“Urban Meyer Will be Home for Dinner” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Three)

Sportswriting is often overlooked as a source of serious journalism, including long form narrative nonfiction. Yet many of my favorite nonfiction writers — Gary Smith, Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger — have focused much of their talents on the world of sports. Wright Thompson’s “Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner,” from the August 6 edition of ESPN the Magazine, is one the better recent profiles I’ve read.

This profile looks at the new coach of the Ohio State football team, starting his new job after struggling with life-threatening stress and burnout at his last job. It’s an honest look at a man who struggling to reconnect with his family and his ambition at the same time. If you’re a sports fan, as I am, a lot of Meyer’s career choices have been mocked and criticized by sports pundits (Meyer quit his job from Florida twice before retiring and unretiring to go to Ohio State); few really had any sense of what was going on with him or what was driving his decisions. This story reveals a lot about about the personal crises Meyer faced.

Urban Meyer

Photo by Jamie Sabau for ESPN The Magazine

One thing I admire about this piece is that it is a very traditional feature story; no complex structure, no deception, no literary trickery. The narrative is almost the textbook curve of a “hero’s journey.” Aside from the opening scene, it is mostly a straightforward chronological story, giving us Meyer’s history leading up to today and the conflicts in his life. Thompson offers this direct “nut graf” in the ninth paragraph:

In front of him is a second chance. Behind, there’s his old dream job in Florida, which he quit twice in a year, and the $20 million he left on the table, unable to answer the simplest of questions: Why am I doing this? During the break, he studied himself for the first time in his life, looking for a new him or maybe trying to get the old him back — the person he was before a need for perfection nearly killed him.

And Thompson employs the strongest tool for a nonfiction writer: scenes. The story if packed with little moments from Meyer’s life, flashes of emotion and experience that take the reader inside his private life. Here’s one amazing paragraph from the story, rich with detail and scenes that say so much about the young Urban Meyer and his struggles:

He discovered more than a calling in college. He met a beautiful woman named Shelley, and after he got his first job in Columbus, she moved to town. Once, a possum peeked its head over the television, and Urban and his roommates screamed and stood on the couch, yelling for Shelley, the Ohio farm girl, to do something. Urban made less than his rent. He lived on happy hour egg rolls. Staying up all night during the season, he cut 16 millimeter tape, nursing a six-pack of beer through the tedious job. He loved it. To make ends meet, he picked up shifts at Consolidated Freightways, driving a forklift. Shelley calls it his “Archie Bunker job.” He bought steel-toe boots, and three or so nights a week during the offseason, he pulled the graveyard, getting off at 6 a.m., showering and heading to the football office. At the warehouse, they got a breather about 2 a.m., those callow faces yellowed in break-room light, eating peanut butter sandwiches, maybe a bag of chips. He looked around and saw the same question on every face, one he knew they could see on his: Why am I doing this?

That paragraph is only 196 words, but consider the research and interviewing that led to it. It describes five scenes from nearly 30 years ago, and Thompson dug up details like what he ate, what he wore, and what he was thinking at the middle of the night. This little paragraph is a short story. It’s a narrative inside the narrative, beautifully written.

The close of the story is ambiguous, which isn’t surprising, because the football season is about to start, and nobody knows how this will all turn out. The story ends at a new beginning for Meyer. The future is murky and unknown, something we see in the final image from the story:

Standing before his players in the meeting room, he can smell it, hear it — feel it even, in places he doesn’t understand and can’t control. Nobody makes a sound. Meyer’s shirt is wrinkled, untucked a bit. Thick veins rise on both sides of his neck. He squints out at the team, his eyes dark, hiding everything and nothing at all.

It’s an ominous final scene. Most readers, by this time, will feel sympathetic to Meyer, hoping for him to succeed without letting his career consume his life and health, but Thompson doesn’t try to sugarcoat it: Meyer is back at work, fired up with intensity and passion, and it’s unclear if it may unravel him and his family again.

