Mark Cuban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you believe all the smart mark sports blogs, I’m supposed to hate ESPN First Take and heap specific scorn upon Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith whenever the chance arises.
But I don’t, so I don’t.
I’ve always liked Bayless. For years, he’s been the only one saying anything substantially different about any of our sports meta-narratives. I think he’s insightful, keenly intelligent, and a savvy interpreter of the human condition as refracted through the lens of postmodernity in sports. Smith is those things, too, and he’s at his best when meandering through measured, point-by-point analysis, which I find him doing more often, lately, than the almost unwatchable theatrics he’s better known for.
I also tend to like Mark Cuban. Like Bayless, he’s a contrarian by nature, and I’ve admired recent stands he’s taken on things like the looming student credit bubble. He’s a smart, successful business man with, I’ve assumed, a great command of How These Things Work, These Things being sports communications in the 21st century. Something he famously helped invent, after all.
So I’m bummed out by the ad hominen attacks he brought to the set of First Take last week. He accused Bayless and Smith of only ever speaking in generalities and of “never using facts.” Anyone who has ever seen First Take for more than five minutes knows that Skip and Stephen are addicted to statistics and use them in the manner of historians: with a recognition that “facts” don’t exist in some kind of pristine vacuum. Bayless, Smith, and writers in all places in all times use data to establish a particular interpretation of history. I don’t fault Cuban for having never taking a class in historiography, but that doesn’t make him any less, or any less woefully, wrong about the veracity of facts. And he’s lying about Bayless and Smith never analyzing data. It’s as if Cuban believes there are a few factual and true metanarratives floating around out there about LeBron or the Mavericks or sports culture in general, and everything else is “mere” opinion.
When I was in Div School, a took an American History course that was cross-listed with other grad programs and with the undergrad program at Yale. Having spent almost half of my undergraduate career at Ursinus in advanced history classes, I assumed Yale undergrads would have a firm grasp on the finer points of historiography.
Then one day, a senior-year English major said “But it’s not like there are histories, plural. There’s, like, what happened. History is not interpretation.”
How my vaunted view of the mythical Ivy undergrad experience crashed to Earth, much like the cosmologies we were studying at the time. How could an English major at Yale, and a senior, to boot, fail so epically and so basically? English gets all the credit for bringing postmodernity from the hinterland of art into academia proper, but there was a little old book by a man named E. H Carr called What Is History? that Cuban and my old classmate would both still do well to read.
History is interpretation, and that’s all it can ever be. The reasons why should be obvious. From different vantages, we all see the same object but different facets of it, and we’re all seeing the object, even if we’re not seeing the object as such, the Ideal Form, The Thing In Itself. History is interpretation, and what is the 24 hours news cycle, or the programming of the World Wide Leader in Sports, if not instant history?
I know Mark Cuban’s not a stupid guy. I know all the blogheads saying he eviscerated First Take as a concept, and the journalistic integrity of Bayless and Smith specifically, aren’t stupid either. But they are fundamentally wrong, and so is Cuban. Where Cuban succeeded was in production. He boorishly out-bullied the men most often castigated by the sports intelligentsia as boorish bullies and proved himself as the Man with the Largest Contrarian Credential in the room. Even if he doesn’t understand history, I’m sure Mark Cuban understands irony. But not always.