Writing the Sporting Body

This semester, I’m excited to be teaching two sports-related courses in the same semester for the first time.  First, I’ll once again be teaching “Cultures of Basketball.”  I taught it for the first time in Winter 2011, with few qualifications other than that I loved basketball and stories and had some tools for thinking about both of them.  That course sparked my interest and prompted me to learn more about the work of others who were thinking about basketball and culture within the academy.  Since then, in light of what I’ve learned, I’ve continued to teach and refine Cultures of Basketball every year.  Doing so has both informed and been informed by essays on the topic I’ve begun to publish in scholarly journals.  For this semester’s version, I’m reorganizing the course to follow more closely by book manuscript, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which I should complete—it’s about 75 % done right now—by the end of the semester. In addition, my experience with Cultures of Basketball and people I’ve met in the broader field led me to want to broaden my range, at least, for now, as a teacher.  So, last fall, I rolled out a new, large-lecture format course at Michigan called “Global Sports Cultures” and, this semester, I’m inaugurating another new undergraduate course in Comparative Literature.  Under the general, preexisting course rubric “Literature and the Body,” I will be teaching “Writing the Sporting Body.”  I want to walk you through the idea behind the course and what we’ll be doing in it.

The simple idea behind the course is that a significant part of our enjoyment as sports fans stems from producing and consuming communication about sporting performance.  We talk with friends about performances we’ve seen and those we’ve missed.  We tune in to shows on TV and the internet that broadcast summaries and highlights of the day’s action.  And, of course, we read (and sometimes produce):  daily recaps in the newspaper and online, columns and feature articles, social media updates.

What I’m especially interested lies at the heart of all that sports language: descriptions of the human body engaged in athletic performance.  From a literary studies background, these descriptions might not really seem to raise any distinctive questions.  After all, lots of literature describes the human body engaged in various activities and literary scholars have long investigated  the challenges such descriptions pose to writers, the various strategies writers employ to describe this and the different kinds of effects on readers provoked by different techniques.  In that sense, the course we’ll just be looking at “writing the sporting body” as a subset of writing in general and with the broad set of tools of the literary scholar.  But, beyond this basic point of departure, I’m also interested in whether there is anything special or distinctive about the human body doing sports things, and  about the way we partake of language when we try to describe that?

To begin to get at this question, the course will open with a series of readings and discussions that should help us build a shared vocabulary for reflecting on these issues.  That vocabulary won’t by any means be definitive or exhaustive.  It’s better to think of it as a set of experimental, conceptual lenses that we’ll try on over the course of the rest of the semester as we look more deeply at particular instances of the written sporting body (and try our hand at writing it ourselves).

We’ll begin with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s 2006 book In Praise of Athletic Beauty.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 10.45.51Gumbrecht, as sports fan and professor of comparative literature, explores whether our enjoyment and understanding of athletic performance can be enhanced by honing our ability to articulate what we have witnessed.  He begins by offering some complex but elementary definitions of praise, beauty, and athletics. In the course we’ll explore all of these in detail, on their own terms and in relation on another.  But I think it’s also useful to step back, unfocused our mind’s eye so to speak, and let the fine grain blur together.  In doing so, it seems to me that what Gumbrecht is isolating as distinctively beautiful (and so worthy of praise) in athletic performance can be summed up in one word:  presence.  The term presence points at once to the qualities of the athletic performance itself, to our witnessing of it, and to the relationship that springs up between athlete and witness in the course of athletic performance.

Now, Gumbrecht describes, and praises, much athletic beauty in the course of the book, but he doesn’t really reflect upon or analyze the nature of the writing of athletic performance as writing.  Perhaps this is in part because “presence” is exactly what we don’t have when we are reading a description of athletic performance. What are the implications for writing the sporting body that its subject is an absent performance whose distinguishing feature is presence?  There might be lots of ways to get at that question, but I’ve chosen to approach it via the term “ekphrasis.”  Since the 19th century, that term has been restricted to designate written descriptions of visual art.  Already from that point of view, I’ve long been casually interested in thinking about sports writing as a kind of ekphrasis.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.10.53But as we will discover with our next reading, Ruth Webb’s Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practicethe term once had a much broader scope meaning simply “a speech that brings the subject matter vividly before the eyes.”  Even this simple definition, taken from an ancient rhetorical manual, offers a kind of response to the problem of absent presence: ekphrasis appears to be way of using language that makes the absent present, in a certain way:  “vividly before the eyes.”  “Vividly” comes from the Latin term “to live”, and effective ekphrasis is supposed to activate the audience’s imagination, bringing its subject to life by imbuing its language with the vital energy of whatever it is describing.  I think this gives us an adequate if very general preliminary conceptual scheme.

