Breaking barriers, sportswriters edition

a footbal on a fieldI’m not a big fan of most sports, but I am a fan of sportswriters. They have to turn out crisp, interesting prose while paying attention to a game that, in some cases, will render all their crisp, interesting prose unusable if that hail Mary pass connects at the last second.

I recently found a new name to add to my pantheon of sportswriters: Elinor Kaine. It doesn’t hurt that she’s also a Smithie, like yours truly. Natalie Weiner wrote a long pre-Super Bowl piece about her this week; it’s worth a read.

Elinor was the first writer to follow the football beat. Here’s what one of her competitors had to say:

“There is something basically discomforting about a gal sportswriter…Too many times it’s just a gimmick; in Elinor Kaine’s case, though, it’s downright embarrassing. She’s good.”

Here’s some of her embarrassingly good prose:

“If it is taken two at a time, football can be broken down for spectating purposes into 11 individual duels. Watching one duel at a time is absorbing. Superb athletes, football players use finesse, quickness and cunning as much as size and strength. The mini-wars are violently sophisticated and highly unpredictable.”

She broke into sportswriting by founding her own football newsletter, the first publication of its kind to aggregate news about every football team in the country. Eventually, as the newsletter’s circulation grew—and her reputation along with it—bigger players in the media invited her to write regular columns. She even got a book deal. But one thing she couldn’t get was a fair shake.

When the Jets and the Giants played each other for the first time, at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Kaine had to sue for access to the press box. She won—but they shunted her into an area with a few folding chairs and nothing on which to set her typewriter, and thus no way to make her deadline.

“Elinor laughed at the pretensions of men who patronized women with their pseudo-expertise,” [Larry] Merchant [a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia] wrote on the occasion of Penna’s retirement from sportswriting. “She poked fun at the juvenile antics of grown men who played, coached and owned. She fleshed out the people hidden under all that armor and money.”

“She would come up with these anecdotes that ordinary sportswriters at the time wouldn’t care about, would never find out about,” he says now.

That, my friends, is good writing. And something all of us should be doing—find the anecdotes that others overlook and your work will always be surprising and memorable.

Listen up, people! The case for non-gendered language

There’s a lot of divisiveness in the world these days—at least in the United States, but I fear it’s spreading. In the face of so much division, we might do well to focus on what we have in common: our humanity. We are all people.

Is that enough to make a start?

Comedian Rhea Butcher put it this way in a tweet earlier this week:

"If we called everyone 'people' instead of separating everyone by gender we'd have to admit that everyone is a person."

“If we called everyone people…we’d have to admit that everyone is a person.” This Rhea Butcher person has a point.

Butcher was responding to the NFL player who found it funny “to hear a female talk about routes,” the patterns that football players run. Of course that “female,” Jourdan Rodrigue, is a sports reporter. It’s her job to talk about “routes.” But even if she didn’t talk football for a living, women can converse intelligently about anything we care to learn. And despite what sexist quarterbacks and hotel doormen assume, women can also be sports fans.

But Butcher is making a larger point here, and it’s one I’m surprised I haven’t given much thought to before. It’s about the divisiveness of gender.

“Women do X; men do Y.” Instead, how about:

People do X and Y.

Same set of information, but it produces an even more accurate sentence. Because we don’t make choices based on our gender; we make choices based on our passions and interests. I’m a woman baseball fan, but you can find plenty of men who’ve never watched a game in their lives.

Step into a toy store and it’s not hard to figure out the intended audience for all those pink toys. The world may want us to believe that pink is for girls, but I prefer a bluish palette—and I have some male friends who rock pastel button-downs better than anyone in the world. Yes, even the pink ones.

Why aren’t we all just “people”?

I spoke about this a while back, in a recording I made for the first World Speech Day. Instead of asking, “What’ll you girls be having?” a restaurant server could just as easily ask about “you folks” or “you people.”

It’s not easy to adopt non-gendered language, at least not if you’re used to the old way of speaking. That’s why in Sweden, they begin teaching non-gendered language in preschool. But adults learn plenty of things—when we want to.

