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Volunteer For Life 11 min read

Volunteer For Life

On Tennessee sports fandom, plus Larry Bird and fathers, Willie Mays, cornhole, eels, AI, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’ve been watching a lot of sports lately. Not just a lot for me, but a lot period.

Courtney’s been obsessed with the U.S. Olympic Team trials in swimming, so I’ve seen nearly all of that. We’ve both been very into the track and field portion as well.

I’ve been trying to convince myself that soccer is something that I understand and that my love for Ted Lasso could actually be rooted in more than simply Jason Sudekis’s folksy charm. The Euro and Copa America tournaments are providing numerous opportunities for me to both tell myself I’m going to get serious about the sport and get distracted and miss the only bits of memorable action in 90 minutes.

Golf is a regular weekend viewing habit, and I’m still thinking about that Father’s Day finish for the U.S. Open.

But lately, it’s been baseball. College baseball, specifically.

My Tennessee Volunteers just won their first-ever College World Series, and the school’s first national championship by a men’s team since the 1998 BCS. (The women’s teams won a track and field championship in 2009, and Coach Pat Summit’s Lady Vols basketball team won one in 2008.)

It’s been a long time coming for Vols fans, but it feels special that it came in my most favored sports. I remember a decade ago in law school, it was no big thing to go to a Vols baseball game; the stands were not packed. Things have changed now, as the program has been surging for the past few years under coach Tony Vitello.

What feels great about this win is the connection to the place. Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s in Tennessee, I and the rest of the state had few options when it came to our fandom. We were not yet the home of professional sports teams. The Titans were the Oilers and resided in Houston. The Grizzlies were Canadian, for goodness sake! I’m pretty sure nobody in the state at that time even knew what ice hockey was (though the Predators healthy fanbase would have you believe otherwise these days). So it was college sports for us. (I’m sure folks in Mississippi and Alabama know what I’m talking about. Still.)

I mean, sure. We had our fandoms. Some were handed down, which is why half of my childhood friends bleed St. Louis Cardinals’ red; their grandfather’s had listened to the games on the radio, and the signal from St. Louis came in clear. Some were matters of exposure. My continued love of the Atlanta Braves stems less from proximity (we were almost equidistant from St. Louis and Atlanta, so I could have gone either way there), but it was from Turner cable broadcasting and the pull of the 1990s’ teams. Some made no sense at all: Since I had no hometown team, I was one to base my loyalties on players. The San Francisco 49ers couldn’t have been farther away geographically, but you’d find no bigger fan east of the Mississippi River than I, repping Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young. Same for the Seattle Mariners of my youth, led by Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson; they were the first New Era fitted, proper baseball cap I ever owned. Basketball? Are you kidding me? It was the 90s. I was in so deep for Michael and the Bulls; it felt like I watched every possible game of that historic 1996 run to 72 wins. But also I was hopelessly enamored with another shooting guard upstart, from my very own state no less, Penny Hardaway. I loved my Orlando Magic No. 1 jersey; it might have been my most prized possession. It probably sounds random and disloyal and scattershot, freewheeling as kids are wont to do. But ask around how many folks in the state of Tennessee still have Indianapolis Colts jerseys (or better yet Denver Broncos jerseys) all because Peyton Manning played there. We were a state that made up our own rules around fandom.

But the University of Tennessee was the outlier. It was the thing we all rallied around, especially in football. You’ll find hundreds if not thousands (probably tens of thousands) of residents of the state who say “we this” and “us that” when referring to the Volunteers even though they never stepped foot on campus in Knoxville as a student. And nobody across the state finds that weird. (This probably isn’t different at any other massive powerhouse school, but it felt particularly pronounced due to our lack, for so many years, of professional alternatives.)

But in this national championship, I get to say “we” with a little extra mustard on it. I’m not part of “we” simply because I was born under the Tristar flag. I’m not “we” because it was home for so long.

