I don’t quite remember the first time I heard Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten.” It had to be at some point in 2006, when the record was in the midst of a meteoric 42-week rise through the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but the pop ballad with a catchy beat and tantalizing first line (“I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined”) could have wiggled its way into my hippocampus even earlier and I wouldn’t have realized it. “Unwritten” was arguably the song of the 2000s; the record was inescapable, and even as background music, I’d start to hum along subconsciously, stimulating the cerebellum before I caught myself right before the chorus kicked in 47 seconds into the track: Read more…
“There’s no character to the Toronto Raptors’s uniform anymore,” Tom O’Grady says. “It’s clean, yes, but not eye-catching. The logo doesn’t jump off the shelf.” He adds, “The uniform today might as well belong to a intramural basketball team.” Read more…
Matt Giles | Longreads | March 2019 | 28 minutes (6,730 words)
Dry heaves racked Dan Stoddard’s body as he bent his 6-foot-8, 325-plus-pound frame awkwardly over a toilet, shaking as he vomited up the Gatorade and other fluids he had consumed in an attempt to stave off dehydration. The 39-year-old hadn’t slept well in days, and even when he did manage some shut-eye, it was only for a few hours at a time before beginning the first of his two six-hour shifts driving a bus for Ottawa’s OC Transpo public transit system. Stoddard had never felt this exhausted, but he couldn’t rest — down seven points at halftime, his team needed him.
It only took the first 20 minutes of this early February 2018 game against Seneca, one of the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association’s top teams, for Stoddard to realize his body was fully gassed. Algonquin had lost 10 of its first 14 games, so the final outcome — an 80-71 defeat — was immaterial, but Stoddard had joined the team to finally act on the lifetime of regrets he had accumulated, and he didn’t want to add another disappointment to the ledger.
In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”
He knew others would think this experiment was crazy — during the Thunders’ preseason schedule, Stoddard heard the laughter from opposing coaches and players — and he even realized that his endeavor reeked of desperation, but he never felt the pull of quitting. “If I’m not talented enough, I can live with that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to put in the effort to be the best player I can be,” he told me. “I don’t want to be wasting time hemming and hawing thinking about it.”
Most of Stoddard’s teammates are at least two decades younger than he is; at first, they thought of him as something of a sideshow, but Stoddard’s commitment to training earned him respect: “They see me on Instagram at the gym at 5 a.m., and they see me in practice every day, and they understand how dedicated I am to the team.”
According to Trevor Costello, Algonquin’s head coach, “All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain. He sprained his ankle before last Christmas, and after a twelve-hour shift driving a bus, his foot down on the ground the whole time, his foot was the size of a watermelon. He’s just so dedicated. Fuck, if he was a real stud, he’d get us thirty points a game. But he’s working — he’ll be better next year.”
Yusuf Ali, Seneca’s guard, didn’t initially understand Stoddard’s passion. He was taken aback when the two teams first met in November — “[Stoddard] looked so old, it was very confusing,” he told me — but before the February rematch, he congratulated Stoddard: “I told him it was an honor to play against him. I know people out there are scared of the risks to pursue their dreams, so he is a hero in my eyes. This doesn’t happen every day.”
At the start of his freshman season, Stoddard experienced something of a 15-minute burst of fame in the Canadian press; several outlets featured his journey for the same reason — his story touches the very base emotions of our human core — but then the novelty of his quest wore off. Now, he’s just a player with immense hustle in a changing body still growing accustomed to the grueling athletic demands of a college athlete.
‘All Dan cares about is getting better and better. This fucker is constantly in pain.’
