I wanted to begin this inaugural sports column with something about Brazilian soccer. Such would be a global approach—a corrective to the myopia of mainstream U.S. sports coverage. “Football?” “Do you mean, ‘soccer?’” So that’s where I wanted to start.
But the poetry of the rookie has prevailed. That is, Mark Sanchez and the Jets. Monday’s story: the rookie quarterback wins. A lovely local headline. I beamed when a guy on the street gave 1010 WINS reporter John Montone a quote that went something like this: “We’ll see if they can keep it going. But I’ll take what I can get. When you’re a Mets and Jets fan, you take what you can get.”
Allow me to bring poetry to this somewhat depressive, January-style comment. Sunday’s game unfolded just as a rookie’s season might. It was a season within a game. It was like watching a rookie coming to the city for a job or for school and making it. At first, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers throws confidently and willfully down the field. I notice how tall he is. Then, a chink in the Charger armor: missed field goals. OK, nothing major, the Chargers are still ahead. But the second quarter arrives, and Sanchez is finally able to get a first down. That was the spark.
And while the rookie settled in, the Jets defense did their job. Of course they did. Jets fans wear green construction helmets. On Sunday, it was as if the idea of working class strength prevailed over some kind of easy, sunny San Diego disposition. I am from New Jersey and I should admit that I don’t trust good moods borne of perpetually sunny climates. And growing up, I remember the Jets of the 1980s, the “New York Sack Exchange” as they were called, featuring the mad-sacking Mark Gastineau. Of course, defense lines up with a working man’s sensibility and New York equals work. It is the trustworthy safety who has all the skills but who rarely gets the glory. Kind of like New York weather versus San Diego. And who wins? If you went with grit this Sunday, you bet right: the Jets.
Back to this rookie column: I wanted to begin writing about soccer. (I assure you that a Winter Olympics preview is forthcoming.) And so, to segue—forgive my rookie columnist awkwardness—I will use the word “football” to span some ideological sports miles.
Football. One should start, of course, with the flamboyance and flourish of Brazilian football. Why is it that they wear white socks? Because this showcases their feet in a flurry of samba dancing. Because their shining white lower legs will further mesmerize the opposing team. This is smart. Brazilian football is joyous to watch.
A confession: about ten years ago I said, “I hate soccer.” Then I found out that they call it “the beautiful game” and someone wrote an article in The New Yorker about the importance of space and spacing in the game, the triangle structure—the importance of three players always triangulating around the ball. I recall that the implication of this wide-angle perspective was not necessarily good for American TV, the viewers being quite interested in the drama unfolding on athletes’ faces, not the shape of a play developing far away on a field.
A triangle seems very sensible and sturdy, sports-wise. I wonder if this football triangle is a parallel to the famous “triangle offense” in basketball—a style of offense attributed to Phil Jackson, the Buddhist coach, who admittedly looks very calm and has been known to let his team lose terribly in order for them to learn something. At those times, he is very silent and I think he is interested in preserving his vocal chords.
There is a lot to say about athletics and preservation, health insurance and aging. Even vocal chords: think of how many coaches you know who have that gravelly “coach voice,” the voice that makes the Coach Hines character on Mad TV so recognizable. But take Phil Jackson and health. He walks as if he has a bad back, possibly arthritis. Which reminds me that I know someone who says that all pro athletes should be able to smoke as much marijuana as they’d like. That opens up discussions on doping, role models, race, and money and I am not going to write about that just yet.
I once rode a subway from midtown to Brooklyn sitting across from two young men in suits who were eagerly discussing basketball, saying “Phil Jackson is just lucky to have had Michael Jordan.” I listened intently. They were both implying that maybe Jackson had not invented the triangle offense but had taken some credit for it. I found this quite plausible, but I should qualify this statement with this: I am a New Yorker and the Knicks had, around that time, suffered some terrible losses to the Bulls.
Sports talk can be like that. You hear what you like. You repeat what you like. You form opinions according to loyalties and you hold grudges. Everything is current and local. Now, in 2010, with the Knicks playing so badly for so long, I doubt anyone takes the time on a New York subway train to debate Phil Jackson’s greatness.
