Longreads Best of 2020: Sports and Games

With leagues across the world undergoing cancellations for much of the year, 2020 has been an interesting one in the world of sports. Here are some stories that resonated with us.

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Twelve Minutes and a Life (Mitchell S. Jackson, Runner’s World)

Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery was a passionate young football fan and player, whose only crime was to attempt to jog while being Black in Brunswick, Georgia. At Runner’s World, Mitchell S. Jackson recounts Arbery’s murder in cold blood and interrogates a sport where participation is really only sanctioned and safe for privileged white people.

And though the demographics of runners have become more diverse over the last 50 years, jogging, by and large, remains a sport and pastime pitched to privileged whites.

Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? Ask what are the sanctions for asserting their right to live and run—shit—to exist in the world. Ask why? Ask why? Ask why?

Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites.

The buckshot blast hits Maud in the chest, puncturing his right lung, ribs, and sternum. And yet somehow, he wrestles with Travis McMichael for the shotgun, and yet somehow, he manages to punch at him. Gregory watches for a moment from his roost. Meanwhile, Bryan continues to film. Travis fires his shotgun again, a blast that occurs outside the view of Bryan’s phone, but sends a spray of dust billowing into the frame. Maud, an island of blood now staining his white t-shirt, continues to tussle with Travis McMichael, fighting now for what he must know is his life. In the midst of the scuffle, Travis McMichael blasts Maud again point blank, piercing him in his upper chest. Maud whiffs a weak swing, staggers a couple of steps, and falls face down near the traffic stripes. Travis, shotgun in hand, backs away, watches Maud collapse, and makes not the slightest effort to tend him. His father, still clutching his revolver, runs to where Maud lies facedown, blood leaking out of his wounds.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was more than a viral video. He was more than a hashtag or a name on a list of tragic victims. He was more than an article or an essay or posthumous profile. He was more than a headline or an op-ed or a news package or the news cycle. He was more than a retweet or shared post. He, doubtless, was more than our likes or emoji tears or hearts or praying hands. He was more than an R.I.P. t-shirt or placard. He was more than an autopsy or a transcript or a police report or a live-streamed hearing. He, for damn sure, was more than the latest reason for your liberal white friend’s ephemeral outrage. He was more than a rally or a march. He was more than a symbol, more than a movement, more than a cause. He. Was. Loved.

USC’s Dying Linebackers (Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated)

There is no question that American football is a punishing physical sport, one in which players can sustain permanent injury. Science is just beginning to understand the damage that occurs to the brain after repeated blows to the head on the field. A study mentioned in the New York Times in 2017 found that in a single game, one lineman took 62 hits, with G-forces similar to crashing a car into a wall at 30 miles per hour.

At Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg brings the consequences into sharp focus, starting his story on May 12, 2012, the day that famed linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, ostensibly after suffering long-term brain damage playing football for the USC Trojans and over 19 NFL seasons. Rosenberg reports on a horrific pattern that has emerged among former members of the 1989 USC Trojans football team, where five of 12 linebackers have died before the age of 50.

May 2, 2012
Matt Gee always says that “Junior does what Junior wants,” and what Junior Seau wants on this day is to die. Matt is out for breakfast when he gets the news, in the staccato notes of a breaking national story: Junior Seau . . . dead . . . gunshot wound to the chest . . . possible suicide.

Matt is shocked. At 42, he is not yet used to watching his teammates die.

Twelve names. Twelve dreams.

Twelve linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989, each with the strength of a man and the exuberance of a boy, swimming in everything USC has to offer: joy and higher education and adulation, endless adrenaline surges, alcohol, cocaine if they want it, steroids if they need them. Anything to feel fearless and reckless, wild and free.

In 1989, tacklers are taught to lead with their heads. Drug tests are easy to beat. Pain is for the weak. Complaints are for the weaker. This is how the game is played.