The now 40-year-old is more than a publicity stunt, and although he’s taken it to the extreme, Stoddard’s career is part of a trend of competitive athletics taking hold among adults well into and beyond their 30s: Of the 2,500 or so adults surveyed for a 2015 study commissioned by Harvard, NPR, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, only a quarter said they’d played or participated in some sport in the past year. But of that quarter, a large majority played once a week or more. The majority play mostly because they enjoy doing so, but 23 percent said they played mainly for health reasons. Stoddard’s quest is emblematic of this shift. Not only does he plan to keep attending and playing for Algonquin for the next three years, after which point he will be 42 years old, but he has also already lost nearly 150 pounds pounds in a 12-month period and hopes to drop nearly 200 pounds total by the time he graduates.
Where Stoddard differs from those other midlife warriors, though, is that he would actually like to continue playing beyond Algonquin — to explore the possibility of becoming a pro athlete. Stoddard claims ex-pros have been encouraging, and his stats, were they those of a 19-year-old are promising: Through 21 games of his sophomore season, the center averaged 6.4 points and nearly five rebounds per game, and his field goal percentage (54.7) was fourth-best in the conference. During a November win against Georgian College, Stoddard barely missed a double-double (10 points, nine rebounds), hustling up the court in a high-paced (77 possessions) game, which he could never have done when he joined the team.
But still, the facts are glaring. Stoddard has spent decades willing his body across eastern Ontario; stabilizing badly sprained ankles with tightly bound boots while working a 100-hour week at a construction site; falling 22 feet from a ladder and breaking his hand, only to cut the cast off to avoid unemployment. Stoddard estimates he has had about 60 jobs since graduating high school; construction, sewer maintenance, a bouncer who once fought off a knife-wielding assailant — you name it. The work has put an untold amount of stress on his body. It has, in other words, been through the wear and tear that everyday life requires.
“To jump in at the top rung without developing one’s body fully is a recipe for disaster,” said Andre Deloya, a retired sports trainer with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “The predictive formula is not rosy. Our bodies are developing, evolving, and positively growing until the age of twenty-five, which is the peak of the mountain. After that, we all start to deteriorate.”
Stoddard is aware of the risks, but to his mind, they make his current moon shot all the more enticing: Who could have possibly conjured up a tale of a bus driver to the Algonquin hardwood (and potentially beyond)? “The reality is that when growing up, you see the NBA, and that’s where you want to be,” he said to me when I met him in February 2018. “It’s the best, and you strive for the best. You don’t just want to be the guy no one remembers. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
He added, “So what if it happened at forty-two? Who gives a shit. I’ve always said age is a number, but that’s bullshit. We all know it’s old, especially when it comes to basketball. But if you can play, you can play, and I just want to have the definitive answer, to have someone tell me I don’t have the talent to make it at the highest level. It’s just to know.”
According to his Ottawa-Carleton (OC) Transpo colleagues, Stoddard’s a “big teddy bear,” someone who “shoots the shit” in the locker room between his daily bus routes. “I’m always honest and I don’t beat around the bush,” he told me, detailing his childhood in what he calls the boondocks of Ontario, helping his father to build houses for a burgeoning community on what previously had been acres and acres of farmland. Stoddard had a sheltered upbringing: If he wanted to visit friends, he biked several miles to the next town, which explains why he didn’t take to basketball until high school. “I was a teenage kid doing nothing,” he explained, adding that until the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors expanded north of the border in the mid ’90s, he had never watched a basketball game on television.
Stoddard started playing a bit early in high school, but in 11th grade he sprouted and added several inches to his frame. While he lacked coordination and his understanding of the game was limited, a player with his size — by then 6-foot-8 — was very much in demand. “My center of gravity was thrown off,” he said, “and after six months of being messed up, I had to retrain my body’s balance. I was just a tall guy.” Stoddard flunked out of high school before he could improve upon his burgeoning basketball skillset, and his biggest regret, he told his family, was that he didn’t play organized basketball beyond high school. That failure gave way to a chip on his shoulder, one fueled by a sole thought: Why didn’t he succeed on the court? No matter the highs in his life, the nagging perception remained. “I spent a long part of my life not knowing what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to be perceived, or the legacy I want to leave behind,” he said.
