Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Much Delayed Review of God Save the Fan

Back on January 17th, I received an email from the opinion editor of the New York Post, asking me if I'd review Will Leitch's new book, God Save the Fan. Sure! I'd never written anything for, you know, money before, and I've certainly never been published in a newspaper. Why not? The editor overnighted me a copy of the book and asked for 500 words by the 24th. The review would either run on January 27th or February 3rd (the Post only runs book reviews on Sundays).

Eager, I read the book and wrote the review within about three days, turning it back around to the Post on the 21st. Feedback from the editor: looks great! She only asked me to add a couple more Leitch quotes for flavor. No other comments or changes. Great!

January 27th comes and . . . it doesn't run. Hmm, she said it could be the next Sunday, so I didn't say anything. February 3rd comes and . . .it doesn't run. Hurm. I sent a polite email inquiring, couched in just-let-me-know-if-th
e-review-sucks terms. No, it's great, she says. It's just limited space, shifting schedules, and stuff. No worries. It will run soon!

It didn't run again today and I've confirmed that it ain't gonna. "
It had nothing to do with the review itself and everything to do with shifting schedules and space constraints," my editor wrote. I take that at face value, even if it is disappointing. Both for me personally and for the state of book reviews and newspapers, but that's another essay.

So, though everyone who really cares all that much about the Leitch book has read it or, at the very least, read reviews of it, below is my early-written-but-late-published review for your edification and enjoyment.

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


“Robert Traylor’s penis changed my life. And I think it could change yours too,” Will Leitch writes in his hilarious new book God Save the Fan. Leitch is referring to a post-game interview in 1997 during which the beefy University of Michigan power forward disdainfully sat naked in front of Leitch and ten other beat writers – making no effort to either get dressed or cover himself – as the wretched scribes tried desperately to get Traylor to offer anything other than the usual platitudes about giving 110% and taking them one game at a time. Not surprisingly, they were unsuccessful.

Robert Traylor seemed to understand, however, as Leitch soon would, that the whole setup is a joke. Athletes hate sports reporters and never say anything interesting, because to do so risks negative headlines. Reporters hate athletes because all they get from them are empty clich├ęs and, in Mr. Traylor’s case, degrading treatment. What’s more, because they are employed by networks and newspapers fearful of alienating the very teams and sports leagues which provide them access, sports reporters are powerless to demand more of their subjects. The net result, Leitch says, is a “tired dance between annoyed athletes and bored, embittered sports journalists” which only serves to distance the fan from the sports they love. Why should we listen to any of them?

We shouldn't, says Leitch, because between a muted television and an internet connection, sports fans in the twenty-first century "have no reason not to be flooded with information about our favorite teams, sports, and players . . . [w]e don't need those idiots on television screaming at us . . .we can get everything on our own." It's this very approach that Leitch himself has taken as editor of the wildly popular and influential website,, and "God Save the Fan" – a self-proclaimed yet accurately-labeled manifesto – is clearly intended to serve as the rallying cry for sports fan-empowerment.

Unlike most manifestos, however, "God Save the Fan" is funny. Uproariously funny, in fact, and despite its call-to-arms flavor, never once forgets that sports, at their very essence, are supposed to be fun. Indeed, it is by mercilessly lampooning the humorlessness and self-importance of athletes, leagues, owners, and the traditional sports media that covers it all that Leitch makes his case for fan empowerment.

Star players, Leitch believes, have become so media-savvy and self-conscious that they have almost ceased to be human. As a result, guys like Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas have come to matter more than megastars like LeBron James because while rooting for the polished, p.r.-conscious James is "like rooting for Nike," Arenas' unguarded accessibility and eccentricity humanizes him, making him much easier for the common fan to relate to.

