Search Results for: sports

The Secret MVP of Sports? The Port-a-Potty

Longreads Pick

“Tailgating had become a new American tradition, with attendance at college football games alone surging from 18.9 million in 1950 to almost 30 million in 1970, and a need for portable bathrooms was inevitable.”

Source: ESPN
Published: Jan 5, 2022
Length: 17 minutes (4,311 words)

How Louie Simmons Defined the Extreme Sport of Power Lifting

Longreads Pick

Even if you’ve never tiptoed near the shrine of powerlifting, you’ll find something to love in Lauren Michele Jackson’s obituary of the iconic Westside Barbell founder. And if you have? The same — plus you’ll leave wondering why the writing about strength sports can’t always be this lyrical.

The place became a home for big bodies with troubled pasts who were joined in their commitment to pushing and pulling stupid amounts of weight. Simmons has described the psychology of the place in terms of the movie “Shogun Assassin,” in which a young son joins his father on a bloody path of vengeance. “That’s what this gym is: a journey into Hell,” he explained in the 2019 documentary “Westside vs. the World.”

Source: The New Yorker
Published: Apr 7, 2022
Length: 7 minutes (1,823 words)

Gary Smith, Master of the Sports Longform, Left at the Very Top. Why?

Longreads Pick

The latest in SI‘s “Where Are They Now?” series covers longtime staffer Smith, arguably one of the finest profilers the journalism world has ever known. His portraits of Mike Tyson, Andre Agassi, and other icons cut through the insularity of sports fandom to become the stuff of magazine legend. Now, Joseph Bien-Kahn heads to South Carolina to catch up with the man who famously took half the pay to go twice as deep — and then walked away from it all.

As I spoke to Smith and to his contemporaries, I felt myself searching desperately for Smith’s own demon within—the unseen bit of Gary Smith that had spurred him from the best job in the industry. When I asked Reilly, he said I was chasing a ghost. “We all were supposed to constantly hunger to get bigger and richer and more famous. He never had it,” Reilly says. “I was not surprised at all that he just kind of hung a Do Not Disturb sign on his life and started teaching people to be Zen and playing guitar and traveling.”

Published: Jul 12, 2022
Length: 14 minutes (3,533 words)

Longreads Best of 2020: Sports and Games

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

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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.

Be a Good Sport

Getty / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  9 minutes (2,284 words)

I hate jocks. Like a good Gen X’er, I walked around my high school with that patch on my backpack — red lettering, white backdrop, frisbee-size. A jock high school. It’s impossible to overstate the contempt I had for sports as a kid. I hated what I took to be phony puddle-deep camaraderie, the brain-dead monosyllabic mottos, the aggressive anti-intellectualism. More than that, there appeared to be a very specific cruelty to it. The way there were always a couple of kids who were always picked last. The collective bullying if someone didn’t measure up to the collective goals. And none of the teachers ever seemed to be as mean as the coaches. They strutted around like grown children, permanently transfixed by the ambitions of their adolescence, actively excluding the same kids they had mocked in their youth.

When I hear about sports stars who kill or commit suicide or generally behave antisocially, I always think: no wonder. In a culture that destroys your body and your mind, no wonder. It’s something of a paradox, of course, because, as we are repeatedly told, physical activity is often essential to psychological health. But why is it so rarely the other way around? I watch Cheer and I watch Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez and I watch former NBA star Delonte West get callously thrashed and I wonder why these athletes’ inner lives weren’t as prized as their motor skills. That’s not true; I know why. It suits a lucrative industry that shapes you from childhood to keep you pliable. And what makes you more pliable than mental instability? What better way to get a winning team than to have it populated with people for whom winning validates their existence and for whom losing is tantamount to death?

