There’s an old saying in media and sports circles that goes something like this: If an alien were to come to Earth from outer space and read a newspaper, he’d likely conclude that sports are one of the most important things on the planet. Think about it for a moment: We’ve got the sports pages, the evening news sports report, ESPN (and its numerous ancillary stations and publications), Sports Illustrated, AM sports talk radio, Deadspin, Grantland, SBNation, the Bleacher Report—the list goes on and on.
Some people point to this proliferation of sports coverage as evidence that our priorities are out of whack. If only we devoted as many resources to investigating, debating, and demanding changes from our governments and large corporations…. If only we paid teachers as much as we pay freakishly large men to tackle each other…. If only we didn’t glorify these athletes as if they were paragons of how people should act…. Many of these arguments have merit—and it should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that our society could benefit from prioritizing what really matters and what sort of matters in a more thoughtful way. But it’s also naive, in my opinion, to suggest that athletics aren’t important. Sports have meaning in our lives in much the same way movies or John Grisham novels do: They provide us necessary respites from the things that really matter. They can also unify nations and cities (see, for example, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”), and, for children who participate in sports, they can teach the lessons of perseverance, teamwork, and discipline.
Sometimes, the personalities who help make professional sports so engaging get lost amid the talk of wins and losses and X’s and O’s and salary caps, and that’s why truly illuminating sports profiles are always good reads. For this issue, senior editor Natasha Gardner has penned a piece soccer fans and non–soccer fans (and, I would submit, non–sports fans) will appreciate. This past season, the Colorado Rapids’ new head coach Pablo Mastroeni was thrown into the proverbial fire: He had zero coaching experience, and the team was in turmoil after its previous coach decamped to a rival club. Mastroeni stumbled in multiple ways—with his players, with the fans, and with the media (he said in one interview that he didn’t care about wins, offending all three of those groups simultaneously)—but as Gardner illustrates so skillfully in “Head Games,” Mastroeni’s unique background and the traumas he’s experienced during his life inexorably shape who he is as a coach and as a human being.
While media coverage of sports may occasionally be a little—OK, a lot—over the top, Gardner’s piece is a quintessential example of sports journalism at its best. Stories like hers push past the bromides offered up by agents and publicists and the athletes themselves to give us insight into the people who provide us with so much entertainment and joy (and agony). And, if we read closely, a piece like Gardner’s can teach us something important—something that really does matter—about ourselves, too.