“Once I achieve a limitation or a goal or an understanding of what I’m doing, I get bored quickly,” he continued. “I tend to drive myself a thousand miles a minute.” And off the court, that chip was a hindrance — dropping out of college after a semester or two, he rebuffed his father’s offer to take over the family’s construction business. “It felt like he was encroaching on me, and I couldn’t be bothered,” said Stoddard.
Stoddard forced himself to do things for the health of his own family — working those 100-hour work weeks to not only provide for his son and daughter but also to help pay for his wife, Amanda, to get a nursing degree in palliative care. Basketball was his one outlet that provided unfettered joy; it was his lone constant and getaway from the demands of life. “You fend for yourself, and you take care of yourself,” he said. But on the court or at the playground, he wasn’t a construction worker, a sewer company employee, a garbageman, a nightclub bouncer, or a husband married at 20 years old and father of two teenagers.
He could be found on the playgrounds of eastern Ontario at least four nights a week, finally “doing something for me, and not for the family.” All those reps had an added bonus, transforming Stoddard into an immovable center with an unguardable skillset. His hulking frame — “I told people that I weighed 386 pounds, but that’s only because it was the last number on our scale, so the notion I weighed somewhere around 400 pounds isn’t far-fetched” — belied a pick-and-pop nimbleness with a soft touch around the basket. By 2017, he was “crushing” guys with backgrounds more advantageous than his.
Each summer, Stoddard participates in a high school alumni tournament. It’s very low-key: #BallIsLife during the two-day round-robin setting, burgers and beers at night. Stoddard’s team — a roster of mid-’90s graduates, the group’s name is “We’re So Old It Doesn’t Even Matter” — was typically good enough for a win or two but unable to compete with others in their athletic prime. But few teams had a player Stoddard’s size, and even fewer had a player of Stoddard’s size who, prior to the tournament’s tip, was balling a dozen-plus hours a week.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, ‘Look at the size of you! You could play for my team.’
When he isn’t coaching the Thunder, Costello supports himself through refereeing (he also works at an elementary school as an educational assistant and spends his nights overseeing a group home), and he was refereeing Stoddard’s alumni tournament that summer of 2017 when he first spotted the ultimate diamond on the blacktop. Stoddard’s play was a revelation to the coach, who was about to coach his 18th season at a school that had once been the crown jewel of the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association but recently tumbled down the rankings. “The best Canadians who don’t cross the border to play college basketball play in the OUA,” said Costello. “That’s the dream for most kids”.
He added, “The last few years haven’t been good. I don’t want to demean it, but Algonquin is a last chance resort. It’s tough to get kids.” Three players Costello expected to join the team bailed before ever arriving on the Ottawa campus, and his lead recruiter had taken a new job, which prevented him from working Algonquin’s sidelines.
As Costello watched Stoddard torch players — some at least two decades younger than the hulking center — the coach jokingly blurted out, “Look at the size of you!” recalled Stoddard. “You could play for my team.” The more he thought about it, the more the coach began to formulate a different sort of recruiting pitch. Yes, Stoddard was clearly overweight, but few teams in Algonquin’s conference had a taller player. On a team whose prospects were already dim for the upcoming season, inviting Stoddard to try out didn’t seem much of a gamble. “I’m all about winning games,” explained Costello. “Dan was far from a sideshow. I’m hardly getting paid enough to do this as a goof. Did I know he would ultimately end up starting for us? That might be pushing it. His upside is far from that of a twenty-two-year-old, but his brain is working so much harder.”
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.
Writer-at-large for Bleacher Report’s B/R Mag.
