why sports matter

a few weeks ago, i laid out a list of topics that i was going to cover. the last topic, on the myth of sports in regards to a piece that ralph wiley wrote on ESPN.com was the only one i didn't get to. in passing, i mentioned that wiley was fast becoming one of my favorite writers. he passed away today at the age of 52. you can read the article to learn about his life or you can click here to see what some of his colleagues had to say in response to his death. i'm not going to write a sentimental obit about what a great writer he was. i wouldn't be able to because i only have started to discover his writing. the most i can honestly say about him is that he was a really good writer. instead, to honor his passing, i'll write a little bit about a theme that he wrote about a lot, sports and myth.

the general gist of his piece was that there was a certain mythology about the lakers that made them look better than they actually were. the other auxillary point, but the one i think is more important, is that this myth is not unlike a host of hollow myths about sports. these myths such as the idea that black people are genetically better athletes are built not to give us a rosier picture of athletes, but rather they're connected to other myths in our culture. as i said a few days ago in regards to the larry bird comments, myths serve the purpose of reinforcing a dominant class' ideas. and to me, nowhere is this notion more true that in sports, which although many of my friends think i'm lame because of this, is why i list my reasons for rooting for a team as nothing other than their ability to do things that i can't. the more you can do things that i can't the more i like you. which is why i like shaq so much. in any case, i just wanted to point out that ralph wiley said that basically the myth of the lakers revolved around the notion of two black supermen, shaq and kobe. he said that while they were good players, their greatness had been extended to the crappy group of players that they have around them. something that i've been saying all playoffs, is even with payton and malone, this is the worst group of laker worker bees that we've ever had. what i think is great about the wiley piece is that he doesn't get suckered into the myth that the pistons have more heart or have better team values or crap like that. he simply states that the pistons as a whole, are physically better at the game of basketball than the lakers. he did use some emotional descriptors to extol their greatness which i don't like so much, but i think he said it best when he said the best thing about the pistons is that they clearly do not buy into the myth of the lakers because they know that they are superior talent-wise to the lakers. and with the pistons up 3-1, it seems we can only assume that wiley was right.

i suppose that i'm guilty of buying into the myth of shaq. don't get me wrong, shaq is still great and i still hope that the lakers pull it out, but i'll admit that the lakers seem to be simply outmanned right now. shaq is the only player on the lakers worth a damn, but the pistons are playing lights out. malone and payton are worthless, and don't get me started on kobe. i still contend that talent wise, there are maybe two or three other players who are in his class when it comes to creating his own shot (which i think is probably the most important thing to being successful in the NBA), but he's dumb and he flat out sucked last night. sucked big time goat balls. recently the over-reactor in me even said that at times he was jordan-esque. however, thanks to reading wiley's piece again, i realize that kobe is not even in the same universe as his airness. maybe i've got good old days syndrome, but i count myself lucky to have been able to watch the true greatness that was jordan in his prime.

anyways, back to ralph wiley. generally, sports writers occasionally do pieces where they make the hackneyed claim that sports is a microcosm of society. and generally, they are full of crap. people like peter king, peter gammons, and tom verducci always connect the good things about sports to your usual "america is great and there's no racism here" crap. what's great about ralph wiley was that he was able to show in his writing how sports really is related to the rest of american culture without relying on the myth of sports as a ideal type of a pure meritocracy. what i think he articulates best is that you can just be a fan of sports for the pure physical spectacle of what you're seeing and not have to tie your fandom to wholly subjective (and often racist/classist/ageist/sexist) ideology. professional sports represents both the best and worst about us as a culture and as a nation, and even though it's a really f-ed up thing, you can still get excited about your team. or any team. even the pistons.

anyways, if you have some time and you appreciate good sports writing, you should check out ralph wiley's espn.com archive before they take it down. i've just learned that he's done all sorts of writing, so i for one am looking forward to see what else ralph wiley has to say about america.

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