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There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the Hernandez doc when there’s an unexpected crossover with Cheer. A childhood photo of the late NFL star and convicted murderer flashes on-screen as we learn that his female cousins made him want be a cheerleader. It was the same for Cheer’s La’Darius Marshall, who is shown in one snapshot as a young cheerleader, having discovered the sport after hanging out with one of his childhood girlfriends. Both men came from dysfunctional backgrounds: Marshall’s mom was a drug user who ended up in prison for five years. He was sexually abused, not to mention beaten up by his brothers; Hernandez found his own mother distant, and he was also physically and sexually abused. Both found solace in sports, though Hernandez had the kind of dad who “slapped the faggot right out of you,” per one childhood friend, so he ended up in football, his dad’s sport, instead. But their similarities underscore how professional athletics, when so closely tied to a person’s sense of self, can simultaneously be a boon to your mental health and its undoing.

Killer Inside is a misnomer for a start. Everything pointed to Hernandez’s conviction for murdering another footballer (semipro linebacker Odin Lloyd) — or at the very least a fair amount of psychological distress. (I’m not certain why the doc chose to focus on his sexuality — besides prurience — as it seemed to be the least of his concerns.) As he said himself to his mom, who almost immediately replaced her dead husband with Hernandez’s cousin’s husband when he was just a teenager: “I had nobody. What’d you think I was gonna do, become a perfect angel?” The way he fled from his home straight into the arms of a University of Florida football scholarship, having wrapped up high school a semester early, is telling. Football made him somebody. He depended on being a star player because the alternative was being nothing — as one journalist says in the doc, at Florida you had to “win to survive.” 

If the NFL didn’t know the depth of his suffering, they at least knew something, something a scouting service categorized as low “social maturity.” Their report stated that Hernandez’s responses “suggest he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behavior and that he may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team.” But his schools seemed to care more about his history of drug use than his high school concussion (his autopsy would later show chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or the fact that he busted a bar manager’s eardrum for confronting him with his bill. Physical pain was something you played through — one former linebacker described a row of Wisconsin players lining up with their pants down to get painkiller injections — and psychological pain was apparently no different. “It’s a big industry,” the ex-linebacker said, “and they’re willing to put basically kids, young men, in situations that will compromise their long-term health just to beat Northwestern.”

Cheerleading, the billion-dollar sport monopolized by a company called Varsity Brand, has a similarly mercenary approach. While the money is less extreme — the NFL’s annual revenue is more than $14 billion — the contingent self-worth is not. A number of the kids highlighted in Cheer had the kind of childhoods that made them feel like Hernandez, like they had nobody. Morgan Simianer in particular, the weaker flyer who is chosen for her “look,” radiates insecurity. Abandoned by both her parents, she was left as a high school sophomore in a trailer with her brother to fend for herself. “I felt, like, super alone,” Simianer said. “Like everyone was against me and I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t important to anyone.” Though Marshall’s experience was different, his memories of growing up are almost identical to his fellow cheerleader’s. “I felt like I was really alone,” he said. “There was nobody that was gonna come save me.” Like Hernandez, sports was all they had.

And if a competitive sport defines you, then its coach controls you. Hernandez’s father, the ex-football heavyweight, was known as the King; Monica Aldama, the head coach on Cheer, is the Queen. Describing how she felt when Aldama remembered her name at tryouts, Simianer said, “It was like I’m not just nobody.” For her ability to literally pummel a bunch of college kids into a winning team in half the regular time, Aldama has been characterized as both a saint and a sinner. While she claims to be an advocate for the troubled members of her team, she fails to see how their histories skew her intentions — her position as a maternal figure whose love is not unconditional ultimately puts the athletes more at risk. Aldama proudly comments on Simianer’s lack of fear, while it is a clear case of recklessness. This is a girl who is unable to express her pain in any way sacrificing her own life (literally — with her fragile ribs, one errant move could puncture an organ) for the woman who, ironically, made her feel like she was worthy of it. “I would do anything for that woman,” Simianer confesses at one point. “I would take a bullet for her.” Jury’s out on whether Marshall, the outspoken outsize talent who regularly clashes with his team, would do the same. His ambivalent approach to Aldama seems connected to how self-aware he is about his own struggles, which affords him freedom from her grasp. After she pushes him to be more empathetic, he explains, “It’s hard to be like that when you are mentally battling yourself.”