Read Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner →

Simmons, Klosterman, and why writers write

In a recent “B.S. Report” podcast, Bill Simmons and guest Chuck Klosterman started talking about their upcoming ESPN-backed website project, which led into a fascinating discussion of what writing and publications inspired them when they were younger, where they see writing going on the web, and more broadly, what motivates them as writers.

Check it out here. The exchange starts at around the 29:30 mark… The more general discussion of why they write starts at around the 35 minute mark. You don’t have to be into sports or pop culture to find their exchange interesting.

From the Vault: “Sports, Not-Sports, and Everything In-Between”

I originally wrote this piece about ten years ago for Core Magazine, a now-defunct dot-com boom publication. My editor asked me to weigh in on this long-standing debate about what was, or wasn’t, a “sport.” He wanted it to “push peoples buttons.” I think he got what he asked for. This column turned out to be one of their all-time most-read articles and generated dozens of email responses, ranging from people who loved the piece to people who demanded I be fired. Since then, the topic continues to come up again and again at bars and parties; friend have often asked for my official definition from this piece. So here it is, republished for the record. I revised the story two years ago with a few minor updates, but 95% of this article is the original version

This week, ESPN, the “worldwide leader in sports,” begins more than twenty hours of World Series of Poker coverage. Also this month, the network will cover the Firestone IndyCar 200 race, NASCAR events, and the “X-Games,” which features guys on skateboards, bikes, and motorcycles. That’s all fine, although a bit curious for the biggest sports network in the history of civilization, since not a single one of those events is actually a sport.

A golfer walking with a caddy

An “athlete” walks with his man-servant.

The argument over what is and isn’t a sport has raged in bars and parties since Roman times (gladiator fights yes; being eaten by a lion, no). I intend to clear all this up once and for all. I recommend printing out this article and keeping it folded up in your wallet just in case it’s needed to settle a debate on the subject somewhere in the future.

Let me start with a basic disclaimer. Many activities that are not sports are difficult, challenging endeavors that few people have the athleticism, talent, or skill to do well. Many non-sports are as physically tasking or as competitive as any sports. But they aren’t sports. They are something else.

So a definition is in order. Here’s mine: A sport is a competitive human athletic endeavor in which winners and losers are determined by objective scoring or time.

Let’s break that down:

Competitive. This one is obvious. Sports pit athletes or teams against other athletes or teams. Doing sit-ups at the YMCA isn’t a sport. Moving furniture into your friend’s new apartment isn’t a sport. Chopping wood is tough, athletic work, but a grizzled old coot whacking away at a tree in the woods isn’t participating in a sport. In fact, stay away from that guy. He sounds creepy.

Human. For an activity to be a sport, the primary source or power and motion must be the human body. If your “sport” depends on a gas-guzzling engine, a horse, or 60-foot sail, it is not a sport. That means NASCAR’s not a sport — the car’s doing most of the work. Horse racing isn’t a sport, either — certainly not a human sport — all the jockey is doing is riding; the horse is doing the running. And whipping a defenseless horse doesn’t help the weak argument that a short guy riding on top of an animal is a sport. Motorcycling and boat races? Nope. Some guy who rides a skateboard day and night is not a sportsman, he’s a curfew violation.

At some point, a sport must be an activity that requires some measure of athletic power or speed. In short, moving isn’t enough. Some large muscles need to work. This instantly disqualifies table-top and pub games like ping-pong, pool, foosball, and darts. Shuffleboard and bocce ball are also disqualified. Don’t even show me that croquet mallet. I love poker, but playing cards isn’t a sport, it’s a game… or a gambling problem. Spelling words correctly is a great, but it’s not a sport, even if you jump around the stage after you nail the word “serrefine.” Playing a videogame is not a sport, even if that videogame simulates a sporting event. The athletic requirement also puts a serious question mark around any “sport” largely enjoyed by flabby, overweight, drunk men, such as golf, bowling, corporate softball, and eating contests.

