In the WSJ today, Max Boot gives us a writing lesson.
Step 1: choose a question that people find compelling
Mr. Boot’s question: "Why is Terrell Owens such a jerk?" (For those just returned from the exploration of deep space, Terrell Owens is a wide- receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. He is famous for being uncooperative with coaches, hostile to fellow players, and one of the greatest football players ever to walk this earth. His training camp has been the great preoccupation of ESPN for some time now.)
Step 2: Ask, in this case, whether Owens’ bad behavior in training camp is an idiosyncratic matter or a reflection of something more structural.
If it’s “idiosyncractic,” search for another topic. But if it’s “structural,” go to step 3.
Mr. Boot decides it’s structural on the grounds that other wide receivers (Randy Moss and Keyshawn Johnson) sometimes act as Mr. Owens does.
Wide receivers are far removed — literally — from the rest of the team: They line up close to the sidelines. While the other players battle in the trenches, the wide-outs do their own thing, dashing around the field accompanied only by a defensive back or two. They aren’t part of the action unless they get thrown the ball, so many of them spend an inordinate amount of time lobbying their own coaches and quarterbacks to get the pigskin into their paws. In short, they have a built-in incentive to be loudmouths. And whereas other players know they’ll be ruthlessly punished by the opposing team for acting up, wide-outs can usually stay safe by running out of bounds or flopping to the turf prior to a hit.
Step 4: Ask an anthropologist if there is anything he would add. He obliges us with two additional explanations.
1) Wide receivers are often the best athletes on the field. They routinely accomplish something that is almost unthinkably difficult. They travel 50 yards at Olympic-class speeds, leap in the air to NBA-class heights, and while falling backwards, first touch and then, while hyper-extended and dragging two defensive backs, catch something that isn’t much larger than a hamster, traveling about 60 miles an hour, thrown by a lesser athlete who just happens to be running for his life at the point of origin and moment of launch.
2) Wide receivers are routinely subjected to blind side hits when hyper extended. This means the best athlete on the field is exposed to collisions when most exposed and least prepared. The best athlete, mind you: most exposed to injury when least prepared for injury. I can’t help thinking that this would make me grumpy too. (Happily, anthropology is fairly low contact.)
Step 5: Wait for the congratulations to roll in
Here’s some now: Well done, Mr. Box. This is an important contribution to public discourse and a fresh and intelligent take on the single biggest story to emerge from training camp. It penetrates all that who-does-this-guy-think-he-is, sometimes racist scorn that has descended on Mr. Owens. In a second, ESPN condemnation burns away and for one very brief second we can imagine what it’s like to be Terrell Owens. I say, well done, Mr. Boot. If you weren’t writing for the Wall Street Journal, you’d make a damn fine blogger.
Boot, Max. 2005. In Bad Company: Why Terrell Owens Isn’t the Only Wide Receiver Who’s Not a Team Player. Wall Street Journal. August 17, 2005.