to places unlike our own place, and who have spent time with people unlike ourselves, in the service of telling a story about a team or a game or a person . . . to us, there is so much familiarity in all of this).
Disclosure: I am a journalist living in a coastal state, Connecticut. I was raised in far upstate New York in a small town next to the Vermont border, closer to Montreal than New York City. Hillary Clinton won New York State easily, but Donald Trump carried the rural village and county in which I grew up, by massive margins on his way to victory nationwide. Trump's victory in my hometown is not a surprise, although it is another small hedge against painting with too broad a brush. My late father once ran for office in this county, a Democratic candidate for a judgeship, facing a Republican incumbent in a roaring red stronghold. I helped him hand out leaflets in the deepest, toughest villages and watched him get doors slammed in his face. He got beat but held his own, and he was always proud of trying. Later, I went from this red, rural town in a big, blue state to a fancy-pants elite college in Massachusetts, and subsequently worked at newspapers in Albany, N.Y., and New York City and, for the last 22-plus years, at Sports Illustrated, which is headquartered in New York City.
A large part of my job for that last 30 years or so has involved getting on airplanes and flying somewhere to report on and write about some sports occurrence or personality. Modern air travel is really a miracle of aerodynamic engineering. One boards a place at home in the morning and later in the day, perhaps just an hour or two later, arrives in a completely different place. The efficiency of this process can induce a certain cultural complacency to which I will admit to having fallen victim many times. Board a plane here, rent a car there and drive off, feeling very much as if you have not left home at all.
A story here: Twenty-five years ago, in the winter of 1991, I was working in the sports department of New York Newsday, the expansion of Long Island-based Newsday, a big, urban newspaper in the days when Newspapers—and perhaps, dinosaurs—walked the earth, secure in their power. I was assigned to travel to Kentucky to write a story on basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was in his second year as the head coach at the University of Kentucky. (Pitino’s rebuilding of the disgraced Wildcats program was of national interest, but also of particular interest to New York readers, because Pitino had been raised in Queens and had most recently been the coach of the New York Knicks).
One evening I traveled with Pitino on a college van to scout a high school player in Somerset, Ky. Upon arrival at the tiny gym, Pitino was given a seat on the stage at one end of the floor. He wore a blue UK windbreaker, not hiding from anybody. At halftime, a man climbed onto the stage and approached Pitino. His appearance was unkempt; unshaven, smelling of alcohol and tobacco. There was a haze over his eyes. He seemed old, but perhaps he was younger than I am now. Time lies about these things. The man approached Pitino unsteadily, extended his right hand and thanked Pitino for coming to UK and wished him luck. As I wrote in the story, he reminded me of "Shooter," Dennis Hopper’s alcoholic character from Hoosiers, which had been released just five years earlier. The man was a useful narrative prop.
But I made no attempt to talk to him. (I think he was swept away by police officers, but still, no excuse). I made no attempt to understand who he was, what he had endured in his life and why, despite all of that, it was desperately important to hold Rick Pitino’s hand in his own. He asked for nothing from the coach. Not an autograph (no selfies then), not a favor of any kind. Here is the point: I had gotten on that plane and traveled from New York to Kentucky, probably with a stop in Atlanta. The trip had taken just a few hours, but I had arrived in a very different place where the people spoke my language (sort of; they might have disagreed), but in many ways did not see the same world that I saw. In the story I wrote, I simplistically explained the passion of the Kentucky fan base without fully understanding it. Then I got back on the plane and went home to my coast. We called it parachuting in. Still do.
One other story: The next year, I made one of many trips to Ann Arbor, Mich., this time to write about the second—and as it turned out, final—year of the Fab Five, the famous Michigan recruiting class of that era. I think I interviewed all five players. Can’t remember for sure. I know I spent a good chunk of time talking with point guard Jalen Rose, who would go on to become a very successful NBA player and, after that, a successful media personality and NBA analyst. At the time, he was a college sophomore. Near the end of my interview with Rose—who was, then as now, a fascinating and thoughtful subject—I asked him what he thought of Bobby Hurley, who was then a senior point guard at Duke and was regarded as one of the best and also most polarizing players in the country. This was standard practice. Rose had played against Hurley and I was writing a profile of Hurley, so I asked him a question. In theory, nothing wrong with that.