The linebackers form a team within a team, each player with his own role. Seau is the most talented. Alan Wilson is the quietest. Craig Hartsuyker is the heady technician. Scott Ross and Delmar Chesley serve as mentors to Matt, who will become a starter after they leave. David Webb is the team’s resident surfer dude

The Trojans go 9-2-1 and then win the Rose Bowl that season, but football fools them. The linebackers think they are paying the game’s price in real time. Michael Williams takes a shot to the head tackling a running back in one game and he is slow to get up, but he stays on the field, even as his brain fogs up for the next few plays. Chesley collides with a teammate and feels the L.A. Coliseum spinning around him; he tries to stay in but falls to a knee and gets pulled. Ross, who says he would run through a brick wall for Rogge, breaks a hand and keeps playing. After several games he meets his parents outside the home locker room and can’t remember whether his team won or lost. Hartsuyker breaks a foot and stays on the field. Another time, he gets concussed on a kickoff, tells trainers he is fine, finishes the game and later shows up on fraternity row with no recollection of playing that day. Somebody sets him on the floor in front of a television, like a toddler.

The Cheating Scandal That Ripped the Poker World Apart (Brendan I. Koerner, Wired)

As Brendan I. Koerner reports in this fun story at Wired, when it comes to poker, “it’s sacrilege to accuse a peer of cheating without airtight proof.” When Texas Hold ‘Em player and “self-described analytics geek” Veronica Brill publicly aired her misgivings about Mike Postle’s unconventional yet highly successful poker play, the blowback landed on her, not him. At first. But was Brill right? Did Postle cheat? Read the story and decide for yourself.

LIKE MANY OTHERS who spent huge chunks of time at Stones, Brill had long considered Postle a friend. A generous soul who exuded a puckish charm, Postle was the sort who’d pay for everyone’s drinks while regaling the bar with bawdy tales. (He was particularly fond of a story about getting banned from Caesars Palace over a misunderstanding involving a sex worker.) But up until the summer of 2018, few of the pro players at Stones thought much of his poker prowess. “He was playing well enough to support himself, it seemed,” says Jake Rosenstiel, a Sacramento pro. “But none of us thought Mike was this great poker player.”

Everyone was thus surprised when Postle began to dominate the casino’s livestreamed Texas Hold ‘Em games starting in July 2018. The once middling Postle suddenly turned formidable, even taking thousands of dollars off some big-time players during their swings through Northern California

Brill, a self-described analytics geek whose day job is building medical software, was among those who got clobbered by Postle at the table, and she served as a livestream commentator during much of his streak too. By early 2019, she had seen enough to surmise that Postle’s success didn’t make mathematical sense. She thought he was winning far too often, particularly for a player whose strategy didn’t jibe with game theory optimal, or GTO, the prevailing strategy in Texas Hold ‘Em today.

Tremendous effort is required to develop the ability to know which single move to make in the millions of possible betting situations. There are 2,598,960 possible hands in five-card poker, a figure that vastly understates the game’s intricacy. Players must also have a feel for how their opponents are likely to react to each gambit.

Shades of Grey (Ashley Stimpson, Longreads)

In 2018, the state of Florida voted to ban greyhound racing because it was considered “archaic and inhumane.” But, what if they got it wrong? In this deeply reported Longreads feature, Ashley Stimpson introduces us to the sport of kings through Vesper, her retired racing greyhound. Tracing Vesper’s life from its start in liquid nitrogen, Stimpson learns that her beloved pet was conceived when “pellets of semen the size of a lentil” were collected from her brindle dad Lonesome Cry and implanted in her mom, a dam named Jossalyn. Stimpson discovers a world of breeders, veterinarians, and trainers dedicated not only to the sport but to the health and well-being of the dogs in their care.

It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.

Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.

I don’t mourn for greyhound racing and its long-delayed reckoning. I do sympathize with working-class people who genuinely love their dogs and who feel overlooked and overpowered by the currents of political change. And selfishly I feel sad that I’ll probably never have another dog like Vesper; I so love the bony ridge of her spine, the way her teeth chatter when she gets excited, the skin that clings to the cartilage between her eyes, softened by so many hands like an ancient piece of pottery. I don’t know if she was happier in the starting block at the track or tucked into her monogrammed bed here with me, but I’m open to the possibility that it was the former.

The Casino That Time Forgot (David Hill, The Ringer)

When you think of gambling in America, you don’t immediately think of Hot Springs, Arkansas, but at one time, “when Las Vegas was still a dusty smudge on the horizon,” Hot Springs was the place to be, where musicians, sports stars, and mobsters gathered to soothe their ills in the healing bubbly waters that emerged from deep inside the earth. In fact, “Some of the more popular ailments that patients came to treat were venereal diseases. Al Capone would ‘take the waters’ in the 1920s to treat his syphilis.”