That Cheer and Killer Inside focus on the psychological as well as the physical strain faced by athletes — not to mention that athletics have no gender — is an improvement on the sports industries they present, which often objectify their stars as mere pedestals for their talents. The Navarro cheerleaders and Hernandez are both helped and hurt by sports, an outlet which can at once mean everything and nothing in the end. This is the legacy of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which followed two teen NBA hopefuls and was as much about the intersections of race and class as it was about basketball. Not to mention OJ: Made in America, the 2016 ESPN miniseries that explored how the story of the football star and alleged murderer reflected race relations in the United States in the mid-’90s. Conversely, mainstream film and television continues to be heavily male when it comes to sports, focusing on individual heroics, on pain leading to gain — the American Dream on steroids. Cheer and Killer Inside expose this narrative for the myth it is, spotlighting that all athletes have both minds and bodies that break, that their legacies as human beings are not about what they have won but who they are. But the climate in which they’ve landed cannot be ignored either, a social-media marinated world in which sports stars are no longer just players but people who are willing to be vulnerable with their public, who are even further willing to sign their names next to their problems for The Players’ Tribune, the six-year-old platform populated by content provided by pro athletes. “Everyone is going through something,” wrote NBA star Kevin Love in an industry-shaking post in 2018. “No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside.”

Fast-forward to that new video of former basketball pro Delonte West, the one of him having his head stomped on so hard in the middle of the street that I still wonder how he survived it. He also came from an underprivileged, unstable background. He chose the college he did for its “family atmosphere.” Like Simianer, he fixated on his failures and played with abandon. Like her, he also had trouble verbalizing his feelings, to the point that they would overflow (in anger for him, tears for her). Though he says he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, he considers his biggest problem to be “self-loathing.” But why? He was a sports star who signed a nearly $13 million contract in his prime — what better reason for self-love? A study published two years ago in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, profiling the psychological well-being of 99 elite athletes, may provide an answer. The study found that those with high perfectionism, fear of failure, and performance-based self-worth had the highest levels of depression, anxiety, shame, and life dissatisfaction. Those with a more global self-worth that did not depend on their performance had the opposite outcome. As if to provide confirmation, a subsequent study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise that same year revealed that athletes with contingent self-esteem were more likely to burn out. When sports become your only source of value, your wins ultimately don’t come to much.

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The irony of all of this is that I came back to sports as an adult for my mental health. Obviously, I’m not an elite athlete — whatever the opposite of that is, I am. But having no stakes makes it that much easier to use physical activity for good. Nothing is dependent on it; that I’m moving at all is victory enough. But my circumstances are different. My jock high school was a private school, sports were (mostly) optional, and elite academics were where most of us found validation — and financial stability. “Conventional wisdom suggests that the sport offers an ‘escape’ from under-resourced communities suffering from the effects of systemic neglect,” Natalie Weiner writes in SB Nation. “If you work hard enough and make the right choices — playing football being one of the most accessible and appealing ways for boys, at least, to do that — you should be safe.” This reminds me of Aldama telling a room of underprivileged kids with limited prospects, “If you work hard at anything you do, you will be rewarded, you will be successful in life.” This is the American Dream–infused sports culture the media has traditionally plugged — the one, ironically, dismantled by the show in which Aldama herself appears. As Spike Lee tells a group of the top high school basketball players in the country in Hoop Dreams: “The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, and if their team wins, schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.” 

In the same SB Nation article, which focused on how school football coaches combat gun violence, Darnell Grant, a high school coach in Newark, admitted he prioritized schoolwork, something both Cheer and Killer Inside barely mentioned. “My thing is to at least have the choice,” he said. Without that, kids are caught in the thrall of sports, which serves the industry but not its players. Contingent self-worth does the same thing, which is why mental health is as much of a priority as education. The head football coach at a Chicago high school, D’Angelo Dereef, explained why dropping a problematic player — which is basically what happened to Hernandez at U of F, where coach Urban Meyer pushed him into the NFL draft rather than taking him back — doesn’t fix them. “They’re not getting into their brains to figure out why,” Dereef told the site. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a big cut — that’s not going to stop the bleeding.” While the NBA was the first major sports league to address mental health in its collective bargaining agreement in 2018, in mid-January the WNBA signed its own new CBA, which only vaguely promised “enhanced mental health benefits and resources.” That the sports industry as a whole does not go far enough to address the psychological welfare of its players is to their detriment, but also to their own: At least one study from 2003 has shown that prioritizing “athletes’ needs of autonomy” — the opposite of contingent self-worth — as opposed to conformity, has the potential to improve their motivation and performance. In sports terms, that’s a win-win.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Mostly Untold Story of How the Sports Bra Conquered the World and Tore Its Inventors Apart

