MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Separating truth from fiction

If you pitch up here with any regularity the name Mark Leibovich will be familiar to you.

He’s the man who’s written a book that arrived lately in my top five sports books (with a bullet) - Big Game, which told me a few things about American football I never knew and quite a few I wish I could now forget.

Leibovich’s writing style is hugely appealing - heavily reported with a sarcastic accelerant producing many a slashing aside - so I tried his book about Washington politics, This Town.

Any doubts dissipated early on, as he describes politicians and journalists trying to ‘outgrieve’ each other at a funeral. I was all in.

Quite apart from the fact that no-one has ever conceived of, let alone written, an Irish equivalent of This Town, an exchange in the middle of the book crystallised quite a few aspects of the modern journo-game for me.

Describing how one of many rumoured election candidates’ intentions were publicised - and how those descriptions disseminate - Leibovich says: ‘

Fact and speculation swirl in the same blizzard. As long as something is circulating “out there” - getting page views, generating buzz, driving convo - it can have impact, ephemeral or otherwise. The thrown-off nature of Twitter has turned phrases like “Hearing that”, “Word on the street is” and “I get the feeling that” into acceptable attribution units.’ If you think this is overheated or cranky, answer this question first: how much time did you spend puzzling out what Declan Rice meant by liking and unliking social media messages during the week?

The rabbit-hole here isn’t whether or not this youngster can make his mind up or not, but the depth to which the discourse has sunk.

At least in The Rice Farrago (which sounds a little like a discarded Robert Ludlum title) there’s some germ of actuality involved, a real-life incident. Most of the time you’re “hearing that” something might something or something. Or something.

However, The Rice Farrago (TRF) is helpful because it points up the parallel industry engaged in deciphering the significance of undoing the work of a single keystroke.

In some ways the more things change, the more they stay the same. In ancient Rome they pulled out a sheep’s liver for news of the future; in our modern world we’re doing something remarkably similar with an electronic heart.

That obscures just how mediated the information is, of course. It reminds me of an old episode of Star Trek - the series which had Patrick Stewart - where the Enterprise crew meet aliens who can speak only in metaphors: nothing can be spoken of or described directly, only in mini-stories paralleling the subject under discussion.

This is a level of sophistication that the modern sports interaction has yet to reach, on one hand. On the other it’s already in the rear-view mirror.

Because what the earnest proponents of Twitter - and similar ventures, such as product-placement-facilitators like the Player’s Tuba - are missing is that subtlety is as outmoded as the Polish cavalry in World War II. You don’t need a platform, or unfiltered communication, or even honesty. So long as you can get it “out there”, then whatever “it” is, it’ll generate its own gravitational pull.

The physicists peering into the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland for proof of dark matter are wasting their time. Material which generates its own existence and propagates itself into infinity is swirling around the sports-industrial complex every day of the week, and TRF is the best current example.

For a further illustration of what I mean I refer you to Leibovich’s book, when TV presenter Joe Scarborough is asked whether he’d join New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in a presidential bid.

We haven’t discussed it directly. Have people discussed it in his sphere and in my sphere? I think so.

How many times have you heard the same message in Irish sport in a slightly different accent?

The sport of kings is anything but

I saw that clip, too. Which one? The clip of tennis player Fernando Verdasco gesturing at a ball boy at the Shenzhen Open last week, the clip which led to some inventive if physiologically unfeasible suggestions about what should be done with Verdasco’s tennis racket.

It reminded me, though, of a throwaway comment in a Best American Sportswriting collection many years ago (note: don’t get that, by the way - the Best American Magazine Writing is always better).

Anyway, there was a piece in which sports agents and officials had a wide-ranging conversation which touched on many aspects of modern sports.

What sticks with me is the response when one of those present asked a great question: who were the hardest athletes of all to deal with in terms of awkwardness, entitlement, selfishness, etc?

The reaction was unanimous. Tennis players.

Turning hype into reality

I thought at first I might have been a bit over the top elsewhere on the page. (If you have to ask where, then obviously I wasn’t).

I refer to the ability of sports news to create its own momentum once it spontaneously generates its own existence: what might have been described in previous decades as hype.

Although you probably have a notion of this columnist as unburdened by doubt or second thoughts, I wondered if I was being a bit... excessive.

Then I went out for coffee on Saturday. I won’t name the place I went, though it rhymes with the surname of comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, but while I waited for my (pedestrian and not a bit precious) order to be filled, I overheard the conversation between one of the staff and two of the other customers, all of whom had lengthy Parnellite beards.

The talk was about: the fight, where are you going to watch it, McGregor, no she’s not, did you hear about the security, it’s unbelievable, who is she anyway, McGregor, security like it’s never seen before, seriously, McGregor, security . . . (this is not a verbatim transcript).

There was no mention of Khabib Nurmagomedov but plenty of talk of the heightened security measures needed for the UFC event Saturday night. Seriously?

Once it’s out there, and you’re hearing that, and it’s the word on the street, then that’s all that’s needed.

What was the beef with Pete Dexter?

A couple of people were in touch about Pete Dexter after I mentioned him last week.

Revising helps because it gives me a chance to use the full title of Dexter’s selected journalism (Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage).

People specifically wanted to know what happened to Dexter in terms of his bar injuries. In short: he wrote a piece about a murder case and the brother of the victim was unhappy with the piece. Said brother was a bartender and when Dexter visited the bar in question, he (Dexter) had a few teeth knocked out.

Dexter enlisted pal Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb — the bad guy in the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona — for support in the rematch, at the same bar. Outnumbered heavily, Dexter got his back and pelvis broken and the rest of his teeth. Cobb broke his arm, messing up his boxing career (he was a heavyweight contender). No, Dexter isn’t a role model off the page.


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