Joseph Epstein is one of those rare men capable of writing well about any subject. I mean "any subject" almost literally: if Epstein were assigned the task of creating the instruction manuals for the assembly of IKEA furniture, their prose would greet the reader like an old friend. These instruction booklets would inevitably be anthologized, the best among them—the cherry nightstand, or perhaps the walnut side table—bound together under a charming title such as The Nordic Cabinetmaker or Practically Almost Wood. Critics discussing Epstein’s Swedish Period would suggest that he somberly reflected the human condition by noting the impossibility of constructing that armoire without dropping and losing a screw or two.
This, I confess, is a bit how I feel reading Epstein’s twenty-fifth and latest book, Masters of the Games. It’s a collection of pieces the author has written—over about forty years, for The American Scholar, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, among others—on the subject of sports. There are profiles of athletes, and reviews of sporting books, and op-eds about lockouts and brackets and starting lineups, and all sorts of other things that would ordinarily cause my eyes to glaze over like a Krispy Kreme original.
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I am not, it is true, much of a sports-watcher—and perhaps it would advance my thesis about Epstein to establish here my anti-bona fides. Any boyish enthusiasm I once harbored for spectating has long since faded, which I attribute partially to my growing up in North Dakota and having no hometown team to root for. My state memorialized its favorite athletic son, Roger Maris, with a couple of display cases in the Fargo mall, just down from the pet shop and the Christian bookstore.
This did little to stoke my enthusiasm. By my late teenage years I had moved on to other diversions: books, belles, bass guitars. The last time I regularly watched the NFL, I was rooting for Emmitt Smith; the last time I watched—period—the NBA, I was pulling for Reggie Miller, although it was hard to feel bad when Michael Jordan got another ring instead. I have a vague memory of a Super Bowl not too long ago during which some janitor accidentally backed his rear end into a light switch and plunged the stadium into darkness. But by and large I remain ignorant, and blissfully so, about the goings on relayed to my fellow countrymen by ESPN.
Yet I find myself, even as names like Joe Garagiola and Bob Love whoosh right over my head, nodding along with Masters of the Games. In his optimistic moods, Epstein is poignant. He finds hypnotic beauty in the pure exercise of muscle and sinew, and he can rhapsodize at length about the arc of a perfect basketball hook shot. He sees athletic competition as a near meritocracy, as free as is conceivable from the flimflammers who claw their way to prominence in academic, political, or social circles. In these games, there are no excuses: the bat either connects or it swishes harmlessly through the air; the jump shot either goes in the basket or it doesn’t. Sports gives Epstein, a bookish English professor who watches games on mute with the Times Literary Supplement in his lap, a connection to his fellow citizens, something to talk about that transcends class boundaries.
In his pessimistic moods, Epstein is nihilistic and hilarious. This darker Epstein can look back with nostalgia, can still smell the air in the old Chicago Stadium, "a combination of beer, cigar smoke, urine, grilling sausages, and other life-threatening grub." But he believes the sporting competitions that once held so much meaning have been corrupted by million-dollar salaries and $75 bleacher seats; by steroids; by sportswriters more interested in soft-focus features than in the game itself; by Astroturf, and the slam dunk, and the designated hitter; by "the tyranny of the Jumbotron."
Tennis, Epstein’s boyhood sport, has, alas, been stripped of its dignity: "Watching Monica Seles play Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, two players who grunt with every stroke," he writes, "I feel that I am inside a hernia testing center." Andre Agassi, stepping onto the court wearing long hair and earrings and jean shorts, "looked like nothing so much as a gypsy on the way out of town with two stolen chickens in his bag."
Modern football is a "freak show" featuring 350-pound beasts: "Today I should not be shocked if, on the sidelines, one of the Chicago players removed his helmet to reveal he was not an uppercase but a lowercase, real bear." Epstein ends a piece published in advance of Super Bowl XXXI with this observation: "Professional football is merely a game, an increasingly specialized and brutish one that you probably don’t want your sons to play, and anyone who attempts to make more of it is fooling himself or trying to con the rest of us. Have a Super Sunday."
Halftime entertainment is choreographed by eight year olds with Attention Deficit Disorder: "Once a time-out is called, out come the dancing girls, miniature blimps, acrobats, jugglers, magicians—everything but human sacrifices."
Women’s gymnastics "has come to seem almost a division of S & M, with the coaches in the role of sadists and the poor emaciated girls in that of masochists." Epstein goes on to quote a friend, who remarks, "I can’t bear to watch any more of that sad dwarf throwing."
The Epstein of experience talks as though he no longer has truck with any game save one, golf, in which sportsmanship still matters and no one’s freshly laundered collar gets terribly askew. Yet by his own admission Epstein continues to sit nestled on his couch with a cup of tea and a biography, silently watching all range of televised athletics. He’s hooked, he says, joking that if there’s a twelve-step program for sports fandom, he’s interested. "My relation to sports is rather like that of a man who long ago bought a stock and has long awaited it to show growth or split or declare dividends, none of which it has done, nor is it likely to do so, but he cannot unload it because he has been too long invested in it," Epstein writes. "I’m in too deep to get out now. I’d look and feel foolish if I did."
Occasionally he’ll consider what he might do with his time if he gave up sports: learn the harpsichord or the flute, ancient Greek or quantum mechanics? Were he anyone else, I might suggest that he do with his free time what I have been doing with mine, namely, reading Joseph Epstein. It is a grand hobby, easier than caressing the ebony and ivory and more intuitive than quarks and gluons, but a challenge nonetheless. Did I mention that Masters of the Games is his twenty-fifth book? Before I buy them all, I’ll have to build another IKEA bookshelf—if I can figure out how to put the damn thing together.