Web-based sports writing has become the snack-food of my reading life: quick, briefly satisfying, with minimal brain-commitment required. Last week, over breakfast I scanned the following morning headlines on ESPN.com:
1) a recap of the previous night’s baseball All-Star game
2) a college football coach making jabs at another program
3) a college football star describing opponents’ fear of playing against him
4) the timing of possible suspensions for steroid use in baseball
5) an NFL linebacker criticizing his quarterback for wearing another team’s hat
6) a U.S. soccer victory in an ongoing North American tournament
7) the indictment of the president of Formula 1 racing
8) the Miami Heat releasing a role player
9) a former player nearing a deal to rejoin the Los Angeles Lakers’ management
10) a sportswear manufacturer pulling a mislabeled product
11) an Insider (e.g., subscription-required) article about how a particular All-Star fits with his particular NBA team
Welcome to the true dog days!—the basketball and football offseason, when all a fan’s got is another night in the 162-game baseball journey, the weekly NASCAR loop, and the occasional major tournament of a country club sport (I know, I’m ignoring summer soccer). The result: nine of those eleven lead headlines are not about actual games. What they are about is difficult to pinpoint. This is writing and reading at a remove from field and court, a blend of speculation and contingency with just a hint of soap opera to fill the purgatory that is offseason fandom.
Back in April, fans packed Radio City Music Hall for the NFL draft. Over three days—including consecutive primetime Thursday and Friday broadcasts—nearly 25 million Americans tuned in. That’s a colossal audience (especially for cable), a whole cross-section of America watching the drafting of players who might or might not at some nebulous point in the future impact their teams’ win-loss record. In addition to the draft, the other centerpiece of the NFL and NBA offseason is free agency, with players switching teams in search of more money, more playing time, or a better chance at winning. Free agency carries special weight in basketball, a sport in which a single player can legitimately change a team’s future.
A quick NBA interlude: imagine you’ve just opened the first pages of a slickly-jacketed 21st century literary novel. The first character you meet: a somewhat dumpy, middle-age coaching genius with a bad mustache and high-strung, know-it-all voice. The book opens with the coach—let’s call him “Stan the Man”—standing before reporters for a morning media session. Swigging quick gulps of diet soda like something’s on fire in his chest, Stan’s just confirmed a report that the team’s star player has gone to ownership and asked that Stan be fired. The player has leverage. Not only is he a true star, he’s also a free agent in the coming offseason.
It’s a classic plot point: Character B wants Character A eliminated by Entity C or Character B will do something to hurt Entity C (in this case, leave for another team). And the scene’s rolling, the microphones held close to Stan’s face, the team logo in the backdrop, the continuous peripheral backbeat of basketballs bouncing on hardwood and rebounding from backboards. And just as the reader’s digesting what the coach has done—whatever happens with the star player, ownership won’t be happy Stan’s airing all this for reporters—the player (let’s say his nickname is “Superman”) appears.
Superman—unquestionably the league’s best center—puts a giant hand down on Stan’s sloping shoulder, flashes a camera-ready smile, and jokes about that night’s game. Stan, who senses how this is going to go, can’t exit fast enough. So the reporters are left with Superman, who at first claims not to understand why they’re asking him about some report that he’s demanded Stan be fired. He says the report’s not true. Then comes the inevitable revelation: But Stan just said it was true. And we watch as Superman’s posture and face change.
Of course, this is no fiction. It was an April 2012 media session of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, an early but by no means first chapter in the Dwight Howard saga that would be covered for nearly two years in hundreds and hundreds of articles on sports websites. Had it been a novel, the climax might have been a dramatic if uneasy reconciliation of coach and player forged through a gutty playoff run. In real life, Stan van Gundy was fired. Howard (few have called him Superman in the past year) left Orlando for a difficult season in L.A. before signing an $88 million contract this summer to go to Houston, but not before his more and more tedious situation spawned article after article after article—how does Dwight feel ABOUT coach A, how does Dwight feel ABOUT player B, how does Dwight feel ABOUT city C, how does Dwight feel ABOUT Dwight, how does commentator D feel ABOUT Dwight’s injury history, how does former player E feel ABOUT Dwight’s motivation, how does former coach F (not Stan!) feel ABOUT Dwight’s game once he hits age 30—until sports writers and radio and television hosts began using the phrase The Dwightmare to describe this whole bullshit (to quote Stan back in Orlando) plunge into Aboutness.
Aboutness–I think that’s the best word for describing “reporting” at a remove from actual event, e.g., a story not about Howard’s performance in last night’s game or even about how he matches up against tonight’s opponent but about what might happen if he doesn’t get enough shots in a certain coach’s offense or whether he will decide to stay in Houston when his contract is up in four years. More and more, Aboutness dominates Internet sports writing. Media and technology play key roles in this. First, there’s a 24-hour news cycle to fill and only so many games to report on, especially in the offseason. Second, technology like Twitter makes it easy to “report” the smallest development in a “story,” fueling speculation fueling analysis fueling comment fueling another story ABOUT something removed from any actual on-the-field game.
But media and technology aside, the key variable in Aboutness is the reader—here’s me, ready to click on any headline that sounds the least bit intriguing and scan whatever article has been assembled, continuously demanding to be fed Aboutness which leads to clicks and page views and advertisement servicing for the media outlet. Last week, when I clicked back over to ESPN because who knows maybe some story had broken, they’d added a new lead headline that began “Sources [colon]” (a fan favorite in the offseason) indicating that Team G has its eye on Players H and I when they hit free agency in offseason J . . .
The idealist in me wants to believe Aboutness is really about hope. No real fan would say that what player a team drafts or signs through free agency has no impact on how that team will perform. It does matter. And, as fans willing to invest real emotion every game night, many seasons we learn to live through the consequent, repeated pain by holding onto hope for next year (There’s always next year being sort of the sports equivalent of There’s no place like home). But the realist in me looks up at those nine non-game-related headlines and has questions. For the most part, these Aboutness headlines are not motivated by hope. For ESPN, Aboutness is motivated by a desire to generate clicks and comments and to service ads. For readers, it’s hard to think it’s not about killing time or seeking escape, which I’d respectively distinguish as apathy (Why not spend the next few minutes of my life reading this?) or some blend of fatigue and/or fear (Why continue to do something I don’t really want to do or that will require more from me or might expose my mind to something potentially discomforting when I can read this?).
I love sports. It’s rare that we experience things that have never happened before, something that’s possible every game night. I’m also a believer that there are real life lessons made manifest in the dedication of truly hardworking athletes, the ones who never give up on a play, and in the poetic togetherness and mutual achievement of the best teams. I feel some of the same Magic of Maybe when I tune in for tip-off that I feel when I open a book: anything might happen next . . .
But what about Aboutness? In almost any Sunday newspaper, mixed in with all the actual hard news are prominent articles about topics like legislative strife (not actual legislation), derivatives trading (not actual physical products), and future political ramifications of The Sequester (not the actual details of its real-life impacts). The presence of these articles, of this Aboutness, divides our attention, encouraging reading and thought at at least one step removed from the actual event. In sports, this is easy enough to measure. The key question is whether I’m reading more about off-the-field news or on-the-field contests, especially during the season. The same applies in other contexts, e.g., are you more likely to read an article about how the immigration debate will impact the election in 2016 or about what’s in the actual bills being debated? And here’s the dark side of Aboutness beyond sports. There is no offseason in real life.