Most Dominating Athlete of 2018: Simone Biles (Danyel Smith, ESPN the Magazine)
Danyel Smith’s ESPN the Magazine cover story of Simone Biles was one of the most impactful pieces of sports writing I read this year. After I finished it, I felt like I knew Biles. Smith got Biles to open up, to even admit the fear she feels while competing on bars (what Olympic gold-medal winning athlete readily admits fear?), which is a kudos to Smith’s skills as a reporter. Although I don’t know Smith personally, I felt like I could hear her voice throughout the piece. She seamlessly interwove history and culture and context and sport to put together one of the most versatile sports profiles I’ve ever read. My favorite paragraph really sums up Smith’s brilliance as a journalist, and Biles’ genius as a gymnast: “But no matter how sparkly her leotard, she’s a killer as stone cold as David Ortiz or Robert Horry ever was. She creates each time she competes. Plus, Biles will run the score up on you with a red cheer bow on a ponytail pulled higher than J-Lo’s.”
Contributor for The New Yorker.
Juan Martín del Potro Strikes Back (Chloe Cooper Jones, GQ)
Juan Martín del Potro is one of tennis’s most popular — and inspiring and tragic — figures. Del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009, beating Roger Federer, and then his wrists began to fray. Cooper Jones tells the story of his long journey back. This is a beautifully written profile, an insightful portrait of the player on the court and the person off it — but it is also, most movingly, a meditation on pain.
Drew Brees is Hiding in Plain Sight (Greg Bishop, Sports Illustrated)
Everyone Believed Larry Nassar (Kerry Howley, The Cut)
Senior writer for ESPN the Magazine.
The Search for Jackie Wallace (Ted Jackson, The Times-Picayune)
Everyone Believed Larry Nassar (Kerry Howley, The Cut)
In excruciating detail, Kerry Howley showed here how Larry Nassar — the unassuming and relentlessly charming USA Gymnastics national team doctor — wormed his way into the homes and hearts of hundreds of young female gymnasts and their families en route to becoming one of the most notorious child sex abusers in modern history. It’d be irresponsible not to credit the herculean investigative efforts of the Indianapolis Star in breaking the case against Nassar and USA Gymnastics — and the many other reporters and media outlets who tracked the developments through Nassar’s sentencing in federal and state court — but Howley’s exhaustive story illuminates exactly how and why Nassar was able to escape detection for so long. It wasn’t because his victims were silent. Far from it, in fact. It wasn’t because Nassar was particularly discreet. No, Howley writes, it was because Nassar “was good at this.” Two scenes from Howley’s story show this best. The first is told from the vantage point of a 9-year-old girl, who was digitally penetrated by Nassar with her mother sitting only a few feet away in his living room in 1990. The second comes near the end of the story, when one of his victims manages to make him cry during his sentencing hearing and she feels briefly triumphant. I won’t spoil the final line for you but it’s an unforgettable close that couldn’t have been more perfect, or haunting.
Staff writer for SB Nation.
The Children of Central City (Jonathan Bullington and Richard A. Webster, The Times-Picayune)
They Are the Champions (Katie Barnes, ESPN the Magazine)
In “They Are the Champions,” two very different kids growing up in very different parts of the country share one thing: they are transgender. Their stories are pressing not only because LGBTQ perspectives are grossly underrepresented in media as a whole, but also because they show that sports is the battleground where the very core of how we understand gender will be determined — a statement that sounds like hyperbole, but when you’re in the middle of Barnes’ story parsing the various ways people rationalize dividing sports by gender, quickly becomes self-evident. Mack Beggs and Andraya Yearwood just want to compete, and the world is going to have to catch up.
Editor and head of fact-checking, Longreads.
Alone at Sea (Elizabeth Weil, New York Times Magazine)
Aleksander Doba has kayaked the Atlantic Ocean three times, and each crossing has been more dangerous than the last. Weil’s profile of the Polish native is an engrossing read of his trans-Atlantic trips, and why the 71 year old continues to push his body and psyche to such extreme limits. As he explains his reasoning to Weil, “I do not want to be a little gray man.”