Next, we’ll turn back to Gumbrecht’s book for his brief capsule history of athletic beauty in the West.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.24.28Emphasizing discontinuities in the history of Western athletics, Gumbrecht skips across two and a half millennia on the stones of six moments: ancient Greece (“Demigods”), ancient Rome (“Gladiators”), medieval (“Knights”) and early modern (“Ruffians”) Europe, the late 19th and 20th century (“Sportsmen”) and our own day (“Customers”).  There are other more comprehensive histories of sport, but I like using Gumbrecht’s here primarily because it’s not too long and, especially, because it relates explicitly to the rest of our conceptual vocabulary.

Informed by this historical detour, we’ll fill out our toolbox of conceptual vocabulary words with “form” and “meaning.”  To get at form, we’ll look at what might be the nitty gritty of Gumbrecht’s book, in which he explores seven “body movements” that he argues are “always already shaped by the expectations and the appreciation that spectators bring with them to the game.”Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.36.08 He refers to these—”Bodies,” “Suffering,” “Grace,” “Tools,” “Forms,” “Plays” and “Timing”— as “Fascinations” to capture the sense in which they simultaneously involve performer and spectator.   Throughout his work, Gumbrecht has taken pains to distinguish his topic from a kind of scholarly study of sport that relates sport to cultural and social phenomena outside it.  He is interested only, he claims, in sport as “form,” as distinct from cultural and sociological approaches that look at sporting performance for “meaning.”  I’m not sold, personally, on the viability of the distinction, or at least, if the distinction is valid, on the desirability of ignoring meaning.  So we will look next at Mary McDonald and Susan Birrell’s pioneering manifesto for critical sports studies in which they propose turning the sophisticated interpretive tools of literary analysis (many of which Gumbrecht himself clearly employs) to sporting phenomena.  Is there a difference between writing the sporting body as form and writing the sporting body as meaning? If so, what it is it? Can they be combined?  What does that look like?

Now that we’ve developed our share vocabulary, we move onto the practical heart of the course: actually studying seven cases of writing the sporting body. Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.44.40 For each of the seven cases, which range across six sports over nearly a century, we’ll first see a video of the sporting performance and read some simple contextual material, and then compare different written renderings of the sporting body in performance including newspaper recaps written under deadline, journalistic reflections, autobiographical recollections, historical depictions and fictional recreations. Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.45.13 I chose some because the event excites me, others because the writing excites me and still others because both the event and the writing were new to me.  In examining each of these cases we’ll be drawing upon the conceptual tools and vocabulary we developed in the first month of the course to help clarify how the writing is working.  But we’ll also use the writing as a way to test and refine our conceptual vocabulary.  Screenshot 2015-01-06 11.45.13(2)Finally, on the second day of each case, we’ll devote our class time to a lab in which we we do a series of timed in-class written descriptions of the case.  Through these exercises, we’ll develop our understanding of what was distinctive in the writing we’ve studied (sometimes by trying to imitate the style) but also at the same time try to develop our own visions of what it means to each of us to write the sporting body.  This will be important practice also as the students’ two major writing assignments require this kind of writing.

As for the student assignments, besides reading and in-class lab writing, they’ll be required to post their notes on the assigned reading to our on-line class forum, as well as to review the reading notes of their classmates.  For their mid-term assignment, I’m asking them to choose a sporting performance from before they were born (but for which they have access to a video) and to write a description of it, accompanied by an analytical commentary on their description that draws upon our conceptual vocabulary.  And then, for their final assignment, they must do the same, but with a sporting performance they have witnessed during this semester.

Let me finish by giving you a teaser of what we’ll be doing on the second day of class, by way of exposing ourselves to the central problematic of the course.  We’ll begin by watching this, one of the most iconic plays in modern basketball history:

Next, we’ll look at the following sequence of descriptions of the play.

First, from a side-bar column by Tom Weir in USA Today the day after the game.  It’s interesting that not one a single recap of the game mentions this play.

