I’ve gone back and forth on writing this post since I first read Stephen A. Smith’s article about Giants GM Jerry Reese in the most recent ESPN the Magazine. I realize that in that sentence I am admitting to getting ESPN the Magazine sent to my home and thinking extensively about an article Stephen A. Smith wrote in this magazine. Also, Jeremy Shockey is on the cover of said issue, screaming, with his patriotic kitsch pastiche eagle tattoo bicep right up in the camera. All of this: it’s implied. I’m sorry. But there’s no sense in pretending it ain’t so.
And, perhaps, there is just as little sense in bothering to criticize a column written by Stephen A. Smith. The words, “a column written by Stephen A. Smith” are, in their own way, a far more compelling and eloquent critique than anything I could possibly write. You see the byline, you know what’s coming: some phoned-in, fake controversial, 30-minute-special of a column about a subject whose nature can only barely be ascertained from the piece itself. What’s frustrating about this piece — as opposed to the nightmare of the “I’m sorry I offended you WITH MY TRUTH” mailbaggy-non-column that Smith trotted out recently — is that it seems like Smith is playing at writing something interesting the whole time, but never gets there.
So, we can agree that this isn’t worth writing about. But I’m home, and I’ve got nothing else to do, so here we go. The thesis of the column, such as I can suss one out, is that Giants GM Jerry Reese is an exceptional figure among NFL front office guys not only because he’s a black man, but because he refuses to work the man-possessed 20-hour shifts that turn coaches into obese, family-neglecting caricatures of workaholic white American manhood (who are then, naturally, praised by NFL media doofs for their commitment, even when their kids are like little Mormon Avon Barksdales).
To my mind, that’s a decent peg for a column, and could make for a really interesting piece if Smith were able to bring home how unique and inspiring it is that Reese, as a functioning human being with a knack for football personnel, has somehow succeeded in a game generally dominated by miserable, workaholic guys who seem, often, to be sharing the same half-defective brain. The status quo is rotten; it would indeed be awesome and column-worthy if Reese were effectively subverting that and demonstrating that one doesn’t need to be a monomaniacal salaryman jock-butthead to succeed in the pro football biz. I probably don’t need to tell you that Smith not only doesn’t accomplish that task, but kind of never even really seems to realize that that’s the article he’s trying to write. Also probably not needing to be mentioned: no editor at the magazine asked the guy for another draft. Here’s a taste of how Smith doesn’t pull it off:
Jerry Reese is my kind of guy. (First sentence of the article — me) He’s a religious man, a devout Christian. He works hard. He believes in success; winning is the only option. And the last thing he’s interested in doing is living in his office, pretending his life is defined by 60 minutes on Sundays.
Sorry, folks! Reese, the 45-year-old general manager of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, isn’t about to lie to the public. “Nah, that’s not me at all,” he says, hours after the Giants opened the 2008 season with a 16-7 victory over the Redskins. “I put in my 10 to 12 hours, work my tail off and then take my butt home. Not only do I do it, but I insist that everyone who works for me does the same. Balance is what life is all about. Without it, what do you have?”
For years we’ve heard the only answer is a Super Bowl title. Guys named Parcells, Belichick and Cowher would have you believe that the omission of all things unrelated to football is the key to locker room after-parties, champagne showers and lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
Now Reese comes along, with his serene perspective, and wins it all in his first season as GM. He drafts like a genius: Seven of his 2007 picks played key roles against the Patriots. Reese is confident that his own rÃ©sumÃ©”he was a player and an assistant coach at the University of Tennessee at Martin and later a scout and director of player personnel for the Giants”combined with his faith in Jesus Christ will help him make the right decisions. And if not? “This is the National Football League,” Reese says with a laugh. “It’s all about ‘What have you done for me lately?'” (And to think, the man doesn’t even listen to Janet Jackson.)
And also the article ends as follows: “Amen!” (It’s its own paragraph) So there’s that, too.
And I just quoted about half the piece above, there’s also that. But here’s what struck me most about the Smith piece — struck me so much that I’m actually writing about it around midnight on a Friday (to be fair, it’s raining out, and I’m currently kind of broke, so this is probably the most fun I could be having right now). What struck me is how incredibly slipshod it all is. Lord knows I’ve phoned in some shit in the past, and I’m at the lowest rung on the sportswriter ladder, pretty much. And what I see in Smith’s piece are all the ways I — and numerous other lazyboned writers — have gotten around actually writing a piece.
The first is the abuse of the first person perspective. It’s implied that you think Jerry Reese is worthy of a column, Stephen A. — not even implied, it’s explicit insofar as you are writing about that person. This is kind of a Stephen A. signature, and it’s just as well, since his opinions are subordinate to his brand, and what he’s writing is so magnificently mundane that there’d be no reason to read it if you weren’t interested in the braying celebrity cartoon whose byline adorns the column. But here, it’s especially over the top. You toss off a mailbag column, fine, that’s obviously (and necessarily) all about you; how much mail you get, how much people hate you, love you, whatever. But in this instance there’s an actual story to tell, and dude can’t stop talking about himself long enough to tell it. Which leads to the next problem:
The quotes don’t match the text. The information about Reese in the article is stuff we can assume to be true — much of it has the feel of team-provided boilerplate, and a lot of the unnecessary filler stuff (“Reese, a native of Tiptonville, Tenn., who’s married and a father of two”) seems like it could’ve come right out of the Giants media guide. But the general thesis — Reese is a minority as much because he’s an average dude with a down-to-earthish approach excelling in a field where both are rare — is simply not born out from the quotes Smith chooses.
Look above at the last few sentences in the last quoted paragraph. Besides a penultimate sentence whose ridiculous parenthetical makes even my parenthetical-abusing self feel ashamed, in what way are those three sentences connected? And what the fuck is Jesus Christ doing in there? If Reese trusts Jesus to help him pull the next Kawika Mitchell off the scrap heap, then that’s a story. If he’s a human being in an inhuman job, that’s a different story. But…okay.
Okay, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth submitting Stephen A. Smith to a close reading, and I’m not even sure I’m succeeding at that particular task at the moment. So here’s my last point: there’s nothing magical about sports punditry. It’s essentially as empty and disposable as any other sort of punditry (and still much more evergreen than blogging about said punditry, I know, I know).
But there’s still a bit of craft that has to go into it: you start here, you finish there, and the column stands on its own for the 800 or so words you’re committing to it. Any writer who gives a shit about writing does his or her best to accomplish this. Not only does Smith fail in this regard, but the guy doesn’t even play at trying — he’s constantly jumping between addressing the audience in some condescendingly “sorry if I’m blowing your minds, motherfuckers” tone and then half-assedly trying to make his own broader point. The faint shape of the article Smith could’ve written is visible buried beneath the thing he wrote, but that’s about as close as it comes to existing.
Stephen A’s TV persona doesn’t do much for me, but I don’t mind him. His relentless righteousness doesn’t do much for me, but that’s his aesthetic and he owns it. But the laziness…I mean, he writes 800 words a month. Couldn’t he actually, you know, write them? I just wrote 1200 talking about he didn’t, so it can’t be that hard, right?