An excerpt from David Hill’s book The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, the piece is a rich profile of a sting operation at the Vapors Casino in the 1960s. What’s super fun about this story, one that is told in rich detail, is that one of the casino workers running the sting is the author’s grandmother.

Hazel Hill was another good country person who loved to gamble. She was 42, an attractive brunette, and looking like high society that night in her party dress and shawl. Only she wasn’t high society, not by a long shot. On her own dime, Hazel wouldn’t ordinarily be in a place like the Vapors. She’d likely be at the Tower Club, with the other down-on-their-luck locals. Or, if it were a special occasion, she might be at the Pines Supper Club, or any number of the more proletarian establishments around town, where the low rollers and hustlers could gamble cheap and drink even cheaper. Hazel worked for the Vapors as a shill player, gambling with house money to keep the tourists interested and the games going. It wasn’t a great job as far as the money went, but it was the best job Hazel had ever had, playing with the house’s money and blowing on doctors’ dice for them. Whatever the pay, it was worth something to her to just be in the Vapors. It put Hazel right at the center of the whole world.

Hazel was a street-smart high school dropout. She had become a wife and a mother in Hot Springs, earning her living on her wits and the skills she had picked up in the casinos—how to calculate odds, how to place and take bets, how to deal cards.

Now, though, it was Dr. Rowe who was pocketing chips. The shills had their eyes on him. One of Hazel’s fellow shill players, a buddy of the club owner named Richard Dooley, watched Rowe like a hawk. One of the craps dealers was paying Dr. Rowe more money on each of his winning bets than he actually won. It could have been a simple error, but the fact that Rowe was putting the extra chips in his pocket, rather than in his stack of chips along the rail of the table, told Dooley all he needed to know.

Out There: On Not Finishing (Devin Kelly, Longreads)

So much of sport involves accomplishment. It involves besting someone or something — be it an opponent, a distance, a time, or even yourself. Sometimes, people create and nurture their own identities based on their athletic achievements. But what happens — as Devin Kelly asks so thoughtfully in his Longreads essay — when the stories we tell ourselves about what achievement is turn out to be false? That the true reward is simply in the doing?

For a long time, I thought I ran, and competed in sport, as a way to use the metaphor of sport to understand life. Life is a marathon, I was often told. I remember watching and re-watching Chariots of Fire, particularly that moment in the rain when Eric Liddell, just minutes after winning a race, states: “I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires energy of will.” I loved that moment as a child, especially as someone who had, at one point, a deep amount of faith. But I always paused the clip before he stated what later became to me more obvious: “So who am I to say believe, have faith, in the face of life’s realities…I have no formula for winning a race. Everyone runs in their own way.” It’s true, that everyone runs in their own way, which is a fact I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve grown older. Patience, both with my own peculiar movements through life and with those of others, is a skill I actively try to cultivate and maintain. And yet, even Liddell’s quote has to do with winning. And that — the idea of winning, or finishing, or accomplishing — has become its own universal signifier. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you have done.

What happens if what you once used to make sense of things no longer helps you make sense of things? What happens if the patterns and habits and metaphors we lean on do not serve us in the moments we need them? What happens if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives leave us lonely, wrestling with meaning? What then?

I grappled with these questions for hours on that farm in Georgia. Under the stars and all alone, I did not know what I was doing. Each lap, I shuffled past the bonfire, past my friends singing karaoke, past the laughter of strangers, and each lap I shuffled away from them, until they became the soft patchwork of voices traversing a distance, the kind of sound that hollows you to your core and fills you with a deep sense of missingness, a longing to be there and not wherever you are. At that point, the race had ceased to be a race for so many people, but it hadn’t for me.

The thing about horizons is that, upon reaching one, you always encounter another. It’s the in-between where life lives. In another poem, “On Duration,” the poet Suzanne Buffam writes: “To cross an ocean / You must love the ocean / Before you love the far shore.” This is a beautiful explanation of what it means, as so many endurance runners say, to be “out there.” Out there is a place, but it is also a feeling. It is a series of moments stretched out across hours, or even days, that feel like one long moment. It is the act of building the bridge between two points and being the bridge at the same time. Out there is distance turned into feeling. It is metaphor actualized.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.