Brian Viner: God help us if we ever follow America's holier-than-thou sports coverage
Saturday 05 February 2005
Yesterday, I arrived home from a couple of days in Las Vegas. I went there to interview Butch Harmon and to present my golf swing to him for fine-tuning - although, worryingly, he saw a need to replace the spark plugs, carburettor and rear axle. Harmon, a former coach to Tiger Woods, runs a golf school in the swish Vegas suburb of Henderson. I have been trying to bag an interview with him for a while, but have been unable to nail down any time with him on this side of the Atlantic. So, since the mountain wouldn't come to Muhammad, Muhammad went to the mountain. Not that I told US customs officers that my name was Muhammad and I was visiting a mountain. They questioned me robustly enough as it was.
Anyway, while I was in Vegas I also devoured just about every printed word I could find on the subject of American sport. I don't follow it much from England, but, having lived in the States in the 1980s and become hooked on basketball, baseball and, to a lesser extent, American football and ice hockey, I try to catch up when I am over there. Besides, devouring the sports pages was preferable to devouring the MGM Grand's $18 (£9.50) All-American breakfast option of Three Eggs Your Way with Hash Browns, Apple-Smoked Ham Steak, Sausage and Warm Cheddar Biscuits. Although only just.
I hasten to add, before rubbishing the quality of American sports writing, that I would have prostrated myself at the polished brogues of the late George Plimpton, had I been lucky enough to meet him. And in Westbrook Pegler, O B Keeler and several others, I know that America has produced some of the greatest sports writers ever to wear out a typewriter ribbon. On the other hand, if you were subjected regularly to the sports pages in US newspapers, you too would cry Hosanna on opening The Independent. I did, at Gatwick Airport yesterday morning, much to the surprise of the woman behind the till at WH Smith.
It's not that the sports pages of American newspapers are badly written, exactly. More that there is a wearisome excess of earnestness and a lamentable absence of scepticism and wit.
Take Super Bowl XXXIX, which takes place tomorrow, in Jacksonville, Florida, between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. On Tuesday, the Eagles' wide receiver Terrell Owens insisted that he would play in Jacksonville, even though the surgeon who helped to repair the leg he broke as recently as 19 December had advised him not to. "I've got the best doctor that anybody could have,'' he said, "and that's God.'' Owens is the Craig Bellamy of American football, a fine player perceived to be more interested in personal fulfilment than team achievement. "God laid this plan out for me... It was His plan for me to be controversial, and I accept that.''
In not one of the many reports I read did the writer venture the slightest surprise that Owens had dragged the Almighty into a discussion of the Super Bowl, let alone respond sceptically. But that is as much to do with the nature of America as the nature of American sport; in the dry-as-dust sport section of The New York Times, I also read about a brilliant young High School quarterback from Louisiana, Ryan Perriloux, who has recovered from a blown anterior cruciate ligament and, erm, a near-fatal bullet wound in the chest, incurred when he jumped out to scare his sister as she returned from a date one night. Inconveniently, the date shot him.
There is, too, an uncomfortably pious attitude towards sport in America, perfectly summed up in a book I bought at Vegas Airport called "The Games Do Count: America's Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports". It contains dozens of interviews with famous people, who reflect on how their own sporting achievements, however modest, helped to propel them to the top of their chosen profession. Unwittingly, it's a hoot. "I hate to lose,'' says Donald Trump. "I am the Michael Jordan of real estate.'' Even George W Bush adds: "I find out what sport different world leaders play before I meet them... The Prime Minister of Denmark is a fit guy [and] at our last Nato meeting the Prime Minister of Norway was talking about how he still plays soccer.''
Nobody loves sport more than I do but if the President of the United States takes time before meeting a foreign leader to find out what sport he (or she) plays, implying it may make a difference to the way their relationship unfolds, then may God help us all, not just Terrell Owens.
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