From the poem “Alumnus Football,” by Grantland Rice:
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.
This most famous line of famed writer Grantland Rice’s career — “how you played the game” — is frequently invoked but, more often than not, not attributed to him, or anyone else for that matter. It has achieved a status limited to those phrases, aphorisms, or observations, that are so inevitable that, rather than imagine them having been concocted by a writer and made real by pen and paper, typewriter, or computer, instead simply exist somewhere within ourselves. No one can create something so true. The aphorism itself of course refers not just to sports but to life as well, and thus applies to writers who write about athletes as well as the athletes themselves. Anyone with the audacity (or egoism, as Orwell put it) to publish their words in any form will not be judged only by their readership numbers, their entitlement to column space, or any of the old metrics. It’s how they played the game.
And, as Spencer Hall cogently explains for the Sporting Blog, the internet is finally breaking down some of the old barriers.
[Regarding the death of the 800-word columnist at newspapers.] The internet exploded this framework in a few critical ways. First off, it turns out people think in bits both shorter and longer than 800 words. Shocking, but sometimes people could read thousands and thousands of words at a time without passing out due to dehydration. Astounding, I know, but somehow the long distance runners of the reading world made Bill Simmons a very wealthy man, and the sprinters turned Deadspin in the face-eating, thousand-tentacled beast it is today. Like it or not, readers don’t just think in 800-word snippets.
Also, it so happens that sports fans were both far more eclectic and choosy than anticipated. . . . The model for many young bloggers, for instance, is not someone like a Vecsey, a Bill Plaschke, or anyone else you might see aping away on Around The Horn. It is a devoted specialist like Paul Zimmerman, or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer like Gregg Easterbrook, or heaven forbid, writers who didn’t write about sports at all.
Sportswriting in that sense is dead, and perhaps has been dead for a long time. For that, raise a huzzah: trapped in the column, mobbed by the dueling schools of maudlin sentimentality (call it the “Albom school”) and knee-jerk antipathy generators like Jay Mariotti (creatively referred to here as “the Mariotti school,”) sportswriting on the whole has been uninteresting for a long, long, long time. There’s little point of treating the columnist like he’s something to be missed: good writing is good writing, and good writers will survive any transition between technologies.
. . . .Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks.
The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they’re under 40, they’re not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it’s not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.
In sum: Without the structural impediments and bottlenecks that propped up a certain brand of sports writing, it will be, as is true in most endeavors, the combination of ability and industry that will win the prize.
To illustrate how strange this sports writing bottleneck has been, it is helpful to look back to guys like Grantland Rice. He wrote at a different time: Typically, the only people who might read his recap of a game who had actually seen it were people who were in attendance. Maybe they had also listened on the radio, but that’s not certain. The form too was more free-flowing. It was known as the golden age of myth-making in sports, something derided later, but are we not moving back in that direction in the Tebow-era?
But this freedom allowed him to flout convention — or at least he wasn’t constrained by the conventions concocted by the later oligarchy that came to rule the sports writing world. Take his famous “The Four Horsemen,” article, written about a game between Notre Dame and Army in 1924, ostensibly a recap of that game. (This should go without saying, but this article — and this blog post — have little to do with Notre Dame. This is about a game that took place seventy-five years ago, and thus has little to do with whatever Notre Dame, or Army for that matter, has going on now. Were this article written about Syracuse or Michigan it would be just as good.) The article begins:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.
Although this article is oft-mentioned, it is forgotten that the entire Four Horsemen motif began as an elaborate joke (“These are only aliases,”) which is more a harbinger of the Deadspins and Orson Swindles of the world than anything churned out by the Albom or Marriotti school of pseudo-moralizing and blatant antagonism. This is, of course, to say nothing of the prose’s elegance, about which there is little to add. Rice continues:
Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.
Notre Dame won its ninth game in twelve Army starts through the driving power of one of the greatest backfields that ever churned up the turf of any gridiron in any football age. Brilliant backfields may come and go, but in Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, covered by a fast and charging line, Notre Dame can take its place in front of the field.
Coach McEwan sent one of his finest teams into action, an aggressive organization that fought to the last play around the first rim of darkness, but when Rockne rushed his Four Horsemen to the track they rode down everything in sight. It was in vain that 1,400 gray-clad cadets pleaded for the Army line to hold. The Army line was giving all it had, but when a tank tears in with the speed of a motorcycle, what chance had flesh and blood to hold? The Army had its share of stars as Garbisch, Farwick, Wilson, Wood, Ellinger, and many others, but they were up against four whirlwind backs who picked up at top speed from the first step as they swept through scant openings to slip on by the secondary defense. The Army had great backs in Wilson and Wood, but the Army had no such quartet, who seemed to carry the mixed blood of the tiger and the antelope.
Rockne’s light and tottering line was just about as tottering as the Rock of Gibraltar. It was something more than a match for the Army’s great set of forwards, who had earned their fame before. Yet it was not until the second period that the first big thrill of the afternoon set the great crowd into a cheering whirl and brought about the wild flutter of flags that are thrown to the wind in exciting moments. At the game’s start Rockne sent in almost entirely a second-string cast. The Army got the jump and began to play most of the football. It was the Army attack that made three first downs before Notre Dame had caught its stride. The South Bend cyclone opened like a zephyr.
And then, in the wake of a sudden cheer, out rushed Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, the four star backs who helped to beat Army a year ago. Things were to be a trifle different now. After a short opening flurry in the second period, Wood, of the Army, kicked out of bounds on Notre Dame’s 20 yard line. There was no sign of a tornado starting. But it happened to be at just this spot that Stuhldreher decided to put on his attack and began the long and dusty hike.
Where are the mindless statistical recaps? Where was the “We played hard and prepared hard all week” quote followed by “They were the better team today. We’ll get em next time”? Rice wasn’t telling you about a football game. He was telling you about football. He then recaps some of the specific plays — partially this is because people hadn’t actually seen the game — but also to bring what was concrete to his larger themes. Rice concludes:
One strong feature of the Army play was its headlong battle against heavy odds. Even when Notre Dame had scored two touchdowns and was well on its way to a third, the Army fought on with fine spirit until the touchdown chance came at last. And when the chance came, Coach McEwan had the play ready for the final march across the line. The Army has a better team than it had last year. So has Notre Dame. We doubt that any team in the country could have beaten Rockne’s array yesterday afternoon, East or West. It was a great football team brilliantly directed, a team of speed, power and team play. The Army has no cause to gloom over its showing. It played first-class football against more speed than it could match.
Those who have tackled a cyclone can understand.
I bring all this out to show the parallels between sort of post-modern (for lack of a better term) sports writing on the internet, twitter, blogs, and the like, and the greatest sports writing ever, which has very little to do with the alternatively obsequious or bellicose 800 word columns and maddening boilerplate recaps we have become accustomed to.
“The Four Horsemen” would not have been published by a reputable institution anytime in the last fifty-years. By modern standards, it is not a very good sports story.
It is merely the greatest sports story of all time.