Writing in the Toy Department: The Beautiful Play

azpaint“Sports,” said the late boxing writer Jimmy Cannon, is the toy department of life.”  The implication of course is that sports involves mere play and therefore does not merit the reverence it is accorded in American culture.  What to make of this comment?  Should we not take sports seriously? What does it even mean to take them seriously or not?  Clearly sports is taken seriously in economic terms and taken seriously is also in terms of the space it occupies in the American imagination and in the cultural manifestations of that imagination.  But does the amount of money spent on and generated by sports, the sheer volume of images and words devoted to and generated by sports really indicate that we take sports seriously?  It depends, of course, on what “serious” means.  If the quantity of attention given to sports is the measure, then certainly, we take our sports very, very seriously.  But when I consider the quality of our attention to sports then, it seems to me, we don’t take them very seriously at all.

I’m thinking in particular of the quality of our discourse and especially of our writing about sports. It’s interesting that Cannon himself, who pithily relegated sports to the status of mere child’s play, dedicated himself to crafting some of America’s  most memorable and influential sport’s writing.  If it’s true that Cannon thought of sports as the toy department of life then it’s also true that he wrote, with the imagination of a child at play, as though the events unfolding in the toy department were matters of the greatest seriousness — epic battles, tests and revelations of profound achievements and failures of moral character, provocative of the strongest expressions of human emotion.  If sports is the toy department and the toy department is where play happens then, for Cannon at least, play was a thing deserving of serious writing.

In this, Cannon echoed, though from as distant a cultural position as could be imagined, the views of the legendary Dutch cultural historian Johan Huyzinga who, in his landmark 1938 book Homo Ludens, argued that play was  the formative element of human culture.”  I think he meant that human culture is the effect rather than a cause of the set of attitudes and activities that he thought defined play.  Early on his work, Huzyinga summarizes those attitudes, defining play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.  It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.”

There’s much to be reflected upon in this definition, but even without doing so it’s not hard to see that sports is — or can be — a species of play.  It’s also not hard to see that there is much in sporting culture that takes the play out of sports.  But what I’m really interested in is that this way of understanding play — and Huyzinga himself remarks upon this — can allow us to see art as a kind of play, or, conversely, play as a kind of art.  Now, philosophers have debated whether sports should be viewed as an art form or whether sports just provides us with moments of aesthetic experience.  That’s not a particular interesting issue for me.  I don’t really care about the first point and the second — that sports provide aesthetic experiences of beauty and sublimity that move us — seems to me beyond question.

But this philosophical debate, and the intimate tangle connecting toys, sports, play, and beauty, brings me back around to the question of seriousness, though now from a slightly different angle.  The mainstream of sports media, obviously in my opinion, lacks seriousness of the qualitative kind.  On the margins of that main stream, on the other hand, there are writers who helps us through the serious attention they manifest in their writing to understand the cultural, political, and psychological significance of sporting events and figures.   There are also writers who reflect thoughtfully and seriousness on the technical aspects of what we watch, whether from statistical vantage points or by carefully analyzing the tactics and strategies informing the play of individuals and teams.

There is another kind of writing, however, that would also take seriously the play that is sports that is art that seems mostly lacking from both the mainstream and the margins of sports writing in this country today: writing describing for its own sake the beautiful play in sports.  The ancient Greeks coined the term ekphrasis for the graphic description of a visual work of art.  I’m no expert in this particular rhetorical device, but I understand the idea to be that we may take up the aesthetic experience offered by one medium into the materials of another and therein transform and transmit something of the energetic beauty of the original.

I appreciate the writers past and present who inspire me to think again about the meanings of sports and who help me to craft and express my own understandings of individuals, teams, eras, and plays.  But as I consider, for example, the many great individual plays that readers have offered me for my crowdsourced history of basketball, I find myself too often at a loss for the words that will transmit the sheer beauty of what others have shared with me.  This may just be a deficiency in my own abilities as a writer.  It may just be an undeveloped (or atrophied) capacity I have simply to develop through practice.  The first may be true, the latter almost certainly is.  But it may also be not just me, but also a product of a media sphere in which the ready access to the image itself seems to render obsolete the need  for the verbal description of the beautiful play.  Perhaps that is inevitable, and perhaps it is not a thing to lament.

But I know that I for one feel as I watch the beautiful play a yearning — a kind of creative longing — to do in writing what I have seen the athlete do on the court:  make something, for the sheer sake of it, beautiful.

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