One of my frustrations with the conversations around sports is that there’s not enough appreciation for the beauty of bodies in motion. We have abundant scholarship on the math of games and seasons, endless narratives about what every performance means, article after article telling heroic stories of players, and conspiracy theories adding color to otherwise banal incidents. Somehow, the space to celebrate finely-tuned bodies doing breathtaking things has been crowded out.
Discussions of aesthetics are prominent in the world of dance, which makes their absence from sports even more bizarre. Movement can’t be found in a box score. It is a dance of its own.
For example, last night a wonderful video was retweeted onto my timeline. It shows Brianna Alger, a player for the Washington State women’s soccer team, putting an opponent on skates.
A couple of things to address about this video.
First of all, the editing on the video is wonderful. It slows down at the perfect time, right after Alger takes a look forward towards the opponent she is about to destroy. Second, it was disappointing to find out that Alger is a defender. My personal philosophy is to never praise defenders, since no one ever grows up wanting to be one, and their entire existence on the field hinges on ruining things for their more talented counterparts. But what Alger did was so incredible that it would have been an abdication of my morality to not give her credit. What makes up for her being a defender is that she’s wearing the No. 10, which shows that even though she’s been relegated to the positional slums, she dreams of a better life as a playmaker. Dreams that I have to believe gave birth to her moves.
All five seconds of the video fill my heart with so much joy. It’s such a cinematic and beautiful dismantling of another human being. Without touching the ball until after the event, Alger emotionally and physically victimizes her opponent. And the most fun part of it all is that her moves are purely instinctual. Alger reacts to the defender’s body shape, in the same way that the defender reacts to her movements to try to prevent her from going forward.
Alger takes a hard step to her left, knowing that the defender is already moving quickly in that direction. The defender slows down and sets her body to face outside, hoping to gain a better angle to deal with the attack. But by responding to that first hard step, the defender lost the battle.
Once the defender’s body turns, she puts herself at Alger’s mercy. Then, because she can only react to what her attacker is doing, the ball becomes secondary. Alger takes another hard step to the inside with the same left foot, and now the defender, who is twisted, has to try to square her body facing forward. But as she’s turning, Algers has already started going back outside.
The defender is beaten. But she’s still tenacious, and those instincts lead her to further embarrassment. She still wants to recover and stop Alger, but her body is unbalanced. Her mind wants to go to the outside, but momentum is taking her inside. As she tries to correct the problem, she attempts to grab at Algers and falls to one knee. All Algers does throughout the sequence is use the defender’s own instincts to destroy her. And she does this without even touching the ball.
As much as I enjoy all other aspects of soccer, events like this delight me more than anything, when two bodies are reacting to each other, and one wins by abusing the other’s instincts. They condense all of the beauty of sports into an isolated moment.
Plus, there are few things better in sports than watching defenders get embarrassed, even if it’s by another defender.