The Sports Memoir: Choose Your Own Adventure
There’s something inherently cathartic about the process of writing a literary memoir. The events within have occurred too close to the writer’s heart for the writing to be handed over to anybody else—all of the interpretation and re-imagining of events is intimate territory and, for the first drafts, all access is strictly forbidden.
Creating a real, bound book is also a steep mountain to summit and, in doing the untold hours of boulder-pushing required to get a manuscript at all organized, the writer’s thoughts become organized too. No matter how frenetic and unkempt a day or an emotion was in its first, raw experience, it must still be fit into a taut and precise rubric of chapters and scenes. The publication and release may in fact be secondary: it was that intense polishing, that taming and compartmentalizing of wild life, that was most appealing and even necessary.
Memoirs written by professional athletes are governed by an entirely different set of rules than memoirs that are stamped “literary.” For one, we’ve already seen the most monumental moments of the authors’ lives—or at least their professional lives—take place on the field of play below us or, more probably, on our TVs. Scene-setting is redundant: the athlete-as-author sits down at the blank page with the ante already well raised, required to provide an unforeseen dimension to circumstances already well known.
What’s more, at Page One the literary memoirist has no clue as to the width or breadth or duration of their upcoming journey of catharsis, while the athlete has finished theirs long ago. After all, a game is more than just the scoreboard. If you haven’t seen the dogpile victory celebration or the eyes bugged out in disbelief at the referee’s blown call or the trash talk bellowed right into the opponent’s face, well, what have you really seen? Nothing more than numbers accumulating, really. A tally sheet with regular updates. Sports hardly offers a break—and this is a great thing, this is what keeps us entertained—from the constant building up and releasing of catharsis.
But you can’t re-gather all that emotion that was released on the field of play. So the athlete has to write their memoir starting from a totally foreign, bold vantage point.
This series will examine athletes’ memoirs because these books—usually without consciously trying to—grope for new limits and functions for what a memoir can be.
On Just Giving Keyshawn Johnson the Damn Ball
Take Keyshawn Johnson’s unforgettably titled Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, released after his 1996 rookie season with the NFL’s New York Jets. Only 24 years old at the time of publication, Keyshawn had no purpose for his memoir other than a desire to use it as a weapon—a battering ram that he levied in an attempt to restructure his workplace towards his own preferences. (Not exactly the stuff of Burroughs or Eggers.)
Some necessary context: the Jets were a dysfunctional mess during Keyshawn’s rookie season, managing only one win against fifteen losses. For then-employees of the Jets, the release of this book had to be a near-apocalyptic scenario. No team loses 15 of 16 football games just because they were cruelly manipulated by fickle Lady Luck: that many loses guarantee that dense layers of organizational and relational dysfunction weigh down the entire behind-the-scenes operation to the point of collapse. With Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, Keyshawn rather wickedly named names and spilled beans that, in normal circumstances, would have stayed in-house and out of the public eye, using his leverage as one of the Jets’ biggest investments and brightest talents. From his elevated pedestal he was safe from the ensuing media flood.
Keyshawn was the New York Jets’ first overall pick in the NFL’s annual draft, out of a vast nation of college players available for the taking. Playing the position of wide receiver, tasked with catching his quarterback’s passes, Keyshawn will rarely have more than, say, a dozen balls thrown his way over the course of an entire 60-minute game. But each of these precious handful of plays always delivers monumental impact on the outcome of the game: with the speed and ability to catch long, deep throws, successful catches by an elite wide receiver like Keyshawn dramatically swings the game’s ultimate outcome in his team’s favor. His unique ability to convert these mercurial airstrikes was, the Jets decided, too valuable to get cut off the team’s roster, no matter how many Advil he required his coaches to pop.
And so, in Just Give Me the Damn Ball!, Keyshawn Johnson is the savior of every conflict, and every underwhelming drama went unresolved only because it didn’t contain enough Keyshawn. Here’s how Keyshawn describes his reputation around his hometown Los Angeles neighborhood: “If guys wanted to go gang bang that was fine, just don’t go off on me. To this day I can be hanging out with a hundred Bloods and the next day you might see me hanging out with a hundred Crips. Nobody says anything because they know it’s just how I am and who I am.” Ah, yes, Keyshawn is a beacon of hope, a broker of peace, a man who can manage to just “hang out” with a hundred people at a time.
The thing about all of Keyshawn’s diagnoses of the Jets’ ailments or evaluations of his own superior character is that this sports memoir, just like all sports memoirs, contains a Salinger-esque unreliable narrator. The same traits that allowed Keyshawn to be great on the football field—namely, complete confidence in and mirror-kissing adoration of the self—also make him incapable of telling stories that actually jive with reality. Much like Catcher in the Rye or any other unreliably narrated (non-)fiction, as readers we can only haphazardly triangulate the truth from the scraps of details we’ve been given.
Here too, though, is an unforeseen layer of the sports memoir with which literary memoirists less commonly contend: it can be fact-checked against the public record. Later in Johnson’s career, as a member of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Keyshawn was the team’s most productive wide receiver as the team marched through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. He’s stood at the pinnacle that only the smallest, most elite fraction of football players have ever approached. Nobody can take this away from him. For a moment, all of the trash talk was worth it, redeemed, impossible to rebut.
But by the time Keyshawn retired, after the 2006 season, he had played for four different teams after just eleven years in the NFL. Playing for many teams isn’t a sign of versatility or an eclectic palette: it means that, no matter how prodigious his talents, nobody was willing to commit to having him around in the long-term, and everybody was ready to trade him to another team who’d seen all Keyshawn’s highlights and none of his workings behind the scenes. Keyshawn could always blow by the defender and run the ball all the way to the endzone—he just couldn’t do it without leaving burned bridges in his wake.
Because, after all, isn’t “unreliable narrator” just a polite way of saying “liar”?