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Monday, January 30, 2012
What's the story?

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

"What can you say?" asked Patrick McEnroe, and silence was the answer. Nothing could be said. This was deep in the fifth hour of that Djokovic-Nadal Australian Open final, and description or analysis or even thought seemed useless in the face of what was happening. The best moments in sports defy language.

Novak Djokovic
Pause and meditate on Novak Djokovic's Aussie Open win.

Sometimes the story is so good you can't even tell it.

Or so bad. Thus, a storytelling flyover this week, about legend-making and revisionism, back-pedaling and product placement and plausible deniability, failure of the buzzard press and defense of the corporation and the collision of modernity and rapture.

Exhibit A is a story so overheated and undercooked that almost no sense can be made of it. Patrick Witt, a quarterback at Yale, may or may not have gotten himself in serious trouble at school. After which he may or may not have lied about the state of his Rhodes scholarship candidacy. Which may or may not have allowed him to play in The Game against Harvard last fall. Which may or may not have occasioned a great deal of puffery on the part of the school and the zombie media. Which may or may not have been an heroic or lousy thing to do.

Find the story fragments here and here and here and here.

The true story is that no one in the news business has the true story.

Which happens more often than you think, despite our best efforts and intentions. And by way of full disclosure, I have a long and happy history with both Yale University and The New York Times. I take no sides here. Because I have no idea what those sides might be.

Phil Knight
Was Phil Knight's eulogy PR, marketing or a heart-felt defense of Joe Paterno?

Institutions in defense of themselves and one another are a popular theme this week, for sure. The story of Phil Knight's eulogy in defense of Joe Paterno and against Penn State's board of trustees being one such example.

It is a condition of our modernity that we spend a great deal of our lives now trying to separate the truth from the brand strategy, the slogan from the heartfelt expression, the evening news from the viral marketing campaign.

So it is either a terrible cynicism or a clear-eyed truth that Mr. Knight's tribute to Paterno can be read as a form of corporate repositioning, or can be just as easily seen as crisis management or the reaffirmation of a shoe contract, as it can an homage to a departed mentor and friend.

Once the evidence against Jerry Sandusky rolls in, who knows which way Nike might jump?

But jump it most certainly will. Which will be another tough week for the truth.

A brief aside here to note this tough week ended in the worst All-Star Sunday in modern history. The NFL Pro Bowl, for decades understood as no more than a weeklong experiment in the effects of jet lag, sunshine and Mai Tai poisoning on human intellection, mating and touch football, remains unchanged. The NHL's annual shinny game, however, somehow sank to new lows.

Over the years the league has transformed itself from the keeper of a burning Northeastern passion with a fanatical core audience into the bland corporate reseller of a parochial entertainment everyone everywhere now recognizes but chooses to ignore. Magic!

Which may be why the All-Star Game was on channel 2590 here in the U.S. Next year the game will be available only as a ham radio broadcast. Beginning in 2014, it will be played in your driveway.

All Star Game
In case you weren't paying attention, this is an action shot from the NHL All-Star Game.

The two stories to escape the gravitational suck of the NHL's Super Secret All-Star Weekend were Sidney Crosby's Super Secret Maybe Broken Neck, and The Tim Thomas Individual Protest Against Big Government. So two stories about compromised backbone.

By refusing an invitation to visit the White House, Mr. Thomas made his statement but suffered some narrative neck pain of his own. The trouble being, according to Mr. Thomas, that people actually paid attention to what he was saying and doing. Which would seem to be the very point of a public protest. Unless the protester lacks, um, conviction, i.e., "Look at me, look at me, look at me! Stop looking at me!"

In the end Mr. Thomas chose not to elaborate his political positions, but he was able instead to blame the media, thereby sending everyone to bed happy.

Because it's easy to disconnect words from meaning.

Halfway around the world, two men play tennis for nearly six hours. As you watch, the apparatus of television and the tournament fall away, even tennis itself falls away, until there is only call and response, weakness and strength, attack and counter-attack.

Maybe you sit watching this, transfixed by what you see, in a state that feels like it should lead to something. Something about yourself. If you could just watch long enough, just feel this way long enough, you might understand something very important about yourself. That's how it feels to see this.

To reduce this sensation to story, to language, would be to wake from a trance and enter what Charles Baxter last week called the "fallen world of meaning."

It ends. It is the longest grand slam final ever played.

"There are no words," says Chris Fowler.

At last. The best sports story of all.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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