I’m “we” because I got to go there, as a student. Not just that, but so did my baby brother. Ours was not a family of rabid sports fans (which is probably why I can take or leave sports viewership so easily these days). Nor were we a family of college graduates. We’d have known little about what to expect at the state’s flagship university until we arrived, and after we did, it’s hard to quite describe (though easy for any fan of their alma maters to understand) how that sense of pride got inside us, bone deep. It was a place that meant something to us, not merely by the tradition of loading up the car and driving there with our family every weekend for games (we never did that), but from having walked those sidewalks and toted our books and lived a student’s life there. We were a part of it just as surely as it will always be a part of us.

There are much bigger Tennessee fans than I. I know them. Friends and family and random strangers on the street, any number of them could surpass me in terms of the rabidity of their fandom. I know that, and I don’t try to hide it. But this College World Series gave me reason to awaken from my ongoing sports slumber and cheer with heart and investment in a team I never saw play in person. It made no difference. And for that I’m thankful, thankful to my home state, my home team, my home; Rocky Top is still home sweet home to me.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. This beautiful essay from Esquire on Larry Bird is so much more than a story about the Celtics great. It’s about fathers and sons, sports and fandom, and much, much more more.
  2. Gotdamn, please let Joe Posnanski write my eulogy when I pass. Here he is on the great Willie Mays, who died last week at 93. I love this bit from it, from Mays’ humble nature to Posnanski’s incredulousness at his humbleness: Even Mays himself couldn’t quite understand it. “All I did was play baseball,” he would say when approached by another fan with tears in his eyes. On one level, this was true. All he did was play baseball. All Robert Frost did was write poetry. All Grace Kelly did was play in movies. All Albert Einstein did was think about the universe. All Prince did was play music.
  3. From the best of sports to the worst of it. This Washington Post series (and podcast) on how sports is now just another victim of (or weapon of) the culture wars is just a bummer. It’s undeniably onto something real; I think many viewers (or part-time viewers like me) can tell that much. But it’s just a sad reality.
  4. From the worst of sports to the most popular non-sport sport of them all? It’s cornhole. (Which I was thrilled to see The New York Times Magazine call by its proper name; some weirdos around here call it “bags” but say it in an accent that sort of sounds more like “begs.” Like, no sir. This is clearly called cornhole for reasons we ALL understand and aren’t the least bit confused by. What’s that? You want me to tell you those reasons? No, I don’t think I will. I definitely know them. But I don’t need to tell you. It’s just the way it is.) This story is mostly about how it came to be such popular television programming, but it’s got some great lingo and terminology that I didn’t know and some even greater Tom Wolfe-like writing of sound effects.
  5. Sometimes a story catches you out of the (deep) blue, and that’s exactly what this latest from Paige Williams in The New Yorker did. Have I given much thought to eels? Nope. (Save for my very real certainty that I don’t want it to touch me if I’m in a body of water.) But this story is endlessly fascinating, from the eels themselves to the huge commercial ecosystem they support.
  6. The world is a big place, and it’s hard to stay atop everything happening across it, but the sheer size and scale of the famine in Sudan (which is in the midst of a civil war) is staggering. More staggering still is how little I know about it. This story from The New York Review of Books does its part to spread awareness. “As of October 2023, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global monitoring agency, claimed that nearly eighteen million people, almost 40 percent of the population, faced acute hunger. Those figures were calculated before the extent of the last harvest’s failure was known. Last month the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, released a report suggesting that 2.5 million people will die from famine-related causes by the end of September. Sudan is experiencing the largest famine the world has seen for at least forty years.”
  7. Despite the Vols’ National Championship win, all is not ideal in Tennessee. NPR’s Embedded follows three conservative mothers trying to navigate Tennessee’s supermajority legislature and confront their own political beliefs in the aftermath of 2023 Covenant School mass shooting in Nashville. The cold open of this podcast, before the host even introduces the series, is a masterclass in audio storytelling. Can’t wait to catch the rest of this four-part series.