* * *
Michael Raeburn was in his early 30s when he first met James Baldwin in 1974, a chance encounter at the London book launch for If Beale Street Could Talk. Raeburn was an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter, with just one short film on his resume, while Baldwin was a literary giant, an essayist, and a civil rights activist. The connection between the two was instantaneous. “He was an extremely influential figure in my life,” Raeburn says. “We were very strangely connected in an almost psychic way. I knew when he would arrive somewhere—he’d travel to New York City, and I would be aware of when he’d arrive at his house.” Read more…
More than 40 years ago, Richard Nixon subtly changed the modern presidency. During past administrations, the American news media had always been referred to as “the press,” but Nixon, whose contentious relationship with the nation’s newsrooms was longstanding, tweaked that policy, and began labeling the press as “the media,” a term he felt sounded more ominous and less favorable. As Jon Marshall wrote in 2014 for The Atlantic, Nixon was the first president to exclusively use this term, and while subsequent presidents were similarly at odds with those whose job it is to hold the country’s chief executive in check, none were as vitriolic as Nixon.
New York is an outlier in Lou Reed’s discography. The 1989 album—his fifteenth—is arguably his most straight-forward, track after track of stunningly simple music, just featuring a few guitars and Reed’s deadpan and utterly dry cutting lyrics. Read more…
According to art critic Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock was “the most radical alcoholic [he] had ever met.” At the same time, though, Pollock’s paint splattered-and-dripped canvases, a method he pioneered and honed for a three-year period in the late 1940s, “broke the ice,” says Willem de Kooning, who added a postscript-like qualifier, “It was another step in space‐time.”
More than 60 years after Pollock rammed his green 1950 Oldsmobile-88 convertible into a tree off an East Hampton, Long Island road, Vox considers whether Pollock’s stature as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century is truly deserved. Or, more bluntly, how he “became so overrated.” That’s a bold stance for Phil Edwards, host of Vox’s Overrated video series, to take, but Edwards posits that without Greenberg and his writings for the Partisan Review, ArtForum, and others, Pollock’s stature wouldn’t have achieved the same heights. Which, as a premise, has some merit: though not the only art critic opining at the time, Greenberg was not only the loudest voice in favor of “modern art,” he immersed himself in the world in which the artists lived.
As he explained in his seminal 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg felt that there was nothing more avant garde than abstract expressionism, an art movement fueled by emotions, that resisted politicizing art (which had consumed art during the period after World War I). Through Greenberg’s embrace of Pollock, whom he indeed hyped up in his writings, the artist became an emblem of the Ab-Ex movement. A by-product of Pollock’s rise was the increasing shift of the art world’s gaze away from Paris and towards New York City, where artists like Pollock, De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and others (including Greenberg) were living. The group of artists involved in Ab-Ex were a huge force, and thus NYC transformed into art’s epicenter.
So while Vox addresses how Greenberg’s influence within art criticism greatly benefited Pollock, effectively branding the artist as “the most powerful painter in contemporary America,” the video glaringly sidesteps any mention of Lee Krasner, a brilliant artist in her own right who just so happened to be married to Pollock. Krasner elicits one mention in the video, a throwaway reference during the captioning of a photo of Pollock and Greenberg at the beach, which is not only astonishing, it is frankly dismaying.
The video’s narrative is marred by a tunnel vision approach to explaining Pollock’s rise and enduring importance — yes, Greenberg boosted him, but Krasner, with her management and stability, sustained him. It was Krasner whom Pollock first turned to when his art began to radically depart from norms at the time, asking her upon completing Lucifer in 1947, “Is this a painting?” Prior to Lucifer, writes critic Jerry Saltz, “All seemed lost for him. I love his early work, but much of it is labored, muddy and glutted. Pollock is in hell. Then it happens.” And it was Krasner who convinced Pollock to agree to an interview with Life magazine in 1949; the article’s headline — “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” — and a spread featuring Pollock’s painting introduced the artist to mainstream America (and to those who didn’t regularly read Greenberg — or even know the critic’s byline). And finally, it was Krasner who managed Pollock’s estate for nearly twenty years after his death; under her stewardship, prices for Pollock’s works tripled and quadrupled, setting the standard for modern American art. More so than Greenberg, Krasner deserves credit for maintaining Pollock’s relevance and importance — without Krasner, Jackson Pollock doesn’t become Jackson Pollock.
