Sucking on the ’70s: "Hey Rube" and Hunter S. Thompson as Sports Writer




Sucking on the ’70s: "Hey Rube" and Hunter S. Thompson as Sports Writer by Chris Collision

Hunter S. Thompson, the sports writer

November 12th, 2013 reset - +

HUNTER S. THOMPSON was a great sportswriter. This may surprise you. Thompson is best-known — "most-misunderstood" might be more apt — as a chronicler of the recreational drugs and violence of the 1960s, his signature works generally thought to be 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and 1967's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. This is a conception fueled by a movie, as much as anything: while 1998's version of Fear and Loathing surely captured the grotesquerie and cruelty in Thompson's work, it missed both the form: ferocious satire — photographing people with hideous hair through weird lenses doesn't count as satire — and the content: frantic, spasming anger. Not just a frenzied adrenaline junkie and alteration enthusiast, Thompson was a high-volume crime-scene sketch artist, dashing off caricature after caricature of the professionalized violence that defined the exercise of American political power in his time, a time wrecked by racism, class division, war, and a permanent bureaucracy seemingly benefiting from these awful agents. Such were the eyes, and this the pen, that he brought to the task of writing about sports, too.

A writer like Thompson, attuned to the violent clashes and cheap cruelties of America, could hardly avoid sports, or escape writing about them. In his own words:

There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for. And none of the people I wrote about seemed to give a hoot in hell what kind of lunatic gibberish I wrote about them, just as long as it moved. They wanted Action, Color, Speed, Violence … At one point, in Florida, I was writing variations on the same demented themes for three competing papers at the same time, under three different names. I was a sports columnist for one paper in the morning, sports editor for another in the afternoon, and at night I worked for a pro wrestling promoter, writing incredibly twisted "press releases" that I would plant, the next day, in both papers.

All that work is, if not mythical, probably more or less lost.

The most obvious great piece Thompson did about sports is the magazine article "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." It's not dissimilar to Vegas, and stands as a clear-eyed, mean-spirited portrait of the Louisville society where he grew up and a diagnosis of the mind-alterations needed to walk among them. Thompson was fond of quoting the line "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man," and both works explore just how dumb and insensate one can be, walking among the cruel and venal men of the world, which is precisely what reporting on professional sports required of him: remember that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the result of a trip to America's most thoroughly artificial megalopolis for the purpose of viewing a casino's PR-event motorbike race.

His stories from Super Bowls — or do we have to call them "Big Games" to avoid paying a licensing fee? — are indispensable. His writing about Muhammad Ali is second only to Robert Lipsyte's in evoking and explaining Ali's looming presence over the 20th century — and his hit pieces, as on skier Jean-Claude Killy and revered-if-not-read American Sports Writing Father Figure Grantland Rice — are shockingly under-read, under-influential, and funny. Most of his best sports writing is collected in 1979's The Great Shark Hunt: much of what I mentioned above can be found there, alongside lurid mutterings like the title piece and a couple hundred other pages that are mostly all well worth reading. But let's get closer to today; let's talk about 2000.

That was the year ESPN, probably the second-largest monetizer of sports ephemera after the NFL, decided to get heavily into the business of style.

Sports, you see, have the essential difficulty for a media conglomerate of being too binary: winners, losers, full stop. This matters to a media conglomerate because there is only so much "content" that can be produced about "this one won, this one lost." Kurt Vonnegut, for example, rather famously ran into this problem for Sports Illustrated: assigned to write a story, for reasons not available, about a racehorse gone rogue and turned escape artist, Vonnegut stared down the barrel of journalism, and filed the following:

The horse jumped over the fucking fence.

Vonnegut, as you may know, is not known for his journalism. Hunter Thompson resolved this problem of reporting on the zero-sum by moving the problem from the journalistic What to the How. At the time, this was considered a major innovation. Some decades later, ESPN adapted the approach, in order to maximize the number of commodities it could produce, and thereby feed and grow interest; and thus did ESPN introduce its "Page 2" initiative. Style became the thing, fact dissolved into the background, and opinions and tone and to a lesser extent voice briefly reigned. This was before the whole thing devolved into the cheaper and easier-to-produce Hot Take, a blend of reflexive contrarianism, curdled conventional wisdom, and impacted anger that is customarily and accurately limned by "screed falling from the lips of a drunk uncle you desperately avoid talking politics with."

Page 2 added Thompson, then, as a columnist: a crucial formal error. Filing columns, for Thompson, involved little discipline and required no travel or learning. The activity of producing an opinion about something quickly degenerated into the uneasy mishmash of "talking about what everybody's talking about" and "using relevant-ish shared events as opportunities to mount a hobbyhorse." This uneasy mishmash is essentially the roiling mix fueling our entire media-opinion complex, where there is literally no penalty imposed for decades of incorrect predictions, and where no opinion whatsoever is so out of bounds that it can't be entertained in a major paper (except, say, the merest hint that systems other than capitalism might be entertained in these United States).