  8. I’ve written a lot in these newsletters about AI (because so many elsewhere are writing about it), and Harper’s devoted an issue to the topic. A pair of great essays were the centerpiece, and this one, by Laurent Dubreuil explores what it is that ChatGPT actually does. Dubreuil describes an experiment he helped conduct in which Cornell students were pitted against ChatGPT in the task of writing poetry. The results are revealed amid other interesting talking points about how the technology works, but one observation struck a chord with me because it’s the same complaint I’ve been lodging with my constant naysaying about generative AI. “At least some of these issues could be fixed fairly quickly, although their solutions are not always obvious. What remains impossible to address within the current technical paradigm is the lack of meaningful creation. The key reason we may be so amazed to read a pedestrian stanza “authored” by ChatGPT, in other words, is that we have already habituated ourselves to banality and mediocrity. This is what our society now emphasizes and rewards: run-of-the-mill statements, canned remarks, uniform pronouncements, recitations of creeds and commandments, ready-made soliloquies, stories or arguments obtained through the mere application of stylistic recipes. I sympathize with the Hollywood writers who went on strike in part because they suspected the big studios would seek to use AI to replace them. But if so many of these writers had not already reduced their trade to a series of plot twists and rehashed situations or characters, LLMs would have little appeal.” This feels right to me (if not a little too directly pointed at TV writers): It’s not that ChatGPT’s mimicry is so otherworldly good; it’s that our expectation for writing, in general, has lowered considerably. When AI clears that relatively low bar, it strikes some as impressive. But for me, it’s just depressing all around. EXTRA: Mitchell Volk’s always-interesting newsletter shared these icons that creators can download and append to their online work. One sums it up quite well: “This badge is not anti-tech. It’s pro human.”
  9. “Sometimes it’s the author, not the subject. Show me a history of reality TV and, honestly, sorry, I don’t much care. But show me a history of reality TV written by Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker staff writer and former TV critic (winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for pieces on Joan Rivers and Mad Men, among other worthy topics), and I am now very interested.” I felt this lede to a recent Airmail piece about Nussbaum’s newest book, Cue The Sun!: The Invention of Reality TV.” I only recently got into reality TV in any meaningful way, with late-to-the-party enthusiasm for Top Chef and Survivor. I got hooked, finally saw the appeal. I enjoy the competition aspect, which speak to a sort of reality TV show that has a purpose: to crown a winner. I don’t put much stock in the faux competition shows (like the Bachelor franchise) or the completely inert, fly-on-the-wall shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or any of the Real Housewives. But as a matter of cultural study, maybe I should be more interested. That’s why I’d trust Nussbaum’s sure hand at walking me through it. I’m not sure this will be at the top of my list for next books to buy, but I’m definitely interested in what this sharp critic has to say about the subject. Airmail on Emily Nussbaum’s book
  10. Over the weekend, I saw one of my favorite movies of the year so far. Jeff Nichols directed a throwback to the biker movie, aptly named The Bikeriders. It frustrated some viewers and critics, but I loved the vibe of it all. Tom Hardy doing his best Marlon Brando. Austin Butler saying maybe 30 words the entire film, mostly just brooding and smoking. And Jodie Comer throwing 103-MPH fastballs the entire time with a thick Chicago accent. This review in the Guardian highlights some of what I liked so much about it.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Second-to-Last Episode of Longform Podcast

George Saunders on Reading For Fun vs. Reading For Analysis

Beautiful, Literary Writing About Golf on Deadline

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

6/17: The Boys, S4 (2) (Amazon Prime)
6/19: Fiennes: Return to the Wild (2) (Disney+); U.S. Olympic Trials (swimming)(Peacock); Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, S11(Max)
6/20: Top Chef, S21 (Peacock); The Boys, S4 (Amazon Prime)
6/21: U.S. Olympic Trials (swimming)(Peacock); U.S. Olympic Trials (track and field)(Peacock)
6/22: College World Series: Tennessee vs. Texas A&M (ESPN+); U.S. Olympic Trials (swimming)(Peacock); U.S. Olympic Trials (track and field)(Peacock)
6/23: THE BIKERIDERS (theater); Copa America: U.S. v. Bolivia (Fox Sports); College World Series: Tennessee vs. Texas A&M (ESPN+)