Search Results for: sports

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)

The 19th-Century Hipster Who Pioneered Modern Sportswriting

A portrait of a man in handlebar mustache on a bicycle, in front of a collage of images of the same man on his bicicyle in different locales
Collage by Carolyn Wells / Illustrations by W.A. Rogers

Robert Isenberg | Longreads | April 2022 | 10 minutes (2,788 words)

“I am bowling along beneath overhanging peach and mulberry trees,” recalls Thomas Stevens, in the 19th chapter of Around the World on a Bicycle, “following a volunteer horseman to Mohammed Ali Khan’s garden. Before reaching the garden a gang of bare-legged laborers engaged in patching up a mud wall favor me with a fusillade of stones, one of which caresses my ankle, and makes me limp like a Greenwich pensioner when I dismount a minute or two afterward….”

Like many travel writers, Thomas Stevens wrote in the first person. He also wrote in the present tense, so everything he recounts feels immediate, as if his journey is unfolding in real time. Over the course of many hundreds of pages, the reader travels with Stevens, eats with Stevens, weathers rainstorms with Stevens. When Stevens outwits thieves in Persia, we’re right there with him. When he listens to “Hungarian Gypsy music” in Serbia, we hear it, too. When he narrowly evades a herd of stampeding mustangs in the American frontier, we also duck and cover. With every crank of his pedal, we ride alongside, absorbing the same sensations.

But there’s one thing missing from Around the World on a Bicycle, Stevens’ mammoth memoir from 1887: the author himself.

Nowhere, in his two volumes and 41 chapters, does Stevens bother to explain why he decided to ride a penny-farthing across three continents. He never once mentions his parents, his childhood, or a prior career. Even his titular bicycle, which carries him 13,500 miles over mountains and deserts, has no origin story; it simply appears out of the ether. The first chapter opens with a flowery description of his ride away from San Francisco and through the surrounding hills. You might expect some kind of flashback, but no; Stevens has hit the road, and he’ll continue hitting it for two years straight.

Understand, though: Stevens isn’t shy about his own opinion. He assesses the attractiveness of every woman he meets. He analyzes every meal and guesthouse in microscopic detail. He recounts whole histories and cultural traditions to the best of his ability, and then decides how they measure up to the standards of Western Civilization. Because he’s riding a bicycle, Stevens is particularly preoccupied with road conditions, and he casually judges entire regions by their traversability. Stevens has unwavering confidence in his own perspective, and he assumes that we do, too — even if we have no idea who he is.

From a literary perspective, Around the World on a Bicycle is missing vital context. Take a similar book, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and you’ll find a memoir of loss and addiction that also happens to take place on the Pacific Crest Trail. The most respected travelogues are usually couched in introspection. Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris, is also about a cyclist riding thousands of miles across Asia, but Harris chronicles much of her life story up to that point, in order to explain the importance of her journey. In contrast, Stevens unburdens himself of any past or motivation. There’s nothing to him. He could be any able-bodied Victorian male with a taste for adventure.

The most revealing passage isn’t in the story itself, but in the front matter:

To

Colonel Albert A. Pope,

of Boston, Massachusetts,

whose liberal spirit of enterprise, and generous confidence in the integrity and

ability of the author, made the tour

Around the World on a Bicycle

possible, by unstinted financial patronage, is this volume

respectfully dedicated

There you have it: A young man writes his first book, and he dedicates it to his bankroller. Granted, Col. Pope was a prominent bicycle manufacturer at the time. Stevens owned a bicycle — one he’d bought with his own money for an 1884 trip across the United States — but Pope gifted him a nickel-plated Columbia Express and contracted him to write about his two-wheeled travels for Outing, a magazine Pope owned. Stevens would later draw on those articles to form Around the World on a Bicycle. How all this came to pass, though, would be anybody’s guess, because the book never mentions these arrangements — nor Pope, nor anyone Stevens knows or cares about — again.

But Around the World on a Bicycle isn’t literature, nor does it have any ambitions to be. Stevens may be the first human to circle the globe on a bicycle, and he may have chronicled the minutiae of that saga, but Stevens’ book and Strayed’s Wild don’t stem from the same tradition. Wild is travel writing. Around the World on a Bicycle is something else entirely: It’s sports porn.

***

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I love sports porn.

While I’m sure there is “sports porn” intended for genuine sexual gratification, I of course mean something more colloquial: texts and images that excite consumers on a primal level. This more wholesome brand of sports porn celebrates athletic achievement in all its visual glory, perhaps motivating the consumer to attempt similar feats, but offers little narrative substance. Like actual pornography, sports porn doesn’t tell a story so much as serve up an exciting scenario: What if you biked down a mountainous Chilean barrio? What if you went fly fishing in the remotest rivers of Siberia? What if you — in this case — rode your high-wheeled bicycle all the way around the planet?

