Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 23, 2016

Inside the Mind of the Sports Fan

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim looks at what sports does to our heads.

Michael Gluckstadt

After seven books and nearly 20 years at Sports Illustrated—where he now serves as executive editor and senior writer—Jon Wertheim has covered pretty much every part of the sports world. He's written an entire book about a single tennis match, co-authored the autobiography of a legendary broadcaster, examined sports through the lens of behavioral economics, and even threw in a children's book and a basketball novel for good measure.

Jon Wertheim
"We wrote a chapter on the Mets and—life being into irony—they made it to the World Series."

Jon Wertheim

His latest work is the rare one to examine one major part of all spectator sports: the fans. Wertheim's latest book, co-written by Sam Sommers of Tufts University, tries to discern why sports fans do the crazy things they do, like madly dashing after the T-shirt cannon or rooting for the Mets.

This Is Your Brain on Sports examines the psychological hold the teams we root for and the games we love have over us. In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Wertheim tells Gelf what he likes about the sports-business book circuit, why great tennis players don't make the best coaches, and what a Mookie Wilson bar mitzvah message sounds like.

Gelf Magazine: You've co-written a few books now. What's the process like, and do you prefer it to solo writing?

Jon Wertheim I really do like writing collaboratively. Some of it is just functional: Books are a ton of work, so having a partner frees up some bandwidth. Also, I might be interested in sports' overlap in behavioral economics or social psychology and I can come up with ideas and chapters; but I still need the expertise of an actual economist or psychologist. Also, writing a book is a lonely, intense solitary exercise. With some of my other books, I'd take a day to write and literally have no communication with another human being until dinner. This breaks it up. I really like having someone else to talk through ideas, read drafts, call bullshit, etc. The process is a little difference for each book. Before this one, I wrote a book with Al Michaels. That was more the traditional as-told-to variety. Good as Al is as a broadcaster, he might be better as a storyteller. It was my job to take these stories and knit them into a 90,000-word book. I did a basketball novel(tremendously fun if not tremendously well-read) with the great Jack McCallum that basically consisted of our having a rough idea of where we wanted to go and then alternating chapters. This most recent book was more of a classic collaboration.

Gelf Magazine: Why is sports such a popular topic to explore as metaphor for the business world?

Jon Wertheim You could devote a book to this answer. There are obviously a lot of parallels—or at least plausible parallels. Teamwork and leaders and glue guys and competition. I don't have data to back this up, but it seems like people in the business world have a sports background, disproportionate from other lines of work. Sports are this easily digested cultural force. Use the Warriors to illustrate a point about a firm that doesn't take itself too seriously, and who can't relate?
But I think a big appeal of sports-as-metaphor is the scoreboard, the unambiguous result at the end. You may love the Broncos and you may hate them, but no one denies that they were the Super Bowl champs. The scoreboard says so. Sports have these outcomes that are not in dispute. For all the artifice and spin and dueling narratives, sports are, ultimately, pretty bullshit-free. You won or you didn't. You put up the numbers or you didn't. You advanced or you went home. This lack of ambiguity is really appealing.

Gelf Magazine: When you're writing a book like this, do you anticipate lots of invitations from businesses and business conferences? Is speaking to them something you enjoy?

Jon Wertheim I realized after Scorecasting that it's an offshoot of writing a sports/business book, and, sure, I'm happy to do these speaking engagements. You talk about your work and your research, sell a few books, learn about a new industry. I've also found that these events are absolute goldmines for story ideas. "I own the local minor league hockey team here and we have a fabulous kid—Connor McDavid—I'd be happy to put you in touch with." "My wife is a neurologist and she could tell you horror stories about how college teams cover up concussions." "I'm retired now. I was the judge who ruled on an MLB antitrust case someone should look into…"

Gelf Magazine: What does Mookie Wilson say on the phone when you hire him for a bar-mitzvah greeting?

Jon Wertheim I would send you a link, but seems to have removed it. Verbatim:
"Hey Ben, I hear it's your bar mitzvah! Mazel tov, from Mookie Wilson! Your accomplishment is just like the time I beat Buckner to first base in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Only yours comes with a big ol' party, tons of lox and uncle Saul complaining about the chicken. You know, some people are surprised when they learn my real name isn't Mookie Wilson. It's Herbert Morris Bloomfield. Why, I remember my very own bar mitzvah back in Bamberg, South Carolina. We schlepped to the synagogue for brisket and Manischewitz. My mother fell off the chair doing the horah…well, by now you probably figured out that I'm not Jewish. But you are. So congrats on your big day."
My question: what does Mookie Blaylock say for a bar mitzvah greeting?

Gelf Magazine: Why does it seem like many of the best players in tennis make great coaches?

Jon Wertheim I would gently attack that premise. Jimmy Connors was not a successful coach. Stefan Edberg? Meh. John McEnroe did not distinguish himself as a Davis Cup captain. Martina Navratilova is a super-fantastic person but did not distinguish herself as a coach last year. Our theory: the very best athletes—and musicians and programmers and cooks and mechanics—suffer from the curse of expertise. They are so talented that they skip steps when processing tasks. This not only makes it hard for them to articulate their process (their advice inevitably starts with the word "just") but they lack empathy and understanding for those who don't skip steps. The best tennis coaches tend to be the LaRussa and Kerr types who played at a high level, but were never elite. They were world-class practitioners but not so elite that they skipped steps.

Gelf Magazine: Now that you understand the psychological underpinnings of effort justification, will you try to persuade your son to root for the Yankees?

Jon Wertheim It's funny, we wrote that chapter on the Mets and—life being into irony—they made it to the World Series. Get me rewrite! Then, that World Series was so disappointing, so singularly Metsian—the ace overruling the manager; the disappearance of Murphy; that Duda throw home (allegedly) that tailed off toward Canarsie—that the principles of effort justification were animated anew.

Gelf Magazine: Who is your rival who pushes you to be better? What is Sports Illustrated's?

Jon Wertheim It's funny, I'm not competitive at all by nature. But the more I read about rivalry, the more I wish I were—or could at least convince myself that I had a rival. I'm not sure SI has a Coke/Pepsi, Google/Apple rival. I think that the current media landscape motivates everyone in the industry right now.

Gelf Magazine: Does knowing the psychology of sports fans and sports watchers—like ascribing greater hustle and effort to the underdog—make you more cognizant of your own potential biases when watching and writing about sports?

Jon Wertheim Totally. And I'm fine with that. Mythmaking is such a critical part of sports. But both this book and Scorecasting are about either attacking some of the myths (quarterbacks are the most handsome players; defense wins championships) or explaining WHY some of these counterintuitive features of sports aren't myth (home field advantage, disproportionately crazy outcomes in rivalry games).

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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