Although he often self-deprecatingly describes his occupation as “typing about sports,” Will Leitch has a better sense of perspective than most of his colleagues in American sports journalism. In the introduction to his new book, God Save the Fan, he lays out the uneasy line that the thinking sports fan must walk: collegiate and professional sports serve as an escape from our everyday lives, but the more you see how the machinery of the sports industry operates, the less of an escape it is. It’s a tough quandary he’s found himself in, and he fills almost 300 pages trying to work his way out of it.
Leitch, as you may already know, is the editor of Deadspin, a website devoted to sending up the sacred cows of sport on a daily basis. He’s also a native of Mattoon and served as sports editor of the Daily Illini in the mid-90s. There’s an essay devoted to his experiences there titled, “Just Because Someone Always Has Penises in His Face Doesn’t Mean You Should Want His Job.” At the risk of spoiling the ending to that particular screed, Leitch entrenches himself in the brave position of defiantly anti-penises-in-his-face.
God Save the Fan is more-or-less equally divided into four parts: Players, Owners, Media, and Fans. Longtime Deadspin readers will recognize several threads that carry over from the website to the book, from the introduction featuring Michael “Ron Mexico” Vick, through a shoehorned-in section featuring America’s investigative reporter, Carl Monday, and finishing up with a tribute to Barbaro, the “horse that cured cancer.”
Despite his detached air of observation and use of the royal We, Leitch’s writing is most effective when he has a vested interest in the action, rather than coolly looking on. The standout essay of the players section suggests that injured Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas “matters” more than Cavaliers man-child LeBron James, defining the amount that they “matter” as the level of their fans’ intensity toward them. Leitch is clearly charmed by Arenas’ genuine goofball nature, and has no interest in James’ calculated stoicism. “Gilbert Arenas is constitutionally unable to be anything other than Gilbert Arenas,” he writes, “and this is why he’s so much more successful at being all things to all people than LeBron – who desperately want to be – ever will be.”
God Save the Fan rises above easy shots at fat-cat players and owners, striving to dig into the underlying machinations that determine how we consume sports. In “Why the NFL Gets Away With Everything,” Leitch points out the obvious, rarely discussed fact that football plays by a different set of rules in the media and common perception than other major sports: “The NFL gets away with everything because the fans are slaves to the violence; we think of NFL players as gladiators; if they can’t hold up their end of the bargain, we find new gladiators who will take their place. It’s our national bloodsport.” While that may be a little overdone for effect, there’s definitely an authoritarian streak to the NFL that you don’t see to the same degree in baseball or the NBA.
The book’s cover brags that it has been “Blackballed by ESPN.” Leitch continues many of Deadspin’s many mocking and muckraking themes in the media section of the book. Leitch has tapped into a vein of frustration that many sports fans can relate to: namely, ESPN has grown into a multimedia behemoth which values entertainment over sports competition, at the same time pushing out or co-opting any meaningful competition. Therefore, the serious sports fan grows increasingly frustrated with the dumbed-down content which accompanies sporting events and news programs, but the fan also has no choice but to interface with ESPN on some level to get the information that they need to continue to be a serious fan. Leitch went straight to the belly of the beast with “The ESPN Clockwork Orange Experiment,” an overly dramatized effort to watch at least one of the ESPN family of networks for 24 straight hours. He also unfortunately chose what must have been the slowest sports day of the year, with a replayed college softball game as the only source of actual competition in sight. Much repetition, repackaging, and all-around vapidity ensued.
In his closing Fans section, Leitch includes a recounting of watching his beloved St. Louis Cardinals win their way through the 2006 playoffs from a “crappy Flatiron yuppie bar” in Brooklyn. It’s an entertaining story of a community created out of necessity and common purpose: to not watch their favorite baseball team alone or sober.
Besides the balance between escapism and analysis, another tough push-and-pull in Leitch’s writing is the battle between whimsy and snarkiness. The end of section glossaries and any ESPN-related content are most likely to slip over the line into snark, but for the most part, the book maintains a fun-loving but informative tone.
God Save the Fan gives voice to those of us who demand quality and integrity while passing the time concerning ourselves with ultimately trivial matters of life-or-death importance.
God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back) by Will Leitch ($24.95, HarperCollins)
Check back tomorrow for an exclusive interview with Will Leitch in advance of his 4 p.m. book signing at the Illini Union.