Specifically, I love outdoors porn — and bicycle porn in particular. As an avid rider who writes regularly about cycling, I could watch vloggers pedal over the Rockies all day. I devour whole issues of Adventure Cyclist, the official magazine of the Adventure Cycling Association, and every last field report. I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival several years in a row, where I watched film after film of adrenaline junkies BASE jumping off cliffs or paddling kayaks over waterfalls.

Video is now the dominant medium for sports porn, which makes perfect sense: Moving pictures require little explanation and can (literally) zoom in on physical action. This is the kind of high-octane excitement that GoPro cameras were designed for. Today, it’s easy for weekend warriors to shoot at high frame-rates and incorporate slo-mo and speed-ramps into their videos; even amateur productions can look spectacular. More and more often, solo sportsmen can make masterpieces on their own: Gravel bikers journey into the Kyrgyzstani wilderness with their prosumer drones, and they return as YouTube influencers with thousands, or even millions, of followers. Any attempt at real plot would ruin the mojo.


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But before video, there were glossy magazines like Outside, Backpacker, and Dirt Rag, periodicals that are often described in the journalism industry as “aspirational.” I cite these titles lovingly: They are the few glossies I’ve ever actually subscribed to or read cover-to-cover. I have spent much of my own career writing aspirational articles, like how to ride a bike in Taiwan or where to grab brunch in Providence. But while magazines like Outside publish in-depth profiles about serious topics, their appeal for many is largely pictorial. Like National Geographic’s stunning landscape panoramas and aerial shots, sports porn photos of Himalayan ice-climbers and trail-running through Scotland will knock the wind out of you. The next thing you know, you’ve ordered $300 worth of gear from REI and hired a personal trainer.

Before moving pictures existed, though, Thomas Stevens was stirring imaginations with his words, and sports porn is the genre he helped create. In 1886, the high-wheel bicycle (known by many as an Ordinary or a penny-farthing, a reference to the large and small British coins its wheels resembled) was roughly equivalent to the iPhone in 2022: a relatively new technology that had completely transformed modern society. Europeans and Americans were still grasping the possibilities of this magical new machine, and Stevens seized the moment; he vowed to ride across the United States, England, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, completing his journey in Yokohama, Japan. The route was arbitrary, as all round-the-world tours are, but Stevens is still the first known cyclist to satisfy the public with this claim. Stevens pedaled through countries he knew his readers would never visit, and he vividly described the people he met. In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

***

To be fair, I didn’t “read” Around the World on a Bicycle so much as listen to it. Vintage copies on eBay can cost hundreds of dollars, and I struggled to find an unabridged reprint. An inexpensive ebook version was easy to find, but I was reluctant to read 1,000 pages of purple prose on a backlit screen. Instead, I found a recording produced by LibriVox — a free archive of public domain writings that functions like a Project Gutenberg of audiobooks — and I dedicated several weeks to Stevens’ book, which is read in tandem by several volunteer narrators.

Stevens was only the latest in a series of authors whose works about long-distance bike touring I’ve read, many of them historical. I had devoured a book by Fred A. Birchmore, also called Around the World on a Bicycle, about the author’s journey in the mid-1930s. I had read Barbara Savage’s Far From Nowhere, about a round-the-world bike tour with her husband in the late 1970s. Most interestingly, I read Around the World on Two Wheels, by Peter Zheutlin, a biography of Annie Londonderry and her infamous wager in the 1890s. All these authors followed similar routes, and they all paid homage to Stevens.

Day after day, I played Stevens’ book on my car stereo. On the bike trail, earbud affixed, I gorged on chapters. The book echoed in my kitchen as I cooked or washed dishes, much to my family’s chagrin. Travelogues are a double whammy for the reader, because the geographic journey mirrors the progression of sentences. The bike wheel turns slowly uphill; the paper page turns in the reader’s fingers; the MP3’s time-stamp ticks along, second by second.

As that journey continued, I found myself torn. On the one hand, I liked Stevens and could only imagine what a pleasure it was to know him. He’s eloquent, dashing, and good-humored. The way he describes himself, Stevens seems gracious to friends and brass-knuckled to antagonists. He is genuinely curious about everything he sees, from folk dances in Eastern Europe to dining etiquette in Kurdistan. Stevens takes pains to learn local languages, to make friends wherever he goes. He compliments and admires much of what he sees: His awestruck description of the Taj Mahal is tear-jerkingly sincere. 