As she told the New York Times in 1981,
Look, they don’t take de Kooning and put him up that way. And if de Kooning or Motherwell takes from Pollock, nobody even breathes a word about it. But with Lee Krasner, wow, wow. It’s been a heavy, heavy number. It’s hard for them to separate me from Pollock in that sense, you know.
Which is why omitting her from a video on Pollock’s legacy is so discouraging, especially with the wealth of research, reporting, and examination of Krasner as an artist and a person in recent years. Krasner attended the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union and then later studied with Hans Hoffman, and in the years following Pollock’s death, her own abstractions evolved, earning not only acclaim but also space in museum collections worldwide. She derisively dismissed being labeled as Pollock’s widow, which many had saddled her with: “I may have resented being in the shadow of Jackson Pollock, but the resentment was never so sharp a thing to deal with that it interfered with my work…By and large, people look at my work and it is connected with me, and a lot of those old hurts are no longer there. I have utter confidence in what I’m doing.”
In Mary Gabriel’s recently published Ninth Street Women, Krasner is a main character — she was one of the 11 female artists whose work was selected to be displayed at the historic 1951 Ninth Street Show, and over the course of a thousand pages, Gabriel highlights how the artist’s experiences and work align with those of her peers (and, if some cases, veer from drastically). Krasner once told the Times that she wished feminism “should have come along 30 years earlier…We could have used it then.” But Gabriel’s impressive work doesn’t seek to explore the import of these artists merely on their gender — as Elaine de Kooning (another central figure in Gabriel’s text) said, “To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified.”
Without Krasner, Vox’s video is incomplete. There is no point to any argument that questions Pollock’s artistic worth that neglects to mention Krasner’s own contributions. And while Greenberg did give Pollock a boost, Krasner remained with Pollock after the photographers from Life left. To ignore Krasner 34 years after her death is frustrating, especially in this day and age. In the most recent New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont delves into both Gabriel’s work and Krasner’s own legacy:
The real advance has come through the dedication of feminist scholars, such as Linda Nochlin, Hayden Herrera, and Kellie Jones, who have revitalized the discipline of art history and expanded the protest against exclusion to consider race along with gender. Gabriel’s firsthand sources are extensive, but her work stands on the shoulders of biographies by other women with a mission: Gail Levin on Krasner, Patricia Albers on [Joan] Mitchell, Cathy Curtis on de Kooning and [Grace] Hartigan. (There is no biography of [Helen] Frankenthaler, as yet.) Perhaps the tipping point will come when men write about women artists as easily as women have always written about men.
Among the standout tracks on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, the long awaited and oft delayed fifth album in the rapper’s conceptual discography, the highlight might just be “Uproar,” a ridiculously bouncy track that is as much of a throwback to Wayne’s glory days as it is a sign of the musician’s continued evolution.
Of note, though, isn’t just the song’s lyrics — but also the beat, produced by Swizz Beatz and a reimagining of G. Dep’s “Special Delivery” beat, a 17-year old song that reigned supreme over the NYC airwaves in the early 2000s (signed to Bad Boy Records, G. Dep was a Harlem native). What’s so fascinating about a remixed “Special Delivery” is two-fold: Wayne uses the beat as he would a freestyle, nimbly interweaving bars throughout the boombap-cum-keyboard laden sample; and the release of “Uproar” brings G. Dep (born Trevell Coleman) back to the current pop culture fold.
