The common wisdom had it that the Wall Street Journal, my estimable former employer, hired as reporters people steeped in financial knowledge, the better to negotiate the subject’s complexities. The common wisdom was wrong.
I was Exhibit A in that regard. I don’t know what the paper is doing now, but when I was signed on in 1963 as a 25-year-old I was as green as they came businesswise, not knowing a stock from a bond. When I expressed anxiety about my deficiencies I was told not to worry, that if I kept my eyes and ears open I’d pick up what I needed.
Business and finance were merely “subject matter,” a senior colleague assured me then, and no harder to learn than any of the myriad other things journalists are called upon to cover. If one has the reportorial essentials—mainly curiosity, a low tolerance for B.S. and a willingness to pester people with unwelcome questions—the world would yield up its mysteries, or at least some of them, he said.
He was right and I happily spent years as a general-assignment reporter, writing about subjects as varied as business (of course), education, high fashion and theoretical physics. When I turned my hand to fulltime sports columnizing beginning in 1983 I felt no qualms about competing with men who had far more seniority than I on my new beat. Sports, after all, were just another subject, and in many ways not much different from what I’d been doing. Indeed, on some of the stories I dealt with, I thought my broad background gave me a leg up against people whose main concern always had been with who was on, or in, first.
A couple such stories have been in the news in recent weeks, and although they’ve been covered mostly on the sports pages they really weren’t about sports. I refer to the ones involving Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football hero with the dead imaginary girlfriend, and Caleb Moore, the snowmobiler whose death in an ESPN “X Games” stunt enthralled and appalled television viewers. Both were more about human nature and the way we live than about wins, losses or anything else that usually takes place on our fields of play. As such, they’ve pretty much been butchered by the people who’ve spoken or written about them.
For sheer strangeness, few recent stories have topped that of Te’o. It seems that the Hawaiian linebacker carried on a two-year online and telephonic affair with an island woman whom he came to regard as his girlfriend even though they’d never met. When he was told she’d died of leukemia on the same day last September as did his grandmother he duly informed news-media folk, and earned props for soldiering on in the face of adversity. That narrative gave a push to his strong Heisman Award candidacy, the first for a Domer in many years.
It turned out that the girlfriend never lived—that she was the invention of a warped, male “family friend” of Te’o’s who’d spoken and typed her lines-- but after he learned this Te’o kept it to himself as Heisman announcement day came and went. Thus, when the hoax became public he was vilified. Indeed, for a couple of weeks last month you couldn’t open a newspaper or turn on a TV set without hearing him mocked and denounced, and in a national poll by the website of the business magazine Forbes, which probably should concern itself with more-serious matters, he was voted the second “most disliked” American athlete, behind only the serial cheater and liar Lance Armstrong.
My first reaction to the flap was that it was wildly overblown, that while Te’o was an imposing lump of muscle he also was a young man of 22 subject to all the limitations of his tender years. I certainly wouldn’t like to see all the dumb things I did and said at 22 (or later) broadcast coast-to-coast. Further, his failure to leap to set the record straight about the matter is easily ascribable to his reluctance to look the fool. My guess is that he thought that if he kept his mouth shut the thing would go away, an error he’s shared with many older celebrities including a President or two. Give the kid a break, for chrissakes!
Upon reflection, however, I began to wonder how unusual was the crux of the story, which was that someone could become so enmeshed in a so-called “virtual” relationship that he could come to regard it as real. This, after all, is the digital age, when people boast they have hundreds of online “friends” even though they’ve never met most of them, and when it’s not uncommon to see a group of people sitting together around a restaurant table totally engrossed in their own, hand-held electronic devices.
One of my pet peeves is being waited on in a store and having the salesperson be diverted by a phone call and transferring his or her entire attention to the caller. To some, any jangling phone or streaming text line is more compelling than a live human being, no matter how close. Fess up--you may be one of them.
Caleb Moore’s tale was, of course, more tragic than Te’o’s, but no less misinterpreted. It was treated widely as an anomaly—something that’s unexpected and out of place. In fact, the kind of mishap that killed him was the logical consequence of his activity and inevitably will occur again.
Further, and more importantly, daredevilry is not the exclusive province of such high-risk sports as auto and motorcycle racing, downhill skiing and the entire “X Games” schedule (the “X” is short for “extreme,” as in “extremely dangerous”) but is evidenced more often in the ordinary work of the likes of police officers, fire fighters and combat soldiers, occupations pursued by millions. When most people hear gunfire they run away from it, but the cop or soldier runs toward it. Good thing, too; such people are necessary for our protection individually and as a society.
That risk seekers are different from you and me is obvious, but for reasons rarely investigated. Something I once read explains it nicely: they are anhedonic, which means they’re unable to experience pleasure in ordinary ways. While most people find ample delight in, say, a ballgame or a corned beef sandwich, for psychological or chemical reasons others need a real kick to get their juices flowing. This, by the way, also explains why people will take up with dangerous recreational drugs with the full knowledge that they could be their downfall.
A daredevil like the 25-year-old Moore does what he does because of the danger involved, not in spite of it. He said as much in an interview with the New York Times given shortly before his crash. Recalling the first time he did the fatal stunt as a 19-year-old, a full backflip off a ramp on a 500-pound machine, he said “it was the most exciting moment of my life¸ and the most heart-pounding, too.”
Minutes after Caleb Moore’s accident—while he was en route to the hospital—his 23-year-old brother Colton, also an “X Games” snowmobiler, tried the same trick on the same ramp. He wound up in the hospital with a separated pelvis. Released a day later, after Caleb had died, Colton said he’d be back in action as soon as he was able.