In the same spirit as any pornographic text, readers were invited to switch out the actual narrator for their own globe-trotting fantasy. Nobody cared who Thomas Stevens was. What they wanted to know was how he did it and what it was like when he got there.

Like all great travelers, the man takes everything in stride; when Stevens is arrested in Afghanistan and escorted back to Persia, he expresses little more than disappointment. “As the golden dome of Imam Riza’s sanctuary glimmers upon my retreating figure yet a fourth time as I reach the summit of the hill whence we first beheld it,” he writes, “I breathe a silent hope that I may never set eyes on it again.” If there’s anything a cross-country cyclist loathes, it’s backtracking.

Yet Stevens was a product of his era: He places absolute faith in his Anglo-Saxon virtues, and he finds novel ways to trivialize every other ethnicity. He has no problem describing people as “savages” and comparing their behaviors to children or even animals. In one passage, Stevens is forcibly escorted by a dark-skinned soldier in the Pashtun hills, and his description of the man amounts to straight-up minstrelsy. He also carries a revolver, which was common at the time, but he brags about using random wildlife for target practice. From a modern viewpoint, Stevens’ boorish attitudes remain unsettling to the very last page.

Sports porn still struggles with this archetype — the brave white male seeking glory in exotic lands. In fairness, I have seen the genre diversify in recent years, largely thanks to social media,  but the go-to lead character is still a scruffy blonde guy with a California cadence. Outdoorsy Americans tend to have conspicuous freedom and safety nets that make their lifestyles possible. Nowhere is this privilege more evident than in their rationales, often spoken in voiceover: “I didn’t want to spend my life stuck in an office,” or, “I needed to push myself to try something new” — the usual declarations of young men with a granola streak and nothing more pressing to worry about.

I can’t criticize them too much, because I am part of that tribe — an obsessive cross-country cyclist who spends much of his free time reading about far-flung expeditions by bike. As a scruffy white guy, I could step into any of those YouTube fantasias and no one would notice. Almost 90 years after Stevens’ death, I remain his target readership. And although the penny-farthing was soon replaced with the “safety bicycle,” Stevens and I use roughly the same vehicle for roughly the same purpose: to explore, to challenge ourselves, to connect with the world.

***

In Rhode Island’s entire Ocean State Libraries system, I couldn’t find a single edition of Around the World on a Bicycle, in print or digital versions. Instead, I tracked down a copy at the Providence Athenaeum, a library so historic that it used to loan books to Edgar Allan Poe.

But this wasn’t just any copy: The Athenaeum has an original printing of Stevens’ book, released in two volumes in 1887 and 1888. What’s more, handwritten notations in each book verify that the volumes were acquired in July and September of their respective publication years. These copies, now tattered from centuries of use, their spines chipped and cracked, were hot off the presses when they joined the Athenaeum’s collection.

An old, worn hardcover book on a table, with two rubber bands holding it closed

Photo by Robert Isenberg

One of the librarians carefully set up the books on a table, to make sure I didn’t strain the covers. She had never heard of Thomas Stevens, and when she saw a picture of the author in the opening pages, she guessed he was riding a unicycle. She sat at the desk behind me while I read, a gesture I appreciated: Seeing the book firsthand was a euphoric moment, and I was grateful for someone to witness it.

What I hadn’t realized was that Stevens’ book was illustrated; between them, the volumes contained 180 black-and-white plates. The etchings are artful and detailed; I could frame any one of them and proudly hang it in my home. As a drawn character, Stevens appears again and again, riding his bicycle or standing beside it; he finds himself in wildly mixed company; fashions change all around him, from top hats to fezes to turbans to jingasa. It’s hard to tell how much the artist embellished, of course. Stevens carried a camera, and he mentions snapping pictures, but he also rode alone, and there was no Google Images search to verify his accounts.

As critical as I am of Victorian culture, I couldn’t help but fall under Stevens’ spell. I had already devoured the audiobook, yet found that I still had plenty of room for dessert. Sports porn is most effective when it’s audacious: People aren’t supposed to have fun in such dangerous ways, yet here they are, free-climbing up sheer sandstone. Stevens didn’t reveal much about himself, but he loved being the center of attention. The front wheel of his penny-farthing was 50 inches tall, and Stevens coasted into villages where bicycles had never been seen. In his telling, Stevens constantly explains what the bicycle is, and he entertains crowds by demonstrating its use. More than once, strangers offer to buy the bike from him. Stevens craved the attention, and readers were eager to pay it.

