Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tiger, in the tank.

The whole thing was predictable. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open, we were treated to story after story about how thrilling and, yes, how inspiring it would be if Tiger were to win the Open on Father's Day, a mere six weeks after the May 3 passing of his own father, mentor and best friend, Earl Woods. It was media foreplay, with sports pundits feverishly trying to out-stimulate each other as they built to what they hoped would be a rousing collective climax this Sunday, June 18. You could see it in your mind: Tiger standing in the sun at Mamaroneck, New York, looking skyward with a bittersweet smile and a tear in his eye...then pumping a jubilant fist in the air as he credits his Dad with helping him pull out a tough victory (over lefty nemesis Phil Mickelson, no doubt, to complete the preferred story line). Then we'd have still more stories in the afterglow, dicussing how Tiger's Open performance demonstrates that sports is "really all about attitude," and how Tiger "just had to win it for Earl," and on and on.* Then, finally spent, the media would go refractory until the next PGA tour stop.

As you may know by now, it was not to be. In fact, Tiger failed to make the cut for the event. But that didn't take the hot air out of the media's swirling sails. Without missing a beat, writers and commentators subbed in the approved alternate ending: the one where Tiger loses because he's distracted, torn-up inside, still dealing with the death of his Dad. He's not fully committed to the game.

All in all, the media handling of the Tiger Woods story this weekend is a perfect (and perfectly bookended) rendering of the traditional, cliched scripts: the gospel according to sportsthink.

A brief recap, for those new to SHAMblog. Today, coaches and media types feel compelled to interpret every major athletic event, as well as its component twists and turns, by assessing the emotions and mindsets that allegedly yielded the results we saw. Even players are learning to parrot that line of (non)reasoning, though I have to believe that in their heart of hearts, they're mostly laughing at this inclination to make winning and losing so vastly bigger and more "meaningful" than it is. To quote from SHAM**:

Contests in all athletic relams are put before us as modern Homeric allegories--crucibles of wit, grit, and will. Today's victorious teams seldom credit talent or luck or even hard work, but rather the likes of character and confidence or, as [Tommy] Lasorda tells us, "wanting it morethan the other guy." Every key play of every game is explained in terms of the attitude--good or bad--that held the participants in its grasp at the moment the fateful play occurred. We hear of players who "refuse to lose"--basketball players who drive to the hoop with "fire in the belly," gridiron defenses who hold firm thanks to a "gut check," pitchers who get that final out "through sheer determination." On the other hand, a pitcher who gives up a decisive home run at an inopportune moment is said to have "lost his concentration." Isn't it possible, just possible, that he merely lost his fastball, or threw a curve that failed to go where he'd aimed it?
The net effect is that nothing on the field of play "just happens" anymore. Nobody simply plays well or poorly. Either an athlete has an emotional epiphany and decides to take over the game (like, say, Dwyane Wade, the other night) or he's trying to cope with some inner demon that's playing havoc with his performance (like Tiger, currently).

Make no mistake: I do not pretend to omniscience. I don’t know precisely what role emotion plays in the outcome of any given sporting event. But neither do they. And truthfully, most of the quantifiable evidence--the stuff that can be proved, or at least measured--is on my side. To ignore the physical, observable explanations for victory or defeat and instead put stock in the invisible and arbitrary is as silly as believing that the Tooth Fairy really did put that quarter under your pillow (or, adjusted for inflation, that $21,963.45 under your pillow). Why talk about sports, or life, in the context of things that can never be proved, weighed, or even seen?

Another example: If you’re an avid sports fan, you’ve witnessed countless cases where something unexpected happened in a game, the announcers dutifully hailed it as a major shift in momentum...and then the game shifted right back the other way again on the next play, or a few plays later. Did the momentum ever shift in the first place? How do we know? And what the hell is momentum, anyway? (Incidentally, where does momentum reside when it’s not in use?)

I'm well aware of the big objection, the real objection, to my way of looking at sports: It takes the romance (in the broadest sense) out of things. It removes the added dimension of poetry that we so badly want to be there. But at what cost, folks? Is our need for the poetry so dire that we're willing to throw rational judgment completely out the window?

I mean, can't anybody ever just play a plain old crappy round of golf these days? How much more refreshing would it be if athletes (and their media Boswells) followed the example recently set by Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lieber, after he surrendered 11 hits and eight runs in a dismal outing against the St. Louis Cardinals. Said Lieber, "Bottom line, I just stunk." Glad to hear it, Jon! And bully for you!

* Don't you think the major networks had wistful, sweet-natured specials already in the can and ready to go the minute Tiger took the event?
** I don't normally like to do this--quote directly from my own book--but I did it here for the sake of convenience.

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