ESPN’s Rick Reilly talks Sports From Hell in Pacific Grove.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
He braved temperatures at the Sauna World Championships that gave one competitor pus-filled sacs “the size of a $3 pancake.” He chronicled inmates trying to snatch a $500 poker chip from between a 2,000-pound bull’s horns – “Very good day if you own the local splint concession,” he writes. And, somewhere along a three-and-a-half-year odyssey that inspired him to shove ferrets down his sweats, 11-time Sportswriter of the Year, star ESPN commentator and king-of-the-zinger Rick Reilly realized his search for the world’s dumbest sports competitions wasn’t so stupid.
“What surprised me most was just how not dumb a lot of this was,” he writes. “The number of people who… have heard of a sport has nothing to do with how much guts or passion or skill the people who play it have.” It’s something he’ll likely touch on Wednesday, June 16, at a discussion of Sports From Hell: My Search for the World’s Dumbest Competition at The Works in Pacific Grove.
As Reilly learns that, say, the outwardly absurd Homeless Soccer Championships “really IS a beautiful game,” or chess boxing, despite participants who can’t believe he hasn’t campaigned for its appearance on ESPN2, might just be “dumber than a wheelbarrow of toupees,” he does it with typical linguistic fervor and sociologist precision – something those who have followed him since his decades at Sports Illustrated would expect.
“I just like to write about how people are,” he told the Weekly from Red Rock, in his native Colorado, “and sports weaves through the whole fabric of our lives.”
“Religion got too dangerous,” he continues. “Politics is too divisive. Talking money is the best way to have Thanksgiving blow up in your face. But for some reason, with sports you can say how you feel about parenting, life, sex, politics, childhood, the environment, and nobody firebombs your house.”
His work takes on a more universal aspect as a result, not unlike the work of his hero, L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray, whom he once eulogized by writing, “Murray’s column was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane was about sleds.”
Hence a look at New Zealand’s “zorbing,” being pushed off a mountain inside a 12-foot rubber ball, also becomes a chance to lampoon the U.S.’s personal injury laws (it’s unthinkable – and illegal – for Kiwis to sue for doing stupid sh**): “This is how we came to live in a country where a woman could be awarded $40,000,” he writes, “for hitting a golf ball that ricocheted off railroad tracks and hit her in the nose.”
Completing the Elfego Baca Golf Shoot – and the single hole’s 5,300 yards, 100-degree heat, 7,243-foot elevation drop and warnings about old mine shafts, mountain lions and the hanta virus – could teach the pros arriving with him for the U.S. Open something about character.
“They would stop worrying about the snap of a camera lens,” he says. “Those [PGA] guys get upset if there’s no lobster bisque in the players’ tent.”
And homeless soccer can speak to self-worth: “It made the most sense of any of the sports. For the first time, people were finding they had some value.”
Reilly and Murray aren’t writing about stupidity and sports; they’re writing about truths and humanity. Only Reilly does it with generous goofiness.
Reilly says his inspiration for the book is manifold. His best columns aren’t generated by cushy gigs sipping $400 wines and being delivered quotes at Wimbledon, but finding his way to the fringe – or rodeo clowning or skydiving with the Golden Knights Parachute Team. He wanted to reclaim some of the credibility taken in mainstream sports by a throng of amateurs repudiating facts with uninformed frustration. He wanted to travel. He wanted to have fun. Doesn’t sound too stupid to me.