Talking about sports is often like a triangle. Often, it is two men who talk, both repeating things they have heard from various media outlets. This is a kind of triangulation of information, and the two men talking silently agree that it’s OK if what they say is pure plagiarism. This has a bonding effect right away because it is not a secret that they are acting like they invented their opinions—and even if they did, it’s hard to tell, so they don’t even try. There is little concern with authenticity. I like this.
When I enter, as a woman, it becomes an interesting dynamic. But I know I’m welcomed in because I plagiarize just like they do. I can either be one of the guys, or my gender becomes hyperbolized in that I am now “a woman who knows about sports.” “A man who knows about sports” is much less noteworthy. Either way, I find it invigorating. And when I don’t know enough to maintain the talking, I can stroll away, excused from knowing it all.
I am wary of anyone who dismisses sports. Sport is meaty, rough, practice for warfare. But it is not warfare so I think that fact makes it, as a subject, quite safe and attractive for the most part. Certainly talking and writing about sports is safe and attractive. Should we trust a newspaper that doesn’t have a sports column? I don’t know, but I’m thinking of the culture-forward, left-leaning Brooklyn Rail and the absence of sports in their pages. Perhaps I’ll propose something to them.
Should you trust a poet writing about sports? Of course! There is a small tradition of this—there is Marianne Moore and baseball. There is Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer’s “The Basketball Article.” (Stay tuned for more about that seminal work of literature in a later column.)
I confess that I do not know very much about “the beautiful game,” known as football to most of the world. But here is what I know:
My father, not born in this country, liked Cosmos soccer and so Cosmos soccer looms large in my childhood memory—right alongside Time magazine’s coverage of the Blackout, the Son of Sam, “Nadia’s Theme,” Bicentennial parades, and the clouded-over 1976 fireworks. The Cosmos were the very successful New York City based soccer team of the 70s. The great Pelé played for them. Did they last into the 80s? I think so. My friend Danny Vitorovich remembers liking them too. Actually, the only kids who talked about Cosmos soccer were all the sons and daughters of immigrants. I remember my father sitting in front of the TV in what I recall was a bright green ski vest (our house was perpetually under-heated, perhaps another immigrant situation) saying things to Franz Beckenbauer like “nice give and go!” I also noted that my father was similarly attached to hockey, and his New York Rangers were miserable failures at that time. I remember he would yell “center! center!” and then stand up in disgust and say “for the birds,” opting to go tinker with the car rather than sit and watch a whole game.
What else do I know about football? I also know that there is YouTube footage out there of Rene Higuita, a Colombian goalkeeper who, in 1995, and with very long and flouncy hair, opted to block a goal with a scorpion kick, finished off with a kind of break-dancing chest roll. There is poetry in such non-instrumental athletic display.
But here is a very wide-angle summary: if you ever want to discuss soccer—football—you can say that German football is defensive and hard-hitting. You can say that Brazilian football is very clever, tricky, fast. You can say that the Italians are very good, Spain too, and the UK’s Premier League football will confirm any notion you have of the weather there. Pretty terrible, it seems. U.S. soccer limps along and is incredibly inconsistent. This season, Real Salt Lake beat L.A. Galaxy in the MLS championship match, even though the L.A. team featured Landon Donovan and “Becks”—the well-styled and legendary David Beckham. Perhaps U.S. soccer is getting interesting.
Yes, U.S. soccer usually limps along, unless you are discussing the U.S. women’s football team and their very famous 1999 world cup win culminating in footage of Brandi Chastain—whose name eerily calls to mind both “chaste” and “randy”—ripping off her shirt, pumping her fists, and embracing her teammates in a sports bra. The discourse around her disrobing is interesting only if you talk about the popularity of women’s beach volleyball in the same breath. Veils persist in having power. But I’m not going to go into that yet. Or maybe I just did.
Just how much can sports reveal? Future columns to include running in Brooklyn, Olympic memories, watching and playing cricket in Prospect Park, Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife and running, how to be a Knicks fan, and a discussion of U.S. Open tennis: is it worth trying to get tickets? Stay tuned.