For a 21st-century reader like me, the real value of Around the World on a Bicycle is accidental: It freezes time. Stevens was a sportsman and tourist; he saw the world at street level. He may not have been a reliable anthropologist, but the author painstakingly described what these lands looked and felt like to an ordinary Western visitor. Stevens exhibits a mindfulness that modern people still labor to attain. Given enough time, pornography transforms into documentary. To Stevens, writing a book about a global cycling tour was a business op with a built-in publicity stunt. Today, his account sheds light on a bygone world.

And the inspiration remains — timeless and pure, unsullied by subtext or character development. More than a century later, Stevens still urges readers onward, to propel ourselves forward, to see how far we can go.

 

***

Robert Isenberg is a writer and multimedia producer based in Rhode Island. His books include The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and The Green Season: A Writer’s First Year in Costa Rica. He was recently named a 2022 Scriptwriting Fellow by the Rhode Island Council on the Arts and won Best Documentary Director at the Block Island Film Festival. Feel free to visit him at robertisenberg.net.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

H-Town United: An Unlikely Soccer Power Rises in Texas

Longreads Pick

It’s hard to call Elsik High School’s soccer team an underdog — the squad from Southwest Houston has become a national powerhouse — but it’s also hard to call them anything but. A long, engrossing portrait of a program marked by love, second chances, and a ceaselessly nurtured sense of newfound family.

About half of this year’s Elsik players were born outside the U.S. In addition to Honduras, they come from El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, Vietnam, and Mexico. Many hadn’t played organized soccer before high school. Hector came up playing in the streets of La Ceiba, a port city of roughly 200,000 on the Gulf of Honduras. Senior defender Toliat Ajuwon grew up competing barefoot in Nigeria, braving “no-mercy” pickup games he said were more aggressive than anything he’d seen in the States. Junior midfielder Oumar Berete arrived last year from Senegal, where “nine out of ten kids want to be a soccer player” and where he played informal games on the beach but never had a proper coach.

Author: Tom Foster
Source: Texas Monthly
Published: Apr 6, 2022
Length: 35 minutes (8,905 words)

Untold

Longreads Pick

The legend of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was ultimately tarnished by the heinous crimes of Paterno assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Before Sandusky, however, there was another monster connected to the school’s football program —  one whose many unspeakable violations are only coming to light now, in Junod and Lavigne’s tireless, exhaustive investigation. This is a long, difficult piece. It’s also a necessary one.

And yet, just as there is a cost to keeping silence, there is cost to breaking it. Decades after Betsy called Ann to tell her what had happened on the night of Sept. 13, they both remain reluctant to speak the word that names what Hodne did to her. The daughter is now 64. The mother is 84. They are close; they know most of what there is to know about each other. But they both remember that phone call, and the weight of the word, and how breaking the silence broke them. They can say it now; they can say that Betsy was raped. But they still grieve each time they do. And both of them, far away from one another, in separate phone calls, still weep.

Source: ESPN
Published: Apr 11, 2022
Length: 126 minutes (31,519 words)

It’s Triller Night, Marv!: Trump’s 9/11 MMA Fever Dream

Longreads Pick

“What do I care for seeing these legends (insofar as MMA even has “legends”), in a sport not their own, at ages that seem criminally old? It’s sadder than any strung-out rocker strumming bloated and hoarse-throated to a braying audience. You can’t, in good conscience, want these men to play their hits again.”

Source: n+1
Published: Sep 18, 2021
Length: 17 minutes (4,386 words)

How ‘Sex and the City’ Sent Me Down a Fake Baseball Rabbit Hole

Longreads Pick

“Lots of shows and movies include snippets of fake sports broadcasts as background noise. Yet this one had sounded conspicuously real. Instead of simply rattling off a score, the broadcast had included just the right level of specificity, all the textured banality of a random at bat. There seemed to be a whole booth involved instead of a lone announcer. And the rhythm was dead on—clearly, indubitably baseball. It was hard to imagine that the clip was fake. With all that attention to detail for just a few seconds of background sound? No way.”

Published: Feb 21, 2022
Length: 8 minutes (2,178 words)

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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Inside Kyiv on the Night of Ukraine’s Stunning World Cup Qualifier Victory

Longreads Pick

“I came to Kyiv to watch a city watch a game.” Wright Thompson goes to the capital of Ukraine to watch the country’s football team play Scotland in a World Cup qualifier. It’s an emotional, poignant read about life during war, the power of football, and the incredible strength and spirit of the Ukrainian people.

