Tom Matlack looks at sports through the lens of books, manhood, entertainment, relationships, and intimacy.
Saturday afternoon I was lying on the couch watching undefeated Michigan go into Lansing Michigan and lose yet again to Michigan State with my 15 year-old son. Bliss in my world. After a while he left to get a haircut and I fell asleep. Hard.
Towards the end of the game I woke up with a start and realized it was time to get in the shower and drink a triple espresso from my favorite home gizmo to get my brain working.
An hour later I was on stage.
I spoke at the Boston Book Festival on a panel, “What’s Up With Men?” moderated by Tom Ashbrook with a group of other men. We were, as Tom described us, “A tough guy, a gay guy, a black guy and a rich guy.” Old South Church was sold out, with people turned away at the door. It was a first to have a thousand people’s rapt attention to talk about men.
Andre Dubus III, the “tough” guy, was the headliner but the rest of us got in our shots about sex, love, fatherhood, class, and men expressing their emotions.
After the talk I met my wife and kids at a charity event for Massachusetts General Hospital for children where I rubbed shoulders with the owners of both the Celtics and the Red Sox. But by midnight my son and I were back in the same position, watching the #9 Oregon play #18 Arizona State in Eugene. I fell asleep for good somewhere in the middle of the second half watching the Ducks amazing backs scramble downfield time and again.
I woke up thinking whether my sports obsession was the natural state of man or some kind of dodge from more substantive issues.
I just finished the 784-page oral history of ESPN by Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, “Those Guys Had All The Fun.” I loved every minute of it from the stories about the father, a PR guy from the Hartford Whales, to his son’s hatching of the idea to the $100 million bankrolling by Getty Oil, to the complete world domination of sports and manhood by a high tech studio in butt-fuck Connecticut broadcasting five cable networks into every home in the country. ESPN was built not on sports itself but talking about sports in just about every possible combination–SportsCenter, Sports Nation, Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, College Game Day, Monday Night Countdown; need I go on?
I love sports, writing (the oral history here is great as everyone from David Stern to Michael Eisner weighs in and disagrees violently about the critical events), and the creation of big businesses from scratch. So to me the book was a trifecta. I had to limit how much I read every night to make it last longer.
But there was also something about the book—and realizing just how central not just sports itself, but ESPN and the discussion of sports—that made me stop and consider whether that is really a good thing for manhood.
Friday, here in Boston, we had what can only be described as an astonishing sports event.
Red Sox’s nation has been in an uproar since the clubs disastrous September culminating in a miraculous 3 minutes in which the team that had been called the most talented ever assembled in the sport (and certainly among the highest paid) got tossed from the playoffs. Monday, the Globe published a scathing article “Inside the Collapse” that painted a truly horrific picture of pitchers drinking and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games and a management that completely lost control of their millionaire hires.
Boston has not one but two full-time sports radio stations. The Sox and Celtics are on WEEI while the Patriots and Bruins are on the new station, 98.5, the Sports Hub. The marquee show on the Sports Hub is hosted by two opinionated and entertaining sports commentators, Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti. All week they were eviscerating the Red Sox players and ownership. Apparently, principal owner John Henry was listening and had enough. So he instructed his driver to take him to the studio where he demanded to be put on the air.
It all made great theater. Truly. Felger is one of the funniest entertainers I know and Henry is, well, just a peculiar man but at least showed up to defend his team and his manhood.
The whole episode just reinforced what a strange world we inhabit when the soap opera behind the local baseball team’s collapse is the biggest story of the day. Maybe we are more sports crazy here in Boston than other cities. But I am not so sure about that.
I love sports. I love watching sports with my son and talking sports with my friends, specially my college roommate who lives in LA (asshole). And yet I wonder if the obsession with sports—and sports talk—is really some kind of anesthetic numbing us when as fathers, husbands, and men we are confronted with new and profound challenges.
In the good old days, when sports talk was limited to a single radio station in New York City, WFAN, I got in the habit of having the soothing sound of men talking sports on the radio as I fell asleep each night. In my early 20s it provided a feeling of comfort and safety in a world that scared the shit out of me. As I progressed professionally, got married, had kids, got divorced and lived on my own for 6 years as a single dad I kept up that habit shifting over to the Boston station once it started up.
It wasn’t until I got remarried almost a decade ago now that I stopped listening to sports radio at night and started holding my wife instead.
I am still thinking about a woman who stood up in the crowd at the panel discussion Saturday and quoted Hemmingway:
“All men fear death. It’s a natural fear that consumes us all. We fear death because we feel that we haven’t loved well enough or loved at all, which ultimately are one and the same. However, when you make love with a truly great woman, one that deserves the utmost respect in this world and one that makes you feel truly powerful, that fear of death completely disappears. Because when you are sharing your body and heart with a great woman the world fades away. You two are the only ones in the entire universe. You conquer what most lesser men have never conquered before, you have conquered a great woman’s heart, the most vulnerable thing she can offer to another. Death no longer lingers in the mind. Fear no longer clouds your heart. Only passion for living, and for loving, become your sole reality. This is no easy task for it takes insurmountable courage. But remember this, for that moment when you are making love with a woman of true greatness you will feel immortal.”
Her question was whether we as men fear death. I was quick to respond that I certainly would like to believe that I don’t fear death. I fear pain, and like to think that since I have been close to death more than once through my own stupidity I am okay with passing when the time comes though I am sure that is bullshit.
But as men, and as a man, the fundamental issue is to love more. Not just my wife but my kids and other men.
Sports may be a form of male love, but sometimes the search for meaning actually requires getting off the couch and going to speak on a panel or holding my wife or reading my first graders a good night story. As much as watching a great football game with my 15 year-old boy still provides me a form of solace, I have to make time to talk to him about the world apart from sports: War and sex; politics and love; right and wrong.
It’s not the “end of men” by any means. To my way of thinking it’s the birth of a new kind of man. One less confined to past stereotypes and roles. Men who want intimacy in love, who are involved fathers, men who aren’t defined exclusively by their work. Men who are strong and tough; but men who not afraid to show a softer side as well. Men like the evangelists of the Good Men Project–all colors, sexual orientations, class, geography, and age—willing to talk openly about what it means to be good in 2011.
Sports are certainly part of manhood, new and old. But there is more to being a good man than College Game Day on ESPN, as much as that is the comfort zone that I like to retreat to on a regular basis.
Which reminds me. Got to go cook the chili for this afternoon’s Pats/Cowboys game.
photo: spanner / flickr