So I invite you to spend a week noticing the pronouns you use. When you’re referring to a specific person, by all means use the pronouns that person prefers. But if you don’t need to gender something or someone, then don’t.

Start with your writing—it’s easier to revise and correct. Once you’ve gotten the hang of eliminating unnecessary gender references in print, it’ll be easier to do it when you speak. Eventually—like any new skill we learn—it will just come naturally to you.

“Our best selves” — Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football and life

Reading made me a baseball fan—thank you, Roger Angell. And it may just make me a football fan, too. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s lessons on football may teach us a thing or two about life.

Angela Duckworth wrote about Carroll’s philosophy in her book Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. And I have to say, I liked what I read.

Pete Carroll's lessons work for football and life
Carroll hugs his quarterback, Richard Sherman, following their 2014 Super Bowl win. Photo: Anthony Quintano – Flickr: Super Bowl XLVIII (48) New York New Jersey

Carroll has only coached one Super Bowl-winning team (so far—Seahawks, 2014), but in the last seven seasons, his teams have made the playoffs six times. That’s no accident.

Also not accidental: the philosophy he instills in his players and coaches. It’s not about winning. It’s about a passion to do your best.

When Carroll invited Angela Duckworth to come watch the Seahawks practice he promised she would see that:

“All we do is help people be great competitors. We teach them how to persevere. We unleash their passion.”

Carroll says it sometimes takes a while for new players to understand his philosophy, so he shares new thoughts about it as they arise:

“If I didn’t talk about it, they wouldn’t know that. They’d be thinking, ‘Am I going to win or am I going to lose?’ But when we talk about it enough, they come to an appreciation of why they compete.”

Pete Carroll’s lessons in etymology

You might guess that a Venn diagram of people who talk about etymology and people who work for football teams would show two completely separate circles. And you would be wrong.

One member of the Seahawks staff talked to Duckworth about the roots of the word “compete”:

“‘Compete comes from the Latin,’ explains Mike Gervais, the competitive-surfer-turned-sports-psychologist who is one of Pete’s partners in culture building. ‘Quite literally, it means strive together. It doesn’t have anything in its origins about another person losing.'”

Duckworth begins to understand the Seahawks ethos:

“…it’s not solely about defeating other teams, it’s about pushing beyond what you can do today so that tomorrow you’re just a little bit better. It’s about excellence…Reach for your best.”

Carroll’s Seahawks made the Super Bowl two years in a row. After winning the first, they lost the second in heartbreaking fashion. Commentators laid the blame squarely at the head coach’s feet, saying he had made “the worst call ever.” Duckworth tells us Carroll reframed that:

“it wasn’t the worst decision, it was ‘the worst possible outcome.’ He explained that like every other negative experience, and every positive one, ‘it becomes part of you. I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to face it. And when it bubbles up, I’m going to think about it and get on with it. And use it. Use it!‘”

When life is like football

One of Pete Carroll’s lessons offers a different take on the sports cliché that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Carroll says,

“If you thought of it as who was winning and who was losing, you’d miss the whole point…it’s really the guy across from us that makes us who we are.”

In Duckworth’s translation, “Our opponent…creates challenges that help us become our best selves.”

And that’s really why I turned my attention to Pete Carroll today. Not because football will be inescapable this weekend—with fans critiquing the game and non-fans critiquing the commercials. Well, okay, partly because of that.

But also because in the U.S. right now, it seems like “opponents” are everywhere. And we have a choice. We can vilify them, mock them, and cause them to dig further into their illogical ideological foxholes. Or we can recognize that while it’s no fun to be challenged, those challenges can “help us become our best selves.”

That’s what I’m striving for. In the face of “the worst possible outcome,” we must “compete”—strive together. As one of my favorite signs from the march put it:

“They tried to bury us. But they didn’t know we’re seeds.”

Be your best self as a writer. Strengthen your skills and discover how to use them effectively. My Writing Unbound program starts February 2nd. More information here.