Our fixer, who evacuated Kyiv on Feb. 24 and hadn’t returned until now, took me there to have a bowl of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup. She said if she had to choose, borscht from this restaurant would be her last meal on earth. We had a big group but everyone ate in silence, still processing the violence of a cruise missile slamming into an apartment building. That’s Kyiv. Something devastated just steps from something cherished. At war and at peace. Modern and ancient. Beautiful and ruined. That’s what Viktoria was talking about, I think, when she talked about the shadows she could sense all around her in the air. Kyiv might exist as a beacon for a new and proud Ukrainian future or, if the foreign money dries up, there might be Russian tanks rolling through these streets. History is being written in real time and nobody knows how things will end. These could be the last days of a regional war or the first days of a world war. Someone told me the best part of a day in Kyiv is the 15 seconds between waking up and your brain clicking into gear. In those fleeting moments everything is like it was before.

Source: ESPN
Published: Jun 2, 2022
Length: 17 minutes (4,282 words)

The Next Cultural Battle: States Take Aim at Trans Athletes

Longreads Pick

Starting July 1, 2021, the Mississippi Fairness Act — signed into law by Governor Tate Reeves — will ban trans women and girls throughout Mississippi from playing school sports on women’s and girls teams.

Published: Mar 12, 2021
Length: 12 minutes (3,058 words)

The Skeleton, the Meat, and the Bones: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist’s New Issue

A horse training in a lake, with a man holding onto his neck.
Tailyr Irvine for The Atavist

As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 326, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Jana Meisenholder about her work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

In Jana Meisenholder’s piece for The Atavist Magazine, “King of the Hill,” she recounts how her central figure, Andres Beckett, prepared for the Suicide Race — a horse race that starts with a violent descent down a steep hill and into a river — as his “organizing principle.”

Be it a piece of writing or a career, having an organizing principle and singular drive crystallizes the vision and makes goals attainable. How serious are we? What will we cut out in order to realize our dream?

And so it was when speaking with Meisenholder and Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby about an organizing principle around crafting “King of the Hill” that applies to any piece of writing: an essay, an article, a book. It’s something Darby calls “the skeleton, the meat, and the bones.”

“The skeleton of the piece needs to be sturdy,” Darby told me, “and that skeleton is the narrative, the actual story of what happens. You start there for the thing to hold together.”

She continues, “When I’m working with writers we always start with those fundamentals — the bones — and figuring out how they fit together so that the story stands. Then you create muscle and flesh through character, scene, and dialogue. You start to make something whole and presentable. But at the end of the day, if you were to strip all of that away, the bones would still be there, and the story itself would still be strong.”

In this conversation, we also talked about when it’s appropriate for a writer to figure in a story and not — as well as what it takes to develop a single character over a long piece of narrative journalism. Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.

* * *

Brendan O’Meara: I’d never heard you mention — or if you did, I forgot — about this idea of the skeleton, the meat, and the bones. Walk me through what that means as an organizing principle.

Seyward Darby, The Atavist: There are obviously a lot of metaphors you can use for narrative nonfiction, and this is one that I use in talking to writers. The skeleton of the piece needs to be sturdy, and that skeleton is the narrative, the actual story of what happens. You have to start there for the thing to hold together. And then you start to create muscle and flesh through character and scene and dialogue, and you really start to make something whole and presentable. But if you were to strip all of that away, the bones would still be there, and the story itself would still be strong. When I’m talking to folks, sometimes they’re lost in thinking about the muscle — some detail here or there — and it’s about putting that stuff aside to figure out what the bones are underneath that part of the story.

I find that that can be really helpful from an editing standpoint as well. Certainly when I’m editing, I try to identify what I think the skeleton of the piece is, because then it makes my job a lot easier. It’s an outline of sorts, right? You need to go from this bone to that bone for the thing to hold together. And once the skeleton is there, the other stuff starts to feel so much more organic.

When you have the skeleton in place, then all of the details that you layer in feel less gratuitous, like they’re in service of something greater — not merely because you collected the information and it’s cool.

Right, exactly. To be clear, it’s always fun when you can kind of wander off for a little while. I don’t know, what the appropriate metaphor would be in this wider body metaphor; maybe fat, padding, something that gives a story even more of a curve in the best possible way. But as a whole it’s: What are these details in service of? Are they in service of the story that we’re trying to tell, as opposed to something I just happened to learn?

There’s an anecdote in this story, actually, that I think is a good example of this. There’s a section where we’re talking about Andres’ character, who he is as a person and how he thinks about choices he makes. And at one point, in a car, Jana witnessed him pull over to the side of the road and chastise this guy for letting a stray dog wander so close to the road. On one hand, it doesn’t have anything to do with the journey of him getting to the starting line of this race — but it beautifully encapsulates the kind of person that he is, and that’s the thing we’re focused on at that point. That is the bone. So this moment really helps fill that out. This story is character-driven, it’s a narrative profile, and details like that just help it pop.

But you can also imagine another version of this story. It’s a sporting event, and an intense one, to put it lightly.

The Suicide Race.

