I started writing a long, peevish analysis of a Rick Reilly article for CSTB a couple weeks ago, but never finished it. Reilly’s article (it’s here) came in praise of a then-undefeated Kerry Collins, because unlike other athletes (I hate those guys!) Collins doesn’t make excuses. No, the buck stops with Kerry Collins. Not like all those other quarterbacks who are always blaming their poor performances on crappy weather or a new hand moisturizer or slight headaches. You know who I’m talking about.
That is, no one. No quarterback. A more interesting piece would’ve been how NFL quarterbacks now make these elaborate Maoist self-criticism confessions of total responsibility after every loss (witness Matt Hasselbeck in mea maxima culpa mode). But in a piece about that, Reilly wouldn’t have been able to use his (brief, unilluminating) interview with Collins. The “whining” athletes Reilly criticized in the piece were, like, cyclists and third-tier African tennis players from the 1980s; he got them all from an AOL photo-blurb-poll thing that’s no longer online. It was lame. I guess I did get to write my takedown after all.
Anyway, as corny as Reilly’s piece was in conception, it was possibly worse in terms of writing. This is probably old news to people who — unlike me — have read anything of his in the last decade, but the writing was padded, careless, full of terrible sub-Dave Barry Barry-style jokery — the sort of Dad-grade randomness in which words like “weasel” and “donut” become punchlines of their own. Reilly writes that Collins “performed like a Xanaxed ferret in the 2001 Super Bowl,” for instance. Which, I mean, I remember Collins throwing four picks, but I don’t remember the narcotized animal part of it. Yesterday, in Slate, Josh Levin wrote a masterful — if inevitably kind of strange — expose of another of Reilly’s bizarre tropes. Yes, we finally have our “Armies of the Night” on how often Reilly writes about teeth:
Pick up a handful of Reilly’s columns, and you’ll soon be overwhelmed by the patois of the hygienist’s office: cavities, fillings, molars, root canals, gingivitis. News database searches of the sportswriter’s output for the Los Angeles Times, SI, the Times of London, and ESPN, as well as an examination of four of his books, reveal that Reilly has cracked a minimum of 116 dental jokes in his career: 95 in his newspaper and magazine writing and 21 in his books. My not-so-scientific tooth-joke-finding methodology: to Nexis and Google every chopper-related word I could think of. The final total would’ve been a lot higher if I hadn’t restricted it to tooth references that were 100 percent superfluous”that is, jokes and turns of phrase that come out of nowhere in otherwise toothless stories.
…Read all of Reilly’s tooth jokes in one sitting, and you’ll get an alternative, oral history of the last two decades in sports. In one of his maiden SI pieces in 1985, Reilly described soon-to-be hit king Pete Rose as “sliding molars first.” When Tiger Woods first rose to fame as an amateur in 1995, he wrote that the golfer possessed “a Steinway smile that would make an orthodontist go broke.” Mark McGwire chased Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998, brandishing “the kind of power that causes 50,000 people to display their cavities in unison.” And this year, as A-Rod became a tabloid staple, Reilly said that the Yankees third baseman probably wished that “he’d gone into dentistry.”
[Reilly’s] reaching for the floss is an unconscious tic, not a willful decision to mine the mouth for comedy. In response to an e-mail query, Reilly says he wasn’t aware of his dental habit. “I know gingivitis is funny,” he writes, adding that “root canals are generally a strong image.” He then offers a psychoanalytic explanation: “I was a terrible Sugar Babies addict, so I had more cavities than the surface of the moon. Really, I’d have three and four every time. So maybe I’m taking it out on dentists.”
There’s an itemized list of all the references. There are charts and tag clouds. I have no idea how this happened (well, I do: Levin’s an editor), but I like it.