As chronicled by Jennifer Gonnerman for New York Magazine, Coleman confessed in 2010 to a cold case murder committed in 1993; Coleman pled guilty to second-degree murder, revealing how he shot a man three times and fled the scene without knowing whether the individual died. In his confession, Coleman outlined why he decided to suddenly come forward: “The reason I turned myself in was because I felt awful about what I did and I wanted to make it right for this guy’s family.”
Gonnerman deftly reports on Coleman, his rise to G. Dep fame, and his current incarceration (at Elmira Correctional Facility until at least 2025), and it’s worth revisiting the 2012 profile in light of Lil Wayne’s “Special Delivery” revival.
At times, his life felt like a series of endless internal calculations, all part of an effort to, as he later explained, “balance myself out.” If he bought a coat, he might scribble on one pocket with a marker before putting it on, just to deprive himself of the chance to wear something completely new. He never had much money, and he was so determined to give away what he did have that a few times he stuffed bills into the coin slots of pay phones, then walked away. Afterward, he’d feel a little better—“I did think, Well, okay, now I don’t have to feel like I have too much regret,” he says—but the relief was only temporary.
Coleman and his wife had separated, but he still stopped by to visit his 7-year-old sons. Some days, he’d be seated with them at the table, sharing a meal, thinking how blessed he was to have such beautiful boys, and suddenly be seized by guilt. Did the man he shot at have any kids? What happened to them? And why should he get to spend time with his kids if there was a chance he’d robbed another child of his father?
September 2008 was a whirlwind month for Michael Grynbaum, then a markets reporter for the New York Times. A self-described “newbie” to the paper’s business desk (he had previously worked on the metro desk), Grynbaum was immediately thrust into reporting on a financial maelstrom, a period which included the collapse of Lehman Brothers (otherwise known as the largest bankruptcy filing in United States history), the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, the transformation of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into bank holding companies, and what very well could have been the collapse of the nation’s economy.
Among Grynbaum’s responsibilities was “covering all the daily market plunges and the economic reports,” he told me, which meant he was busy that September, trying to keep pace (along with the other Times reporters like Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jenny Anderson, Eric Dash, and Michael de la Merced, among others) with a tumultuous flurry of daily breaking news. “As a reporter, you couldn’t divert your gaze for one minute,” says Diana B. Henriques, then a senior financial writer for the Times. “It was like an atomic blast, with ripples going in every direction.”
One of those ripples was the House of Representative’s September 29th vote on a $700 billion economic rescue plan; despite pleas from both President George W. Bush and Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, the House voted down the bill, 228-205, a move which prompted the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall nearly 800 points.
Grynbaum remembers reporters and editors gathering around TV screens scattered about the Times’ newsroom to watch the landmark vote, and as it became clear the proposal (which entailed using taxpayer money to buy and absorb troubled assets) would fail, “an eerie silence fell over the newsroom,”he says. And then, “The Bloomberg machines started flashing red: the market was plunging.” He soon realized on that late September day a decade ago that he had to write the “breaking story about a historic stock collapse.”
“Everyone was working on adrenaline, aware of how consequential this moment was,” he says of the coverage:
At 1:30 p.m. the House began to vote on the rescue package that Mr. Paulson and Congressional leaders negotiated over the weekend. About 10 minutes later, when it became clear that the legislation was in trouble, the stock market went into a free fall, with the Dow plunging about 400 points in five minutes.
At his home office in Great Neck, N.Y., Edward Yardeni, the investment strategist, received terse e-mail messages from clients and friends. “Is this the end of the world?” one asked. Another sent a simple plea: “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
At some point, Grynbaum thought to call his parents, suddenly aware of the affects a stock market free-fall would have on their 401(k)s and portfolios, which were “taking a massive hit.” Ten years later, and another Great Depression averted, and Grynbaum can recall those weeks with some necessary and illuminating perspective, adding, “It was a thrilling and slightly scary time to be covering Wall Street.”
