Recently a friend of mine passed away. His name was Chris Wesseling, a noted NFL writer and podcaster, Chris and I got to know each other over the past four years or so through twitter and some letters back and forth, as people do these days. Since I learned of his passing a week ago it’s been tough. I want to be the type of sports writer Chris was and he meant a lot to me. His work is some of the best I’ve ever read. He worked off a central question, what do sports mean to humanity and why exactly should we cover them?
A question I take to mean, why exactly do sports matter to us? Any armchair psychologist will tell you human beings evolved and developed for one simple reason and that was to survive. Early humans didn’t have time to cover sports because of things like hunger and the plague.
When did this seismic shift in our culture happen? When did we start covering sports? Let’s stick in the United States and keep this simple stupid, shall we?
According to a novelty magazine blog I found hidden deep somewhere on the internet The Sporting News, was one of the first sports magazines in the United States founded in around 1885 and with circulation beginning widely around 1887, also when the editor Al Spink bought in his first writer his brother Charles Spink. https://collectingoldmagazines.com/magazines/sporting-news/
The magazine wasn’t much at first. Mainly advertising with the occasional sports story mixed in with it. The first images in these types of magazines came as crude drawings of baseball players according to the article. It would look like something out of a scouts notebook at first, this makes sense as Al Spink got his start in baseball and first worked as an executive for the Saint Louis Browns, now the Baltimore Orioles.
So there is one clue, the people who started covering sports were involved in it. It makes sense, some of the best advice I have gotten chasing this fever dream is that you must love what you do to really chase it. It isn't a lucrative profession, the hours are bad, you work weekends and holidays and it’s mainly a thankless job that makes you the villain more times than not. It also turns people cynical, something as a young bright eyed college student you obviously don’t like to hear.
Also why Chris asked the question, why cover sports? His answer was because it’s art, in its purest form sports is: “look at that, look at what humans can do.” The answer of Spink it seems was to make money, the early editions of The Sporting News are so valuable partly because of the myriad of antique advertisements held within them. Still though, Spink probably had to love sports his circulation within the first few years was between 40 and 50 thousand according to the website. Printing costs money, lots of it, it’s why print journalism is largely dying it never has been cost effective.
The Magazine boomed in the 1960’s under Al’s grandson Charles mainly because of it’s willingness to get into controversies with the commissioner of baseball at that point Kenesaw Mountain Landis. So with that one of the first bastion’s of American sports journalism began followed shortly by giants like Sports Illustrated.
What happened in the 1880’s that allowed humans all that free time? This is where I turn to my source, Wikipedia. Good for brief facts and points of context, and only for that but a few before we continue to pontificate.
Ah the Gilded age, skyscrapers begin to rise, the beginning of corporations. Mass electric lighting becomes more readily available the first submarines are being built, the electric fan is developed. More or less, for the white middle upper class American life is becoming modern, you no longer have to brave the elements, darkness is no longer a constraint.
So now here towards the end of the century we can begin to focus on things that do not concern life or death. Ah, we may be stumbling onto an answer here.
Part of what we have missed as a collective society over the past year as sports have disappeared and reappeared is the collectiveness of sports.
Look no further than what the Utah Jazz are currently doing. The state’s collective heartbeat runs through Salt Lake City’s premiere basketball operation. That’s the great part about pro sports you can live in the heart of one of the most heated local rivalries in the nation, the holy war (Utah against BYU) and be united by the pro basketball team.
If you live in Utah right now, you are first and foremost a Jazz fan. Part of the allure of the team is the lack of national respect. If you tell someone outside of Utah you are from Utah they look at you funny, they make assumptions, and they brush it off as the state in the desert all those Mormon people are.
The Jazz gives the Utah native or transplant something to point at and say, look, here is our identity.
The fact that they more often bring people together than drive them apart is why sports are so important to us. We live in some of the most divisive times in American history. It seems the only thing remaining that keeps us together is in part sports, and even that now seems to divide.
There it is, the cynic, deep at the heart of every sports writer. The moment that damns us all to jaded world views. Why strive for that though? Why not look at a different answer?
We cover sports we watch sports, to live. To live vicariously through others, to understand the greatness that can be found within every one of us. We chase stories like the underdog Miami Heat making it to the 2020 NBA Finals because it shows us the little guy with enough grit and determination can make a run. We follow Tom Brady because he has proven father time is no longer an element to conquer but one to embrace and use to our advantage.
We root for the Utah Jazz because they are overlooked. Seen as the little fish in a big pond, we root for them because they break that mold. They have become giants and we are now collected to their collective glory.
People watch and cover sports, because in the end we all die and sports is the celebration of life and why it’s worth living.