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The Nationals’ season collapsed this week, and then their beleaguered reliever broke his hand on a non-existent locker door. Moses Malone, the first player on the Bullets I remember being awed by, died in his sleep at the age of 60. The Maryland football team got humiliated and their coach was introduced to the hot seat two weeks into the season. The Pigskins lost in standard fashion—the QB had more interceptions than TDs—and remain the poster child for dysfunction in a league where the premier team was accused of having conducted a decade-long coordinated cheating racket.
Everything is normal in the world of D.C. sports, which is to say that everything is awful.
Sometimes, when we’re having a typical run of family frustration—kids fighting, work drama, unexpected car repairs—my wife will send me a link to news of some kind of horrible tragedy with a note like, “I guess we should try to keep things in perspective.”
I hate keeping things in perspective. Every type of misery has to have its own lane; you can’t really compare a lineman’s broken ankle with a plane crash, but that doesn’t mean that an injury is cause for celebration.
Those of you who tend to agree with that sentiment probably aren’t going to like this column much.
During Thursday night’s NFL opener, I got the following text from a friend: “Do you remember watching sports pre-Twitter? It has only been a few seasons, but I don’t.”
I don’t either, and for me, that’s one of the greatest improvements in sports since the advent of HD broadcasts. With a well-curated twitter feed, any live TV broadcast becomes a real-time RiffTrax. For live sports, the jokes are interspersed with legitimate instant analysis from genuine experts, commentary from the teams’ beat writers, on-demand highlights (in the form of Vines and gifs), and in-game news updates.
For me, I even prefer the sense of fan community on Twitter to the camaraderie in the stadium, probably because one lets me curate who I see while the other requires me to sit in traffic for two hours and burn off the entirety of my Sundays.
I went to a funeral on Saturday for a guy named Hayden that I barely knew. He was a friend of my wife’s from middle school, which was why we went to the funeral, but I was mainly familiar with him from Twitter, where he went by @MorePlacesToGo.
I didn’t know him for real, of course, but in that D.C. Sports Twitter way—he’d respond to tweets, or I’d see him giving Dan Steinberg kudos for something, or he’d favorite things I had tweeted. I could tell he was smart, and that we had a similar sense of humor, and that he was a Georgetown superfan—his sister organized a bittersweet “HOYA! SAXA!” chant at the church service—and that was the bulk of our interaction.
He died unexpectedly, and so it was the kind of gut-punch funeral you get when someone dies unexpectedly. As his family told stories, it became eminently clear just how much more there was to this guy than what I had seen on Twitter.
He was a baker. He had been trying to visit all 50 states. He had been working in the Pentagon on 9/11. He was a loyal friend. He supported not only his friends, but their friends as well… which, I’m guessing, is the real reason he followed me on Twitter: because I was married to someone he was friends with, not because I offer trenchant insight in 140 characters or less.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s more to people than the funny things they write about the Phillies and the fact that they like your jokes.
The only time I appeared in City Paperbefore I started writing this column was because people were being monumental assholes to me on the Internet. I had been writing the official blog for Ashburn’s finest professional football organization for less than two weeks at that point, and a small group of people on the internet had decided to let me know just how poorly I was doing.
Then-WCP sports writer Dave McKenna asked to interview me about it. This was 2008, so McKenna was a known irritant but not yet Daniel Snyder’s own personal Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. I went into the interview tentatively, asking McKenna to try to do right by me. He did, a photo caption reading “lapdog with a laptop” notwithstanding.
After a lengthy recounting of the kicking I had been taken that grim first week, McKenna bounces to me, sounding gawpish: “To go from anonymity, nowhere near a public figure, to having hundreds of people, literally hundreds, commenting on you and many not liking you, that was strange,” I said. “It’s weird being on this side of things.”
That was me being understated and diplomatic in my first-ever for-print interview. To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, working for that organization isn’t exactly a buffet of joy to begin with, and the relentless barrage of disdain I received made that first week one of the worst of my life.
When people (including, eventually, @MorePlacesToGo) started offering supportive comments instead of offers to “beat the john-fuck out of” me with a bat, it made a real difference in my life.
Once I’d found my feet, I spent most of my time in that job trying to, I would claim, “show the players as people.” For the most part, I think I failed at that. I think I did a great job of showing the players as slickly polished, sitcom versions of themselves (for example, anything I wrote about LaRon Landry or Fred Smoot), but only very rarely managed to show them as people.
The reason for that is that actual people are kind of boring. You can get away with saying “LOL this pro athlete talks to his kids!!!!!” maybe once a season, but it’s not something that really sustains interest. To a certain extent I don’t think fans even want these people to be quotidian. We want their off-hours to be as iconic (or at least MTV Cribs-esque) as their on-field highlights.
But at least with the players, people make an effort to humanize them, even if just through reality shows and bloggers. When Moses Malone dies, there’s an outpouring of grief and at least a few of the memories are about him as a person, or at least as a “person.” When a normal person disappears from your Twitter timeline, it’s very easy not to even mark the absence.
There are multiple candidates for what’s causing me to think about this now—the funeral, of course, and the Jewish high holy days (which emphasize starting over and repenting). But it’s also that my Twitter feed is my main way of dealing with the never-ending stream of dreary news from the local sports teams—that’s the lens through which I absorb every PR misstep, on-field meltdown, and kicker unceremoniously getting cut.
It’s really easy to make glib comments (as I did last week in this space) about how sports can be a reminder that you will die. In fact, before the wise minds and sharp pens of my editors prevailed, it was a reminder that you will die, probably alone. [Editor’s note: We also almost named this column “One-Dollar Hot Dog Night” so don’t give us too much credit.] It’s worthwhile to consider that this is actually true, and to keep that in mind when you interact with people—athletes or fans—on the internet.
I really do hate keeping things in perspective.
Follow Matt on Twitter @matt_terl
Photo via Flickr user bowenmurphy/Creative Commons.