Since I don’t watch Sox-Yankees games if I can avoid it, tonight’s blog will be the first of many responses to articles by famous sports writers whose work appears in the collection The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout. This one is a response to Hunter S. Thompson’s article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
I think the point of Thompson’s article is best summed up by these two sentences: “And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform” (361). Thompson’s article is about how the true essence of sport doesn’t lie in the athlete, but rather in the fans. The Kentucky Derby is ostensibly a horse race, but what makes it sport is all of the fans and their obsession with it. Thompson spends the article getting trashed and wandering around the grounds threatening to mace people. He devotes two sentences to the result of the race, and it’s a 17-page article. Clearly his focus is not on the horses. To an extent, his focus ISN’T even on the fans.
Thompson’s work is incredibly personal (using this article as a representation of all of his writing), focusing primarily on his own journey through the craziness of the Kentucky Derby. To this end, he is making the point that the sports writer, try as he might, can never distance himself fully from the sport he is trying to cover. By choosing to write about a story, Thompson argues (in my opinion), the sports writer becomes a part of the story. And this is evident by the degree of interaction and effect Thompson has on the people he encounters at the Derby. He is not the distanced writer, keeping back and merely writing what he is seeing. Instead, he is a story-telling force, actively engaging the subject matter in an effort to cause the story to come into existence. I think he is arguing that the sports writer doesn’t just tell the story, he in fact CREATES it. Maybe other writers have a different take on the relationship between writer and subject, but Thompson clearly sees the two as interlinked, with both constantly driving each other on.
Now, this is not to say Thompson isn’t being his usual self. While he avoids taking drugs, he spends the entire Derby drunkenly wandering from location to location, macing people at random. So perhaps as a sports writer he is not the best to model oneself on. I would certainly hope that should I reach the professional level, I will behave with a degree more control and respect for subject matter than Thompson does. And it’s clear from his writing that he has no respect for anyone. His luggage carries an ill-gained Playboy press badge so he can pretend to be a more legitimate reporter. If anything, Thompson is a mockery of sports writing, viewing everything as an act, a lie, a charade. And in this regard he and I will just have to disagree. Sports are nothing but stories, and stories need to be told. Thompson is right that we as writers are part of that story, inseparable, but our part is not to lie and deceive. While we might wind up influencing the story by our actions, we need to be comfortable enough with that to be able to tell the story even still.