This was not Thompson's first columnist position. Notably, he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner through a particularly brutal portion of the 1980s. This stretch featured bizarre personalities and rank illegality at the highest levels of our government, which happened to be something like Thompson's specialty. He had thrived in similar madness during the preceding decades: first when terrifying murders of prominent reform-minded men descended on the nation like a plague; then when Richard Nixon's seething, petty machinations brought him and a generation of Americans down. Thompson, naturally, had his own opinion on the matter:

[Lyndon] Johnson did a lot of rotten things in those five bloody years [he was president], but when the history books are written he will emerge in his proper role as the man who caused an entire generation of Americans to lose all respect for the Presidency, the White House, the Army, and in fact the whole structure of "government." (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72)

My brain is covered with scar tissue. I was 22 when JFK was murdered, and I will never recover from it … Never. ("A Wild and Wooly Tale of Sporting Excess," October 29, 2002)

In the 1980s, though, no lasting harm came to the criminals of Iran-Contra. Pardons were widely distributed; the surviving dramatis personae are alive and well and living on Koch think tank sinecures or hitting their marks on Fox News. In the fullness of time and the waxing of a newly forgiving age, even foul Nixon absorbed a measure of absolution, and lived out a more or less public life seemingly unsullied by proven criminality. Or maybe everybody was sullied, and everything. As Thompson said in the introduction to a collection of his Examiner columns:

What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring rain on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison scum right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation.

It seems clear that this newly and irreversibly consequence-less America wounded Hunter Thompson almost mortally. The columns he filed for Page 2, collected in 2005’s Hey Rube, are a repetitive mess — maybe not inappropriately, since sports are repetitive by their nature and columns limiting by theirs. With a limited scene and the pressure of several deadlines a month, Thompson flailed and floundered. But he had one reliable dodge to generate hooks: gambling. It's cynical, but it happens: a fan drifts from one sense of being "invested" in a team's wins and losses to a different and more literal sort of investment — actual capital, which turns commitment into a matter of cash. Betting is a superb lens: it focuses, making boring things interesting; it forces a person to calibrate her confidence-in-opinion carefully — an opinion you'd voice is one thing, but an opinion you'd put a fiver on is another. An opinion you'd put a hundred bucks on better be pretty finely discriminated.

Thompson's crutch allowed him to file, but he was grasping, visibly running on fumes. The approach itself may be inherently limited and self-defeating. As he himself wrote in 1972's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72:

After several weeks of [handicapping] you no longer give a flying fuck who actually wins; the only thing that matters is the point-spread. […] There is something perverse and perverted about dealing with life on this level. But on the other hand it gets harder to convince yourself, once you start thinking about it, that it could possibly make any difference to you if the 49ers win or lose…

The hire may have been just one old friend propping up another with a new gig, allowing Thompson to keep his hand: John Walsh, the ESPN editor who hired him, knew Thompson from their Rolling Stone days. Hey Rube revisits a lot of earlier peaks, with a more diffuse and rambling style, and without the energy and aggression of his younger works. The self-reference is constant, and Thompson's skills had atrophied to near self-parody. Many of the columns in Hey Rube fall back on attempts at style, with formal tics like Spurious Capitalization accompanying a great deal of repetition. Much of his work on football echoes tighter pieces collected in Generation of Swine, most notably "Meat Sickness," a 1986 report on a Super Bowl/Big Game. Cringe-inducingly, he issued forth some of the most tiring shibboleths of the Hot Take era. Among these bog-standard kvetches: “NBA players don't play hard all the time” (February 12, 2001); “Derek Jeter is a ‘Certified Winner’ ” (March 5, 2001). Thompson's real achievements had been rooted in feature stories, based on going places and doing things; handed a platform without the responsibility of doing the footwork, he turned into a dull, reactionary old man.

But in the early 2000s a decadent and enfeebled voice making and re-making old points in nearly exhausted language was, if anything, uncomfortably relevant. The column was called "Hey Rube": how much more explicitly do you need a company to call you a sucker? And what better time to be insulted so frankly than during the gilded shoulder of a glib and fleeting boom.

To be fair, Thompson was at least filing copy, he was hitting deadlines, and he still had some moments, as when he returned to Louisville to watch "a game that was deeply scarred by human dumbness." A nice phrase/insight, that. He concluded this column by reporting on recent gambling setbacks:

[In December] I plan to spring the final ambush on gloating screwheads like [his ESPN editor] John Walsh. He thinks he's Ahead now, but in truth I am just baiting him into the trap. He will learn soon enough. Don't worry. I know exactly what I'm doing."

