It's the thing you have to note when writing about ESPN columnist/curdled golf-dad Rick Reilly. It's something worth noting in the interest of fairness, because if you're writing about Rick Reilly right now, you are mostly writing about some howling, sour-smelling dumpster fire of a column he recently wrote. It's also worth noting because it is, however astonishingly, true. Rick Reilly was, for a long time and not such a long time ago, regarded as one of the very best sportswriters working.
Sports was the subject of a much smaller and more staid discourse during Reilly's zenith years in the 1980s and early '90s, but the proof is all easy enough to find at Sports Illustrated, where Reilly did his best work. Most of sports media's beefiest and most worked-over tackling dummies were never really all that different from the caricatures they became once they started going on TV all the time. (There was never a Golden Age of Jay Mariotti, if you were worried.) But Reilly, the unctuous, grandiose, weirdly short-tempered Michael Scott of sports columnists, was once very good.
A few years ago, Tommy Craggs put together a collection of links dedicated to proving as much at Deadspin; when I searched for it just now, the link was purple. I don't remember why I'd been there recently -- it was probably in the wake of Reilly's widely reviled and weirdly bilious column on the nefarious PC plot to change the name of Washington's NFL team -- but it wasn't long ago. During the entire ill-tempered span of Reilly's Carl Pavano-vian contract with ESPN, the need for these reminders has become more urgent and frequent.
That Reilly is alleged to have wildly misquoted his father-in-law in his "Don't Let Libtards Take This Particular Branded Slur From Us" opus is the latest embarrassment, and in most ways worse than Reilly's familiar dated mis-craftsmanship. According to that father-in-law -- a member of the Blackfoot Nation who was used in the piece to bolster Reilly's argument that Native Americans actually like the term "redskin" and that the PC police should stop bullying them -- Reilly culled words from his statement such that he appeared to be saying the opposite of what was intended, then refused to correct the column when asked.
If this is indeed what happened -- Reilly kinda-sorta denied it on Thursday -- it reveals a laziness so comically brazen that it beggars belief. It's the equivalent of a movie studio PR team taking a sentence like:
"On any all-time list of films that could be described as 'insultingly stupid' and 'featuring an embalmed-looking Nicolas Cage pissing fire', Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has to rank near the top"
And quoting it in a TV ad as:
"on any all-time list of films, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has to rank near the top."
More embarrassing is that Reilly's father-in-law, a man who runs a restaurant near Glacier National Park in Montana and is not a professional writer, crafted a significantly more pointed, heartfelt and convincing piece about what this particular slur means than did Reilly, a spectacularly well-compensated professional writer who has won the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association National Sportswriter of the Year award 11 times.
So, yes: the whole thing is embarrassing, to a number of people and in a bunch of ways. And it certainly seems worth considering that, based on recent evidence and less-recent evidence, Rick Reilly might just be kind of a jerk, and that that's about all there is to say about that. But the decline of a writer as talented as Reilly seems worthy of a little more consideration of that. Here are three ways to think about it.
RICK REILLY IS SICK OF HIS JOB
There are an infinite number of ways to spend the majority of one's hours that are more healthful and enjoyable than working at a job, although none of them pay nearly as well. For that reason, or for that reason and the subsidiary reason that it costs money to do things like Live Indoors, we spend a great deal of our lives doing things that tend to be fairly far down on our personal lists. We deal with it, but if we were more open about the non-negotiable lousiness of that deal, we'd all have giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ tattoos and spend most of our daily professional interactions just shrugging at each other. But that's the game, and we have work to do.
Reilly, for all the other things he's upset about, seems not to enjoy his columns very much. For all the righteous huff-and-puff of Reilly's recent columns -- where Reilly once displayed a creeping curmudgeonliness, that 'mudgery is now hurtling, and bloomed into active full-spectrum grouchiness -- there's also a palpable reluctance to it all. In this column and in general, he mostly seems sick and tired of everyone and everything involved, and uninterested in considering the fundamental question of why the various humans involved -- as human as him on both sides of the argument, just with fewer NSSA awards -- might feel the way they do. This evidently includes his father-in-law, whose passionate statement was strip-mined for useful words and disregarded.
Instead, Reilly props up various strawmen, wallops as needed, serves up a one-paragraph Boom Roasted punchline, and moves on to the next. The only way to explain the appalling kicker in Reilly's Redskins column -- "Kind of like a reservation," you remember it -- is to understand it as pure, abstracted rhetoric. Take it seriously, and it's thunderously dumb and utterly without perspective. But what indication is there that Reilly took this column -- anything about it, from the weight of the shameful, centuries-spanning betrayal of Native Americans in the United States on down -- at all seriously? Speaking of which:
RICK REILLY IS RIGHT TO HATE HIS JOB
As a feature writer, Reilly's genius was for spending time with cartoonish, mostly unappealing subjects like Marge Schott or Bryant Gumbel and pulling some recognizable humanity out of them. As a columnist, Reilly has not been nearly as patient, or as willing to allow things to surface in their own time. Where true things once emerged in his writing, Reilly now grimly thrusts various themes -- Liberal Hypocrisy; Redemption; A Father's Love -- to the front, dourly muttering golf jokes to himself all the while.
Some of this is on him, but a lot of it reflects the constraints of his current gig. When Reilly is mawkish, his columns scan treacly and false-bottomed. When Reilly is huffy and righteous, his columns aren't much better, though he at least seems legitimately pissy. (Though never about the thing he's writing about, which clearly does not interest him.) Either way, his job as he seems to understand it is strictly farming heirloom species of Hot Take. It is a rote gig, and one that may not suit him.
Which is not to say he couldn't still write good things. Send Reilly to, say, play Pebble Beach every day for a month, and let him write about what he sees and feels and what he learns from the people he meets there, and you might get something like a Rick Reilly piece -- something with the humor and engagement that defined him when he was good. Ask him to extrude a take on some news cycle's scandal or off-the-rack bit of reheated sports-inspiration, and you'll get exactly what you get.
BUT RICK REILLY ALSO MIGHT BE KIND OF A JERK
There are a great many ways to define this particular term, but a solid working definition would seem to be "someone incapable or unwilling to take seriously the possibility that other people might think or feel differently than you for legitimate reasons." The signature of Reilly's decline is the way in which he has blustered upstage and into the foreground, while the people and things he writes about have receded into abstraction.
While it obviously is to a sportswriter's advantage to care about sports, even a sort of dimming in interest where sports are concerned -- and only a very few miraculous/defective people can carry this particular obsession across multiple decades and millions of words -- can be surmounted as long as there's some underlying interest in the people playing and watching and caring about the sport in question. The games are just games; what matters about them is something we bring to it ourselves, together. There's a lot to write about there, if you're interested in writing about it. If not, why do it at all?