To others intimately involved with the roller-coaster fall of 2008, like Gary Cohn, then the president of Goldman Sachs, that same sense of measured introspection is notably lacking.
Since resigning as the director of the National Economic Council, Cohn has emerged as arguably the lone sane voice operating within the current chaos—aka within the Trump administration. First there were reports of his near-resignation following President Trump’s comments on the violence in Charlottesville, VA, and Bob Woodward’s recently published Fear alleged Cohn removed letters from Trump’s desk, thus saving trade agreements with several countries. During a period in which many feel as if they are vainly screaming into a void, Cohn’s protests—real and alleged—have endeared him to those looking for any sort of official resistance.
But that aura shattered around the time of the collapse’s ten-year anniversary. During an interview with Reuters, Cohn outlined the primary cause of the financial crisis, and surprisingly, the former Goldman exec largely laid the blame on Main Street’s front porch, saying,
“Who broke the law? I just want to know who you think broke the law. Was the waitress in Las Vegas who had six houses leveraged at 100 percent with no income, was she reckless and stupid? Or was the banker reckless and stupid?”
Cohn’s comments echo a popular opinion for many of those in the financial industry, and yet, that doesn’t disqualify his statements as anything less than mind bogglingly obtuse. It’s easy to navel-gaze in an attempt to diagnose the financial near-collapse and subsequent recession: yes, Americans became entranced with debt—at the bubble’s peak, the average American owned 13 credit cards—and yes, people flagrantly spent, running up an average household debt of roughly $15,000. But to absolve Wall Street and its employees is negligent, and ignorant that Wall Street became just as cozy with risk. Lehman Brothers and its ilk posted leverages (or the debt to equity ratio) of $30-plus to $1, and the notion that these investment firms, which were in the midst of accumulating massive annual profits (and bonuses for its executives), heeded any attempt to self-regulate proved farcical.
So yes, while that waitress accumulated homes (a fictionalized anecdote that borrows heavily from Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which recounts a similar—but not exact—instance), Wall Street was creating—and profiting spectacularly off of—the vehicles that allowed people to gamble so recklessly. The events of 2008 were the result of one massive feedback loop: the embrace of a free market economy led to lax oversight of financial firms, which enabled banks to pursue strategies that would lead to tumescent payouts. As the housing market was seen as the bedrock of the American economy, those strategies sought to commercialize that stability, and thus complex and complicated securities and derivatives like CDOs, MBSs, and CDSs were born; everyone wanted to get rich now, and those catchy acronyms allowed both the American people and banking execs to plunge ahead. Greed on Wall Street fueled greed on Main Street (and vice versa), until the very thing that inflated the bubble—debt—was so overextended that it had no other option but to fail. The illusion couldn’t hide anymore.
Cohn may have been the sanest person in the White House, but that he would lay the blame squarely on Main Street is utterly preposterous, and suggests a lack of nuance and perspective that—ten years after the nation’s economy nearly collapsed—is frightening. In Margin Call, a 2011 film which is arguably the best depiction of the financial crisis, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO of an investment bank that, thanks to the levels of risk it carries on its books, is threatened with extinction. After a 24 hour period in which the firm survives by unloading its risk onto Wall Street (thus eliminating its own exposure but contributing to the toxicity that soon engulfs the financial world), Irons justifies the bank’s actions:
It’s just money. It’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ’37, ’57, ’84, 1901, ’07, ’29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus didn’t that fuck me up good!—’92, ’97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over. We can’t help ourselves. You and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it, or even so slightly alter it. We just react, and we make a lot of money if we get it right, and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been, and there always will be, the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy fucks and sad sacks, fat cats and starving dogs in this world.
That speech is a perfect encapsulation of what happened in 2008. There is none of this equivocation of whoever deserves a greater share of blame, and Irons’ monologue contains more truth and accuracy than anything Cohn is peddling on his rehabilitation tour.