Some of Leitch's ownership targets are easy pickings. For example, Leitch is far from the first to observe that Baltimore owner Peter Angelos has run the once-proud Orioles franchise into the ground. Other examples are far more surprising, however, such as when the Midwestern-born but Brooklyn-based Leitch claims that Yankee Stadium is "the biggest rip-off in all of sports," and that Yankees' ownership has made attending games there "feel like you've been invited to your rich uncle's house, the one who never talks to you, works for some evil law firm somewhere, and makes you take your shoes off the minute you get out of the car. Oh, and he charges you forty bucks once you make it through the front door."

Leitch's criticism of the players and owners is relatively mild, however, compared to the ire he reserves for the sports media. Most pointedly, ESPN, which he equates with "the Imperial Forces from the Star Wars movies; controlling everything with a dark hand . . ." It does so, Leitch argues, by buying the silence of sports reporters who, in exchange for healthy paychecks, have lined up for the opportunity to reduce themselves to the lowest common denominator on inane ESPN shout-fests such as "Around the Horn" and "Pardon the Interruption," which Leitch says have "made the discussion of sports 57 percent dumber." If any of these reporters dare criticize ESPN or its interests in print, they can look forward to being blackballed by the network, never invited back to the shout-fests, and "forced to live off a piddly newspaperman's salary."

The result of this tacit arrangement, Leitch argues, is a free hand for ESPN to promote its own brand and churn out content on its multiple media platforms free of criticism or dissent, all the while paying less and less attention to the actual sporting events fans tuned in to see in the first place. Indeed, in an effort to conclusively prove that the content of ESPN's sports coverage has suffered as ESPN's power has grown, Leitch subjects himself to a 24-hour marathon of the Worldwide Leader in Sports' family of networks. The results of being subjected to a day's worth of synergy were not ultimately fatal, but they were not pretty either, as Leitch describes being "pounded into submission" by ESPN's "bulk, polish, and repetition."

So if those are the problems facing sports fans today, what's the solution? Unfortunately, that's where Leitch's manifesto falls a bit short. Surely Leitch would acknowledge that ESPN isn't going anywhere, so it would have been nice to hear how he would change the network if he had the chance, yet prescriptions for a better world are largely absent.

Leitch is more forthcoming with advice to athletes, counseling them to take themselves less seriously, be more accessible and, ultimately, more human. Sports stars would seem to do well to ignore Leitch's advice, however, because many of the book's biggest laughs – and much of Deadspin's growing legend – are based on Leitch's ruthless mockery of athletes who talk, dress, drive, play, drink, love, and live in ways that, above all else, eschew pretension. Indeed, if athletes like Michael Vick, John Rocker, and Ben Roethlisberger had taken a cue from the LeBron James school of media relations, there's a decent chance that no one would have ever heard of Deadspin or Will Leitch in the first place.

In the end, though, these are petty criticisms in the face of a provocative, compelling, and above all else, funny book that, with any luck, will change the way fans look at the sports establishment. More importantly, however, it's a book that, with any justice, will change the way the sports establishment looks at its fans.

*Note: I know this is more than 500 words. This is about 1000, which was my first pass. The 500 word version was tighter -- probably better in some ways -- but this is a blog, and we don't have concerns over "space and shifting schedules."


jk said...

Do you still get paid?

Shyster said...

I get something called a "spike fee," which is some percentage of what I would have gotten if it had run. Between that and the free book -- thanks Harper Collins! -- I think I've been fairly compensated.

JG said...

Clearly, that penis quote was too vulgar for the Post's high standards. Or maybe they realized that the 1-finger salute on the book's cover is aimed primarily at mainstream media.

Shyster said...

Actually, the editor loved the idea and ecouraged me to keep it when I asked if it was OK. The final 500-word submission didn't have it though. I told her "Sorry, I had to cut Robert Traylor's penis for length."

She thought was even funnier.

Larry G said...

A rather enjoyable book review. Sounds like the editor rather liked your writing. Perhaps you'll be asked to write for them again.

Shyster said...

Thanks Larry. Actually, they've already asked me to do another. It's a NASCAR book that I think came out this week (The Physics of NASCAR).

I know jack about NASCAR, really, but given what this book seems to be about, it may make for a better review. Lack of preconceptions, etc.