Skip to main content

Sports Fading Into Memory

In this week's copy of ESPN the Magazine, Bill Simmons published a great article on "the depreciation of sports memories" that almost makes me forgive him for the hatchet job he wrote on the Patriot League after the NCAA tournament. Its subject matter is really the NBA, but it's really the subject of sportswriting and sports memories that is the subject matter.

One of my favorite books is Wait Till Next Year, in which a sports columnist (Mike Lupica) and a Hollywood screenwriter (William Goldman) trade chapters about a particularly crazy year in New York sports. Writing as a fan, Goldman submits an impassioned defense of Wilt Chamberlain's legacy, called "To the Death," which is one of my favorite pieces. He argues that great athletes fade from memory not because they're surpassed by better ones but because either we forget about them or our memories are tainted by things that have nothing to do with their career (like Bill Russell's being a lousy announcer, or OJ's being an, um, lousy ex-husband). Goldman writes, "the greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware that it's begun, and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. It really is a battle to the death."


So why do we pump up the present at the expense of the past? Goldman believed that every era is "so arrogant (and) so dismissive," and again he was right, although that arrogance/dismissiveness isn't entirely intentional. We'd like to believe that our current stars are better than the guys we once watched.

Why? Because the single best thing about sports is the unknown. It's much more fun to think about what could happen than about what already has. We don't want LeBron to be as good as MJ; we need him to be better than MJ. We already did the MJ thing. Who wants to rent the same movie twice? We want LeBron to take us to a place we've never been. It's the same reason we convince ourselves that Shaq is better than Wilt and Steve Nash is better than Bob Cousy. We don't know these things for sure. We just want them to be true.

I think there is an awful lot of truth to this statement. Specifically, the "debate over Wilt Chamberlain's legacy" is something I was surprised to note was discussed by such luminaries as Simmons and Mike Lupica. It's something I had been thinking about for years as well.

Keep in mind that when I young, I was a big a fan of the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird as any white basketball-playing kid who couldn't jump was, so I grew up as a Celtics fan. I was into "Havilcek stole the ball", Auerbach, the Celtic mystique, and everything. But when all of a sudden stories started showing up in Sports Illustrated pereptuating the myth that Wilt Chamberlain was somehow a lesser center than Bill Russell, I sensed a "sportswriter conspiracy".

Would any GM in their right mind take Russell over Wilt in a pickup game in their primes? Russell was a Hall of Fame center and a hard worker, for sure. But Wilt was an all-purpose scoring machine, being almost impossible to contain. Sure, Russell did a better job than most. But initimating that Russell is better just defied belief.

When you think of it in terms of the "battle for memories", though, it makes more sense. Russell played for my team, but he's managed the "battle for memories" much better. He's gotten the attention of more sportswriters saying how great he actually was, where Wilt has not. It has nothing to do with their stats, or if you'd actually take them in a pickup game.

In terms of college football, there are lots of names that get forgotten in memory. In ways, football is worse since the nature of the game has changed so significantly. The "seven blocks of granite" are from a time when there were few forward passes and the game would hardly be recognizable today. Many folks kind-of remember the reference. Fewer can name one. A very small number of people can name them all.

Like Simmons says, many people want the athletes of today are better than the athletes of yesteryear. That makes it even more important to make the football past alive, especially for schools with such decorated histories like Lehigh, Lafayette, the Ivy League or other schools.

I think it's partially my role as a sportswriter to keep the memories of these past greats going. Folks ought to know the story of Lafayette's 1896 team which had two football pioneers on it. People should know what the "flying wedge" was and why it almost killed college football. They should know the heroes of the rivalry like "Pat" Pazzetti, Rennie Benn, Dick Doyne, Brian Kilngerman - it really does need to be preserved, and their stories retold, for another generation.

To do this, papers like the New York Times are leading the way. By making their pre-1980 archives available online for subscribers, a whole new world is opened up for folks who are interested in the early days of football. A great example of this is the account of Lehigh's first-ever meeting with Colgate in 1922, which is brought alive by the Times' accounts of the pre-game preparations and the description of the games:

Showing a splendid brand of football, Colgate smeared Lehigh this afternoon in a hard-fought battle by a 35 to 6 score. In the first period Lehigh threw a scare into the Maroon supporters when Springstein (sic), Lehigh's star centre, snatched up a Colgate fumble and dashed across the Maroon goal for a line score.

With papers like the Times making their archive available to all (and searchable in Google, no less), the history not only comes alive, maybe it makes it easier for everyone to remember the names and the stories of these greats. I don't know about "Springstein", Lehigh's star center in 1922, but you can make damned sure after reading this archive that I will learn more about him from someone who actually saw him play. (The first thing I learned that his real name is "Big Bill Springsteen.")


Popular posts from this blog

Remembering Lehigh's Battles With The Late Tubby Raymond

(Photo Credits: Delaware Online)

When I heard the news Tubby Raymond, legendary Delaware head football coach, died last week at the age of 92, two immediate memories came rushing back to me.

One occurred on October 16th, 1999, when Tubby had made a complaint to the local paper or radio in the run-up to Kevin Higgins' Mountain Hawks beating his Blue Hens on Delaware's homecoming, 42-35.

I have no idea if the quote even actually happened, but my recollection is that Tubby said that Lehigh had "St. Bartholomew's" on their schedule, and hadn't played anybody.  It was a verbal jab that many Delaware fans took with them to the stands to heckle the Mountain Hawk fans that made the short trip to Newark.

Up until that point, I had watched a bunch of Lehigh football games over the years.  I experienced their rise in the 1990s.  I enjoyed wins, and championships, and playoff victories.

But never had I felt a win so viscerally vindicating than the one over Tubby Raymond&…

Lehigh Wrestling Gets Superstar Treatment at PPL Center. Lehigh Football Needs The Same At Murray Goodman.

"We knew it would be nice," Lehigh wrestling head coach Pat Santoro said. "But it was even better than we expected."

Pat was talking about the reception his Lehigh wrestling squad experienced at Allentown's PPL Center this weekend, when a sellout crowd over nearly 10,000 people came to watch No. 1 Penn State grapple with No. 5 Lehigh in a collegiate wrestling event.

It was, by all accounts, something special to behold. 

"I thought it was really cool and an exciting place to wrestle," said Penn State wrestler Nick Nevills. "These fans were really into it, a rowdy bunch. It's a lot more fun as an athlete to wrestle in an environment like this. I'd say it was one of the most exciting times I have had in my career."

The sense of spectacle at the PPL center, though, puts a spotlight on what more can be done at Lehigh itself to make their athletic contests into spectacles.  It requires money to be spent and energy to be expended.  But the…

Troy Pelletier Hasn't Stopped Outworking His Rivals On His Journey To Professional Football

Many Patriot League football fans remember the 153rd meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette, one that ended happily for the Mountain Hawks.

They might remember the MVP performance of QB Brad Mayes, or perhaps the halftime speech by OL Zach Duffy that seemed to spur the Mountain Hawks to victory.

Or perhaps they might remember the spectacular single play of Mayes rolling right and finding WR Gatlin Casey in the end zone to give the Mountain Hawks a lead they didn't relinquish.  It was an incredible play by Mayes, who returns this upcoming year for his senior season, and Casey, who, having exhausted his eligibility at Lehigh, will be playing one more year at Middle Tennessee State.

As great as those individual moments are, though, they are not my biggest takeaway of that game.

Too many Lehigh people forget that Lehigh was down 31-21 at half, and that victory was no sure thing.  And they sometimes forget that so much of that victory came from the grinding of WR Troy Pelletier, deliver…