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.02.19

Next up comes descriptions from two Chicago Bulls’ beat writers who published books about Jordan after the Bulls’ first title in 1991.  First,  from Sam Smith’s controversial book The Jordan Rules

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.05.24Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.05.51

And then from Bob Greene’s authorized and uncontroversial biography Hang Time:

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.09.16

Part of what interests about both of these descriptions is the way that both introduce the effects the play had on those who witnessed it.  Smith tells us that the crowd had seen “art, poetry without words” that could only be expressed in a gasp, while Greene depicts journalists going to see the replay on television “to make sure they hadn’t imagined” it.

Now, the next passage comes from a children’s biography of Michael Jordan, published a few years after Smith and Greene’s, by Matt Christopher:

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.13.39

Besides surprising me by how similar the style of this children’s book is to mainstream sports writing, and also describing a shocked witness as a means of evoking greatness (in this case Jordan himself), this passage is notable because it is the first in which the defender, Sam Perkins, is described as challenging the shot.  Prior to this, Jordan’s move (even in his own account) appears as an acrobatic anticipatory attempt to avoid a block attempt that never materialized.  In the video, Perkins barely leaves his feet and certainly doesn’t attempt to block any shot.  (Side note: for those familiar with Jordan’s legendary ability to imagine slights and obstacles as a means to leverage performance, this play, in which Jordan makes a play harder and greater than it would otherwise be to elude an imaginary defensive maneuver, might serve as an apt emblem of his career as a whole).

Here is perhaps the most shocking description of the play.  David Halberstam, prize-winning journalist and author of the legendary The Breaks of the Game, may be the most esteemed popular historian of basketball.   Here, in his highly regarded work on Jordan, Playing for Keeps, is his description of the move:

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.20.20

“Slammed it home?”  That’s an unbelievable error to me, all the more so because Halberstam, among this particular group, is easily the writer I most respect and from whom I’ve learned the most.  What could account for his massive error in describing this play?

In a 2007 book on Jordan, published in the Greenwood Press Biographies series (“for high school and public library needs” and with the emphasis “on fact, not glorification”), David Porter recalled the play in the following terms:

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.26.13

Though dryer in tone, Porter too surveys the reaction of observers as a means of evoking the play’s importance.

And lastly, sportswriter Roland Lazenby offered this description in his biography of Jordan, published just this past summer and impressively titled “Michael Jordan: The Life”:

Screenshot 2015-01-06 12.32.44

Perkins has now vanished, reduced simply to “a defender” that Jordan encountered. But we still need to see the reaction of the witnesses (the building, Phil Jackson and Marv Albert) to help us know that the play was worth remembering.

In watching the play alongside the series of published descriptions of it, a number of things strike me: the explicit comparisons to art, the occasional exaggeration of the threat posed by Perkins, and the apparently requisite description of awestruck observers.  The play itself is certainly impressive, but, I must say, not as impressive as I had remembered.  In fact, I found the superfluousness of Jordan’s acrobatics—however physically impressive—somewhat comical.

But, whatever you may think of the play (and these exemplary written descriptions of it), I think they nicely prompt the central questions of the course a propos writing the sporting body:

How would you describe the play?  What would be your aims? What challenges did you encounter? What choices did you make to meet those challenges?


  • Interesting ideas! Now that you mention it, I remember that Halberstam description as a serious “WTF?!” moment when I read his book. Also reveals that his book editor probably wasn’t much of an NBA fan–it’s such a famous play that pretty much anyone who was a fan at the time would’ve recognized that as a major error.

    Don’t know if it’ll be relevant for your class, but here’s an effect of the recent rise of international soccer coverage in the US that I’ve noticed, and in particular with the now-mainstream success of the World Cup: the revelation for many US sports fans of the more literary standard of play-by-play broadcasting of British announcers. I’ve heard a lot of sports radio hosts + fans being openly impressed with how distinguished the sport sounds when Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, etc. are calling the games. And now the Men In Blazers show/podcast has those US-based British guys singing the praises of Premier League announcers who use phrases like “the meaty French forehead” of Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud.

    Related to that, US sports bloggers/writers who have been able to amp up their coverage of international soccer in recent years are often using terms from British coverage, presumably because that’s what they consumed when they were first able to follow the sport. You won’t usually see US blogs talk about the Premiere League standings or game schedules, but you’ll see plenty about the “table” and upcoming “fixtures.” Maybe that’s just an instance of each sport tending to gravitate to its own language.

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