Jockosopher Kings

While catching up with baseball and basketball scores and stories on, I came across a blog featuring an email exchange between ESPN sports columnist Bill Simmons and the writer, social observer, critic and general gadfly Malcolm Gladwell, appropriately called ‘The Exchange’Their wide-ranging discussion covered such diverse themes as celebrity and sports, the public fascination with true crime and how,  if given a choice, the public generally prefers a dramatic, complicated and conspiratorial explanation over a plausible but boring answer

Another interesting twist in their discussion was the attempt to coin the term ‘jockospher’ to describe those athletes that offer a more introspective and informed point of view than we normally expect from our athletes. Using the example of LeBron James, Simmons quotes James’ teammate Shane Battier as saying he is ” ‘first and most seminal sports figure in the information age.’ ”

Born in 1984, James’ emerging career coincided with MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Gmail (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2005). Gladwell makes the compelling point:

“He was born in 1984. In every way, his life would be better if he had been born 10 years earlier. I don’t believe that the world was always better in the past. But I do believe that there are moments when the particular mix of available technologies don’t actually combine to make your life better — and I think we’re in one of those moments now.”

Gladwell is right and wrong at the same time. He is right in that if Lebron had been born 10 years earlier, he would have been counted as one of the greatest athletes of that historical period (right up there with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky). But, as Simmons said, he would have had all of the success he enjoys now, but still have a normal life.

I cannot help but think that Gladwell is wrong only in the sense that it is the never-ending hype and narcissistic self-promotion of our Facebook statuses and Twitter updates that fuel “greatness” as much as any accomplishments on the court.

Just thinking about the intersection of sports and entertainment, the moments of the spectacular versus the mundane of everyday life, I can see how this moves people. But ultimately these performers are regular people who, while they hunger for attention and are celebrated like gods, are also actors trapped in a role of appearance and image management equal to a Shakespearean tragedy figure. For me, the damage was done when the marketing departments of all the major sports leagues determined that marketing star-power to the world was more important than the competition itself. Winning and losing became irrelevant, replaced by the goal of increasing TV market share in Brazil or the number of kids buying Michael Jordan jerseys.

Here is my list my favourite sports books and jockosophers that wrote them:

 David Halberstam, “The Breaks of the Game“.  Profiles one NBA season of the Portland Trail Blazers three years removed from their magical championship season; ostensibly a book about sports at another level, it is a social history of a changing American culture when sports transitioned from a competition between cities to a branch of the entertainment industry.

Bill Russell with Alan Steinberg, “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend“.  The Boston Celtic reflects on the mentorship and the character formation he experienced while playing for legendary Celtic coach Red Auerbach.

Michael Sokolove, “Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw“. Profiles the Los Angeles baseball team  of Crenshaw High School in 1979 where various scouts called the collection of players the greatest of all time. Most prominent was Darryl Strawberry who played with the New York Mets and L.A. Dodgers.

Jim Bouton, “Ball Four“. The former Yankees pitcher describes the reality and underside of living the dream of a professional athlete.


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