Yup. And there’s a more straightforward version of this feature that would take place at the race. The race would bookend the piece. But one of the nice things in working on this story was that this one man, Andres, his story becomes the skeleton of the piece. It’s a quieter, more unusual way in, and one that I was very, very into. That’s how it was really pitched: his story, as opposed to the story of this race. I really loved Jana’s choice to focus on Andres.


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Andres doesn’t win the race, so it doesn’t have that classic sports-story arc — but it’s still satisfying. How do you deliver that, knowing that there’s not that payoff of a win at the end?

My favorite kind of sports writing or adventure storytelling is less about the excitement of victory than it is about the obsessiveness required to pursue something. There are two great examples of this — one written, one filmed. Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is so many different things, but it really is about a singular obsession, with surfing as a continuous lifelong quest. You’re not seeking one thing; you’re seeking a wave over and over and over and over, punishing your body, going to the ends of the earth to find a wave. There’s a circularity to it that you get the sense will never end. The other one I would mention is Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s quest to free-climb — oh, what is it called? The big scary wall.

El Cap in Yosemite.

Thank you. Obviously, that’s an incredibly shot documentary. The harrowing visual of this guy climbing up a sheer face of rock without any ropes attached to him. But what’s really compelling about that movie — to me, anyway — is exploring what kind of mentality is required. What feeds into an obsession with something that’s one false move and you die?

Similarly, in this story, we knew that Andres does not win the race. But what I was interested in, and what Jana was interested in, was the fact that he was so obsessed even with what was required to run the race that it was less about winning and more about being able to do it. I kind of love the fact that he didn’t win, because then we get to see him preparing to do it again. This race down a very steep track is a very harrowing thing to do, on a horse that weighs a thousand pounds. What makes a person want to do that, and what makes a person want to do it again? What led him to be like this?

That’s so much a question we answer as much as we start to excavate the pieces of his personality and his experience. The people who he’s trying to convince to mentor him are same way: They run the race again, and again, and again. And it’s so much less about winning than it is about doing it. Those were really the boxes we were trying to tick: How can we tell the story of the race, tell the story of Andres’ life, and show how these things came to intersect? So we start on the hill, with him galloping toward the edge, and then we jump back to his origin story and how he came to be something of an outsider in this small Native community near the Canadian border.

But it’s really the story of how he came to be so fixated on the hill — how it became the organizing principle for his life.

That phrase was one of the things I highlighted from this piece. It’s the wireframe on which he hangs his entire year. Obsession is something I deeply enjoy reading about; I tend to have a pretty splintered attention span, and I just love people who are so singularly driven, and for no glory other than the sheer love of the thing.

Like you, I’m a pretty splintered person. I’m kind of always doing a lot of things at once. My husband is actually the exact opposite: He can write for 10 or 12 hours straight. It fascinates me that somebody who can be so focused and fixated — and not in a negative way at all — and everything in life sort of starts to distill around this particular experience or task or training.

But also, the development of relationships. Andres could have tried to run the race by himself. But first of all, that would have been exceptionally dangerous. Second of all, that’s just not the way it’s done. There’s a lot of courtship in this story, of him trying to convince the people who are basically race royalty, whose families have been running it for the longest time, that he was worthy of their teaching.

I’m really glad you brought up the dog anecdote. What struck me about it was that originally Jana cut it out of a draft. We’ve talked about killing your darlings, but in this case it was a resuscitation of a darling: You advocated to put it back in the piece, or such was her recollection.

After she turned in the original draft, I sent a pretty extensive memo about structure. There was a lot of “notebook dumping,” which is totally reasonable when you’ve had this thrilling experience, getting to know your main character and the cast of characters around him. One of the things we talked about was making sure that details were in service to the skeleton, to circle back to the beginning of this conversation.

I loved the dog anecdote, and when I saw it was not in the revision — and the revision was great — I just kept telling myself, I gotta find a way. When I read that first draft, that was the moment where I saw who Andres is: incredibly compassionate, and at the same time a bit rash. I knew that I wanted to work it back in, and in the course of editing, we ultimately came to this quieter character-building section that allowed us to put that back in.

Things wind up on the cutting room floor all the time, and you pick it back up, and you think about it, and you’re like, “well, maybe,” and you toss it back down. But in this case, it was just such an illuminating piece of information. If I recall correctly, it was initially told as more of a first-person anecdote because it was something that she experienced with him while she was there reporting in person. One of the things we talked about is dialing back a bit on some of the first-person stuff, letting scenes speak for themselves. So part of it was also figuring out how to put that scene back in such a way that felt natural to the story.

 


 

On your website, you write that you “mostly [cover] character-driven stories about family, culture, true crime, and also … deep-dive longform features.” How did you arrive at that as the core of your work?