Longreads Pick

David Davis tells the rather curious history of the sports bra — first devised by sewing two jockstraps together, its conception led to years of conflict between the three company founders.

Human breasts are made up of fat as well as glandular and connective tissue, blood vessels, and lymph nodes. Breasts have no muscle; the Cooper’s ligaments provide support and attach to the chest wall, but do little to reduce movement. During exercise, biomechanics clash with biology: Breasts move up and down, backward and forward, and also side to side, causing severe discomfort.

Source: Defector
Published: Apr 20, 2022
Length: 22 minutes (5,654 words)

Stephen Curry and the Spirit of History

Longreads Pick

One one hand, I’ll read any smart piece that dives deep on the transcendent play of the Golden State Warriors’ point guard — and even more so in the wake of Curry finally winning an elusive NBA Finals MVP honor. But on the other hand, I can’t remember any others in which a history scholar managed to map the NBA against Marxist dialectics while still delivering an emotionally honest depiction of sports fandom. Well played.

We gravitate to teams and athletes for different reasons, but I think mainly we want to see what happens next. What innovation or talent will mark a new phase in the league’s record books? In the academy, historians are far past the days of Whiggish triumphalism, the belief that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Within the artificial constraints of a basketball season, however, linear progress feels absolutely possible. Curry’s consecration last week only reinforced my belief in the rationality of history, or at least the NBA’s version of it. Sports project a vision of collective progress far more hopeful than the actuality of late capitalism. We should never consume it naively, but I am not so sure that we can afford to let it go either.

Source: n+1
Published: Jun 20, 2022
Length: 15 minutes (3,824 words)

Is This the Most Powerful Man in Sports?

Longreads Pick

More than a decade ago, Alex French profiled William Wesley — aka Worldwide Wes — a Robert Moses-like power broker within the game of basketball (Bill Simmons once referred to Wesley as “a cross between Confucius, a benevolent uncle, and The Wolf from ‘Pulp Fiction’). According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, the New York Knicks are poised to hire CAA mega-agent Leon Rose as the franchise’s president of basketball operations — and as Rose is close with Wesley, the New Jersey-native might be primed to join Rose in the Knicks’ front office. Are you following? If not, read French’s probing profile of Wesley, which revealed much about basketball’s most mysterious individual.

Source: GQ
Published: Jun 21, 2007
Length: 17 minutes (4,411 words)

The Art of Passing

Longreads Pick

“When their heads are right, the best passers are the good-vibes guys of the league. Joy curators. Misters Congeniality. They make you happy. They let you touch the ball. They trust you. They think you’re good enough. They think you can help. Some combination of stunt-person, illusionist, actor, detective, and circus performer. They raise the energy on the bench and in the stands, give the air that crackle. You want to be in their orbit. Things are brighter there.”

Source: The Ringer
Published: Feb 23, 2022
Length: 19 minutes (4,829 words)

Truth Is Elusive in Attack on a French Soccer Star

Longreads Pick

“The story, with its hints of sporting jealousy, its echoes of Tonya Harding and its links to Paris St.-Germain, the reigning French champion and one of the richest soccer clubs in the world, quickly spread far and wide. But as details emerge — about marital infidelity; about accusations implicating other members of the team; about reports of menacing phone calls to players disparaging the victim before she was attacked — that initial story has been turned on its head.

And now no one is sure what, or whom, to believe.”

Published: Dec 7, 2021
Length: 12 minutes (3,215 words)