Years ago, I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with the late Christopher Hitchens ahead of one of his many travelling debates.
One in particular – during which he’d reduced former British prime minister Tony Blair to a gibbering wreck on the issue of religion as a force for good – stuck in my mind. I came forewarned, but in the full knowledge that did not equal forearmed.
He was more impressive than expected – witty, acerbic and flirty. Early on, he’d gently inquired if I am a Catholic (“Do you practise the faith of your fathers?”). He then spent the next half-hour ruthlessly needling me on that score.
By the end, he was asking the questions as well as providing the answers, since my inquiries were too insipid to bear. In intellectual terms, this was a little like the thrill of being beaten up by Muhammad Ali.
Hitchens was a very good writer, but he was a truly great debater. He thought in logical arcs. He was ruthless. Most of all, he was preternaturally articulate.
Regardless of whether you were his target, it was very nearly a physical pleasure listening to him talk.
In dying, he took that ability along to whichever part of the afterlife he now inhabits. Yet the cult of debate continues to spread, especially as it concerns that last toehold of the Western monoculture – sports.
It’s no longer enough to talk incessantly about sports, which is tedious in anything but small doses. Now, we have to argue about sports, all the time, and every single thing that happens in them, regardless of whether it’s hand-in-front-of-your-face obvious which side is correct.
There is a species of this debate that can be fun to take part in or listen to. Reasoned, friendly, inflected with humour and – crucially – the knowledge that none of this is actually very important. A good sports argument is the sort you have with a friend and, eventually, agree to disagree over.
A while ago, someone on the broadcast side of this business asked me how I would change sports radio if I could. I said I’d make it a little more thoughtful and a lot less angry. I think I mentioned This American Life. He looked at me with the sad solicitousness we reserve for the simple-minded.
If you find your sports arguments stretching over more than the space of time it takes to drink three beers, you aren’t disagreeing. You’re fighting.
There are few things less pleasurable than watching two people screaming at each other. It strikes you at some basic level of empathy. Your natural instinct is to intervene. Generally, that just makes everything worse.
That seems to be the entire template for ESPN2’s First Take, the network’s highly rated morning exploration of bro-tastic nihilism.
If you’ve never seen it, congratulations. It involves two former sportswriters, Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, shrieking at each other about last night’s game.
There’s a reason most people get into newspapers if they’re interested in sports – because they aren’t particularly good talkers. This is – in Timothy Crouse’s memorable formulation – “a business populated largely by shy egomaniacs.”
Yet it’s largely print reporters (including, occasionally, this one) who make up the TV and radio sports commentariat.
Most of us understand the limits of our rhetorical abilities. Bayless and Smith do not – which is both why they are so popular, and why they are doomed.
Wherever a “this isn’t so bad” or a “maybe this could be better” will do, Smith and Bayless will find an affront to moral order and signs of apocalypse. That’s their job. Conversely, wherever anything seems fairly simple, they will find a way to make it complex, usually incorrectly. Also their job. Inevitably, they will occasionally say things that make huge swaths of the population insane. That’s most of their job.
Right now, Smith may be in existential trouble after a long rant about the NFL’s two-game suspension of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice. The running back was caught on security cameras dragging his unconscious fiancée through an Atlantic City hotel after knocking her out.
In the midst of a meandering and largely senseless digression, Smith said this on the subject of the role women play in the domestic-violence nexus, “… [L]et’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions …”
In a pre-Internet age, it might not even have registered. That one stray thought was lost in an incoherent blizzard of verbiage. But in consistently raising the temperature around hot-button issues, ESPN has invited a strict, line-by-line policing of some of their host’s statements. This one had a lot of folks heading immediately for the stake and kindling.
This doesn’t show that Stephen A. Smith is an enemy of women. It’s proof that he’s paid to do something he’s not particularly good at – debate serious, incendiary social issues in a decidedly unserious forum.
This is the ne plus ultra of where we’ve been heading – a culture of sports argumentation so divisive and compulsively contrarian, it no longer has anything to do with sports. It has no idea what it’s about. Its only requirements are brute force and volume.
Many people were very angry with Smith. At first, he rebutted them in other forums unsuited to nuanced thinking – Twitter and talk radio. That didn’t work.
On Monday morning, he appeared again on First Take to try again.
One thing struck me about his apology as he read it off the teleprompter: He’d taken the time to write it down.