Jana Meisenholder: Oh, man, I have to think about my answer. I think true stories can come in different forms. Some people like to write about murder mysteries, where you have this central incident that tethers readers to the story. That can be thrilling, but I found that sometimes they can also be predictable. If you focus on the characters and motivations that aren’t necessarily black and white — two truths can often exist at the same time — it often makes for a more compelling story. My story on the Han twins is probably the biggest example of that. And I genuinely enjoy it. I like things where I’m learning something in the process, and when I’m focusing on characters, I learn a little bit about myself too. I start questioning my own motives and decisions I’ve made in my life because I’m focusing on the people at the heart of the story.

Whenever the great writer Tracy Kidder would start a book, it was always character first, and then worry about everything else. Some people are the other way around; they need to find something cool to cover and then search out the character.

I think with the Rolling Stone article that I did on Black cowboys — specifically on a cowboy from Texas named Justin Richard, who unfortunately got killed by a drunk driver in early 2020 — how I came across it was a combination of him being a charismatic character, and the news peg of Lil Nas X’s huge hit “Old Town Road” launching his career. Before I’d even reached out to Justin, I saw that he wrote on his Facebook: I AM AMAZING!!!!! And I’m like, “I like this energy. This is a good character.”

When Walter Thomas-Hernández’s book Compton Cowboys came out, he came on the show, and he strikes me as a reportorial or journalistic kindred spirit to you.

Definitely. I’m really drawn to the cowboy world — obviously, as you can tell given the latest Atavist story — from my own experiences of growing up in Australia, and going to the Outback, and being the only kid of color at the rodeos.

Give me a sense of how you arrived at this Atavist story about this incredible race and the beating heart at the center of it.

Actually, from that Rolling Stone article, I’ve built friendships and connections with sources in the cowboy world. And one of them, a cowboy named Brian White, was my first interview for my own publication, which is on Medium; it’s called Unearthed. He’s been a bullfighter. He’s a cowboy. He was a football star. And now he works in production for rodeo, as the camera guy. So he has an eye for visual aesthetics and seeking out things to capture, and he’s also a very, very friendly person and can talk to anyone. He got asked to do a gig in Omak Washington, which is where the story takes place — a reservation in rural Washington, about four hours east of Seattle. He knows that I’m interested in cowboys and cowgirls of color.

He told me, “I was at the top of this hill that they go down — it’s called the Suicide Race — and I met this guy, and you’ve got to talk to him. You’re just gonna love him. This guy has some kind of energy about him.” Brian thought Andres was Native, which he’s not, but he knew that I would be interested in connecting with Andres, based purely on the fact that this was Andres’ first time going down the hill.

Hearing Brian tell me that made me think like, okay, there’s something. There’s a reason why this kid is up there doing this race. I just booked a flight the next day and flew up to Seattle. This is the biggest event for this tiny rural rodeo town, so it was a struggle to get a rental car, and all the hotels were booked. I had to stay in three different motels on different nights. It was smoky as hell. I wore the same clothes for three days. So Brian introduced me to Andres; we hung out on Friday night at the rodeo after it had wrapped up, just sitting by the bullpen. I just started peppering questions at him. That’s when I found that he’s not Native, he’s Mexican American, and he had this background of being what his family calls a “Greyhound baby” — his mom and dad met on the back of a Greyhound bus. We talked for hours, and I realized that there was a bigger story here.

When you’re reporting out the story, and you’ve got a great central figure, how do you go about getting to the core of a character and what really motivates them?

You have to spend as much fucking time as possible. They’re not going to lay it out and say “this is exactly what you need, these are the answers you’re looking for.” So there’s 100-plus hours of audio that I recorded. Every time he spoke, I just chucked on my recorder. And sometimes like he would speak and I didn’t have my recorder with me, so I’d furiously be typing into my phone. He was kind of caught off guard by that, but I’d had to explain, “no, just keep talking.” After that, I went home and highlighted the key plots and started framing it in my mind.

When you started getting all that information, how did you go about organizing it, given that you had so much tape? It can be hard to get your head around it.

I tried to transcribe it initially, then I was like “this is just getting out of control, there’s too much.” I did it through a transcription service called rev.com, and was able to download that in PDF form. And because it’s dialogue, it’s a little easier to speed read. I literally would just read it and then write it. After Seyward told me about the skeleton, the meat, and the bones, that became the title of the Google Doc where I’d highlighted all the key points and key milestones in Andres’ life, and the quotes attached to those things.

So when you’re going through and you know you have to cut things that are objectively probably very good scenes, how do you make those decisions?

