JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Thought

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I received the following note from a reader named John:

You wrote in your column how terrible it is for an ex athlete to have to constantly retell the same old stories and how you’d never wish that upon anyone. You also said you are complimented on what you once were, which is a reminder of what you’ll never be again. This is all well and true, but I don’t think someone in your profession should really feel bad for him at all. You spend your entire professional life writing about the feats and accomplishments of other people. Your entire existence is spent chronicling the careers of others. This is something that takes no real talent and provides no real source of entertainment value either. You’re merely providing a subjective opinion on something of no real significance. Myself personally, I feel bad for you. When that day comes where you have finally written that last column and you look back on everything you’ve ever wrote, what fulfillment could you possibly get from that. To me the life of a sportswriter has to be equally as painful. Sure the athlete has to retell the old memories, but to me that’s a hell of a lot better than never creating a memory in the first place.

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Admittedly, John’s words are harsh. Very harsh. But not something I haven’t thought about repeatedly. I am the son of a substance-abuse counselor. My wife used to run a homeless shelter for kids, and now works as a family coach (This is her. She’s amazing). My cousin Daniel was going to be a lawyer, but instead he became a teacher—initially at one of the worst schools in New York City. My uncle is a psychiatrist.
So what do I do? I write—about sports.
John is partially right. Maybe fully right. It is a relatively meaningless business; one that offers little of social service; one that doesn’t directly help people; one that is generally forgotten at the end of each day. If my words last, it’s usually only because someone forgot to turn off his/her laptop at night before going to bed.
That said, I do believe there is an importance in the chronicling of history, whether it’s politics, sports, music, war, peace, whatever. Most of what I know of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Kareem, Wilt, Red Grange comes from what I’ve read in books and articles. Why, until recently reading the excellent Sons of Mississippi, I knew far too little about the desegregation of that state’s school system. There is an incredible value to the bringing back to life via words. An incredible value.
So do I think last week’s A.I. column offers any lasting worth to society? No. Not even a nickle. But when I write biographies (especially the one I’m working on now), I hope—perhaps foolishly—that they add to the collective history of a subject; that maybe—just maybe—100 years from now, when some dude is about to hit his 145th home run of the season or a new performance-enhancing drug has hit the market, Love Me, Hate Me will be used to understand what went on in our times.
Again, perhaps that’s wishful thinking. But, in the dark days, it keeps me going.