Rose recoiled, and asked me, "You want to know what I think of him? What did he say about me?" I had not asked Hurley about Rose. Rose wondered why. This remains on my short list of the best and most challenging responses I’ve ever received from an athlete. My answer wasn’t great, something like I was asking about Hurley because that’s who I am writing about and I respect your opinion. (Also, I needed quotes). Rose gave me an answer, but remained perturbed. Of course he was perturbed. He felt he was every bit as deserving of Hurley’s analysis as Hurley was of his (and certainly, history would bear him out). The lesson to me was clearer, and I learned it better than I had in Kentucky: Do not presume to know what it’s like to live in your subject’s skin. Or your subject’s world. Do not presume that his world view is your world view. Rose was an African-American just-past-teenager from Detroit. I was a white, well-past-teenager from the "coast." It would take work for me to understand him, or anyone like him. And even then, how close could I really come?
Over the last quarter-century, scenes like the two above have played out dozens of times, for me and for most journalists. From the late 1980s well into the 2000s, I was entrenched covering college football. There is not a sport in America that is more beholden to regional passions. Every weekend I would fly somewhere and write about some player or coach or team. I would go to Morgantown, W.V., or Columbus or Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee. So many times to Tallahassee, owing to the phenomenal success of the Florida State program in that era. I would go back to Ann Arbor or to LSU or to Mississippi. Or to Lincoln, Neb. Many times there, too. These places became familiar to me, the restaurants and the hotel rooms and the running trails. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words about passions and traditions, without ever fully understanding those passions and traditions. I could smell the barbecue at the tailgate and I could hear the ear-splitting noise in the stadium and make an interloper’s effort, in print, to explain why it was all so important. But I never really understood it all, because I was an outsider guessing at others’ most deeply held emotions or reducing them to their simplest form for a few sentences. I would see fans crying real tears through their face paint and I’ll admit, sometimes I thought it was a little silly. Because I had my place and they had theirs.
And then I would fly back home to my coast, again. I’m not saying that I didn’t find the right words or the right mood on occasion. Or that others didn’t do better or don’t do better now. I’m saying that I often dropped in and described what I saw in parts of the country that I didn’t really understand.
I interviewed dozens of young men with whom I had little in common. Perhaps they were African-American, like Jalen Rose. Perhaps they were farm kids from Nebraska or Alabama, or a hippie from Idaho, like Jake Plummer. The search for common ground was always a challenge.
Two years ago I went to Penn State to write about the ongoing fallout from the Jerry Sandusky case. I had been to State College many times and walked among the motor homes on Thursday or Friday afternoon in advance of a big game, wide-eyed at the dedication required to live in a grassy parking lot for three days to watch a college football game on the weekend. One of threads I pursued in that story was the blowback heaped on students who, upon hearing that some of the sanctions levied by the NCAA—including a ban on bowl games—had been lifted, chanted "4-0-9, 4-0-9…" in the middle of the campus, in reference to late—and disgraced—coach Joe Paterno’s career victory total.
The students, I wrote back then, "were seen as clueless Paterno apologists," who failed to comprehend the larger implications of a program gone wild, enabling sexual abuse. But it was much more than that. Many of the students had come to Penn State in hopes of experiencing the thrill of dressing in white and letting loose six or seven times a year. Maybe going to a bowl game somewhere warm. Finally it appeared they would get that chance. As one student told me at the time, "That night we were just celebrating." Four-oh-nine was just something to yell.
But to put all that in perspective, it was necessary to grasp someone else’s place. And someone else’s world. We’re connected by a flag, by airplanes, by roadways. But we are as different as we are alike and the passions that move one populace can seem so hopelessly foreign to another that they are invisible.