Winners and losers determined by objective scoring or time. Here’s where about half the Olympic “sports” get dumped. No jury or panel should ever decide a sporting event’s outcome. The players in the arena should decide who wins. Any competition in which you can lose by not smiling enough or not charming the judges isn’t a sport, so kiss figure skating, diving and gymnastics goodbye.

That’s right, Gymnastics isn’t a sport. Gymnasts may well be incredibly athletic, graceful, and skilled, but if a bitter Bulgarian judge with indigestion and a hangover can deny you a win, your chosen activity isn’t a sport.

Does this mean that boxing isn’t a sport? Judges decide fights, don’t they? Well, if a fight ends in a knockout, it’s a sport. If it goes to a decision, it’s damn close to not being a sport. Maybe boxing can do away with judges and rounds, and just let the fighters brawl until someone’s sprawled out on the ground unconscious… oh wait, we already have that — it’s called “hockey.”

The second part of this rule is that winners and losers can be determined by time. Nothing is more pure than the brutal reality of the stopwatch. It’s one reason I love watching sprints. Winners and losers are determined by hundredths of a second. Same goes for field events like the high jump: either you clear a bar or you don’t. You squeak over a certain height or inch beyond a certain point… or else, you lose. No aesthetics are involved, no assessment of poise, and no bonus points for style. You either make a time or distance, or you don’t. This is sports at its most basic and pure. Imagine a panel of judges scoring Michael Johnson: “Very fast, yes, but I didn’t like the grimace on his face as he rounded the final curve, and his posture is very odd, so I give him a 7.5. Now that fellow from France did finish last, but what lovely strides! And his selection of red shorts with understated off-white trim is an inspired choice! 9.75!”

Other rules:
All good rules have their exceptions and fine print. The definition of sports is no different. Here are various additional qualifications and corollaries to the definition of “sports”:

Uniforms, not costumes, are part of sports. One more reason to reject figure skating. I’ve seen skaters dressed up in cowboy outfits, 1950s clothes, and Robin Hood costumes. The prosecution rests.

Killing isn’t a sport. Sure, Hemingway thought killing a bull in a stadium in front of tens of thousands of howling fans was a swell way to spend an afternoon, but it isn’t a sport. Neither is shooting down ducks, turkeys, rabbits, or deer. Jaws and The Deer Hunter aren’t sports movies. Suffice it to say that if your sport requires you to break one of the Ten Commandments, it’s not a sport.

Sports don’t have servants. Any sport in which you have a personal manservant or assistant who carries your gear for you on the field of play isn’t a sport. Golf was already in trouble because many golfers are so fat, drunk, or lazy that they drive from hole to hole in little carts rather than walking. But the use of “caddies” to carry gear for golfers disqualifies it as a sport. Besides, any “sport” largely dominated by chubby, middle-aged rich men can’t be a real sport (see the rule on flabby, overweight, drunks above).

Any “sport” with a script isn’t a sport. This means pro wrestling is out. But wrestling was probably already disqualified due to the excessive use of folding chairs as weapons. If pro wrestling is a sport, so is a Jackie Chan movie.

Summing this all up, you’re safe calling football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and tennis sports, as well as most track & field events. I’ll even concede that soccer is a sport. It may be a tedious, boring snoozer of a sport, but it qualifies.

But anything with the words “rhythm,” “synchronized,” “ping,” “figure,” “auto,” or “moto” in the title is probably not a sport.

If you see anyone holding up a scorecard, it’s not a sport.

If you can sit in a chair while competing, it’s not a sport.

If your sport starts or ends with the letter “X,” it’s not a sport.

If it involves drinking or eating anything, it’s not a sport.

If chubby, middle-aged men dominate it, it’s not a sport.

If you wear sequins, it’s not a sport.

If it requires bullets, it’s not a sport.

Finally, let’s be honest: if it’s something I like, it’s got a better chance of being a sport. If it’s something you like, but I don’t, it’s probably not a sport. Simple, right?

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.