The date of that column was September 10, 2001, the last column of the book's first third. Things pick up quickly after that. On the 12th of September, he offered a fascinating mix of easily understandable wrong facts and absolutely accurate predictions:

It was the worst disaster in the history of the United States, including Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco earthquake, and probably the battle of Antietam in 1862, when 23,000 American soldiers were slaughtered in one day. The battle of the World Trade Center lasted about 99 minutes and cost 20,000 lives in two hours. […]

The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the U.S. or any other country. Make no mistake about it: we are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that strange and mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. […]

We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or where will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once.

After a while, some of Thompson's tics and repetitions even pay off. An oft-invoked Dylan favorite:

Something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

This quote recurs and recurs in his work, always mocking the clueless rube reader, until April 17, 2003's "The Doomed Prefer Oakland": "[This] is the nervous American reality in this downhill spring of the year 2003, and I am keenly aware of it. Something is missing here, and I can't say what it is, can I?"

This inversion is the most vulnerable Thompson moment I have found.

These high points are offset somewhat by a characteristic and not terribly interesting stridency. A few columns are shocking, given that they appeared on the notoriously strait-laced, Disney-clean ESPN; Thompson got a few "fuck"'s in there, and also one crack about a former First Lady that had no business making it into print.

If there's something reliably intriguing about watching Thompson struggle against stylistic and formal strictures, these pieces are better when he doesn't. Take, for instance, a fascinating string of columns that was essentially a live-blog of the 2003 NBA playoffs. Sensitive to the teams in front of him, Thompson predicts, accurately, that the Spurs will win it all, and that one team will end up doomed due to major injury to an important player (the Sacramento Kings and Chris Webber, respectively). He's engaged with the games in a way that seems to anticipate the FreeDarko project, calling attention to wins and losses as well as variations of style and personality on both individual and team levels. You don't have to look very hard to find that kind of work now, but it's an interesting historical artifact — and it shouldn't be controversial to suggest that Thompson was a better nuts-and-bolts writer than the average blogger.

For all the style in the writing and for all the appreciation of the style on the court, Thompson's vision is one of Winners and Losers: teams win and lose, bettors win and lose, politicians and armies win and lose. From July 21, 2003: “We are losers, and that is the one unforgivable sin in America.”

Maybe losing was once an unforgivable sin. But in a post-Rocky world, or maybe post-Vietnam, or post-Woody Allen, or post-Salinger or whatever the initial seed was — the half of Christianity that Nietzsche deplored as no more than a coping mechanism for the powerless, maybe — just kind of showing up and half-assing it and settling and not trying and either turning on or dropping out all seem now to be the modus vivendi for the common clay of the Second World. There is a very small percentage for whom losing isn't an option. For the rest of us, it's a fact.

Which is maybe where the whole politics/sports putative parallel starts breaking down; as Thompson notes, the only thing that really links football and politics might be "Victory." The occasional fixed game or catastrophically inept franchise aside, all teams have a shot at losing on any given Sunday — and an observer can even get ahead a little if they're shrewd about identifying winners and losers ahead of the fact. This is looking less true of society in general by the year, as one small part of one side does all the winning all the time, and still has the post-game hubris to call for the rules to be rewritten ever more for their benefit and glory.

Observers of sports can yoke themselves to a loser for extended periods without any negative consequences, give or take the odd doodad flung in anger around the house. Political observers — and political actors — are fairly clear that this strategy is a poor one. They even have names for it: the Democratic Party, 1968–1991, for starters.

Another major difference between Thompson's beat and ours is a word that occurs obsessively in his work: "Fear." On the "Also By" page of Hey Rube alone it occurs four times in 13 book titles. Fear, however, isn't a major component of the experience of being a sports fan … or, it wasn't. Now, though, concussions blast holes into hockey and football brains, weird dumb freaks like Robert Swift succumb to the mark of doom and the construction of sport's stately pleasure domes, as with the slave-built stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, creating actual human rights crises. Even rich-guy playthings like the America's Cup throw the occasional human life overboard. There is fear, here, in ways even the walking nightmares of the 1970s or coke-shot 1980s never had. The experience of sitting down for a nice watch feels more Roman than ever.

If Thompson had lived, he would be gloomily/gleefully pointing at the new stain and predicting the imminent demise of the vague empathy that drives our queasy unease at the blood-sporting of our pastimes. We do, after all, have blood sports, and we like them just fine. We got over the political murders that ruined Thompson; we got over Watergate, Iran-Contra, Iraq's WMDs. It may take us a little longer to get over Afghanistan and the suicides of high-profile linebackers and largely unknown hockey players, and our passive complicity in all that. But I have faith. We are, after all, a fast-changing nation.

¤

Chris Collision is (the pen name of) a writer who lives and works in Oakland.

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