Honestly, a great editor helps, and that’s where Seyward came in. When you do a certain amount of reporting, you’re like, “I did this work,” and you feel like you’ve got to throw it in there. But then you ultimately have to show restraint.

For example, I stayed at the tribal casino during the duration of my reporting trip, and I overheard Mandarin — and I speak Mandarin — and I turned around to see Chinese guys that at the blackjack tables. Why are they in rural Washington? Why are they on a reservation? So I spoke to them. After Washington legalized marijuana, a lot of laborers from China actually came out to Washington to start pot farms; that’s how they were making a living, and what they were doing out here. I included that in my draft to paint a landscape of how Omak is this weird place where people go and hustle, and you had different types of people. But it was just too distracting, and I ultimately left it out. It’s interesting to me, but it doesn’t serve the story at all.

You can’t have an ego about it. Like yeah, I spent an hour talking to them, and it was time that I could have spent talking continuing to talk to Andres. But you just can’t get attached to these things. Because ultimately, it’s not about you. Your loyalty is and should be to people who are reading this for the first time.

You speak of Andre feeling like he needs his life to have purpose. In the work that you do, be it documentary or written journalism, what’s the purpose that you’re seeking?

I think I was in ESL until high school. I think I had to prove to myself that I could string sentences together. And Seyward makes this piece really shine — she really polished it up for me — but I was able to sort of put together the main pieces, and that means something to me. I grew up in an agricultural part of Brisbane, which is on the east side of Australia. It’s farmlands, and mostly white, so I was one of the very few Asian kids in my school. With ESL, I got plucked out of my classroom, and I would have to go with the ESL teacher — who was actually very lovely, and I want to track her down, and her this story.

Oh, yeah, you’ve got to do that.

Yeah, that’d be cool, right? But yeah, it was like a very singling-out sort of moment. And I’ve always wanted to do better with the English language and prove that I can tell a good story. I can tell good stories in my head, but putting it on paper and making it eloquent and easy to read, keeping people engaged, is a whole different thing. It’s more impactful when you can do that instead of keeping it all in your head and telling it over drinks with your friends or something. This format that The Atavist has is just a beautiful way of storytelling. So that’s that’s where I get a lot of my meaning. Being able to tell good stories, and particularly stories that haven’t been told before.

You’re kind of alluding to your stuff in the piece about Andres making the suicide race his organizing principle, but I just want to dig in just a little deeper: What would you identify in your work as your organizing principle?

Damn, you ask really good questions.

It’s my COVID fever dream, I don’t know.

I like it, you should always be sick.

Hilarious.

My god, this is such a trip, but I want my mom’s sacrifice — all that she sacrificed to bring us to Australia — to mean something. But I ultimately also want my life to have meaning. And sometimes when you’re an immigrant kid, and you don’t speak the language, sometimes your voice isn’t totally heard. I spent a lot of my childhood feeling unheard. And now I finally get to feel heard through journalism.

It’s for being invisible, in a sense. And now, not only do you have some platform, but you’re able to broadcast from it and say, “I am here. I have value. I have something to say, be it my story or other people’s stories.” But it’s still your voice that you’re finding.

And I don’t want to make it me, me, me. The people that I’m fighting for with these stories — Andres, the Han twins, Justin — they are the vehicles for this storytelling. But in order for me to do a good job of it, I am having to mine certain things from my personal life. And so inherently I am becoming more heard through these people.

The people we’re drawn to actually reflect something inside of us. And that’s why we’re drawn to them.

Journalism isn’t always super academic; it’s psychological and personal and intimate. You’re having to dig into your own situation to try and better understand the sources and try to understand what questions you should be asking.

Do you find yourself writing in your head as you’re reporting? Like imagining where a scene or quote could go?

I absorb, absorb, absorb. And then I go back to my hotel room, or whatever, and do the skeleton/bones thing. I did that before with my other stories, but now I have a name for it. And then I start structuring in my head, even though it’s necessarily the structure we end up with, but it does help paint a picture. I think it helps that I do things chronologically: Andres’ milestones, what led him to this point, then to the next point, et cetera.

Well, Jana, I love ending these conversations by asking the guests for a recommendation of some kind for listeners — that can be anything from a brand of coffee to a fanny pack or pair of socks you’re really tickled by.

Blundstone shoes. They’re an Australian brand and are apparently really popular in Israel for whatever reason. I’m not sponsored. They’re expensive. But mine have lasted me 10 years. I actually wore them to the rodeo for this story, and they didn’t break down — I climbed rocks, went hiking, was in the river, was on top of the hill, at the bottom of the hill, and not one scratch. So go get your Blunnies.

Read “Follow the Leader” at The Atavist now