Crankcase: Happily Never After

What could romance novels and sportswriting possibly have in common? Only everything.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

There was something oddly familiar about David Sills’s story.

Oh, in many ways, his life is one-of-a-kind. Maybe you remember how he soared to fame back in 2010 at the tender age of 13, when, as the quarterback for Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Delaware, he was offered a college scholarship — by no less than famed USC coach Lane Kiffin. After Sills committed to USC, ESPN came calling. So did Good Morning America. The future looked bright.

But then — complications. Obstacles. Red Lion was bought by a church that didn’t give a fig for football. Kiffin was canned by USC, and the new coach, Steve Sarkisian, had his eye on other QBs. Then Sills broke his ankle in his senior year of high school. Decommitted from USC, he signed on instead at West Virginia, which turned him into a receiver. Desperate to again helm a team, he transferred in 2016 to a junior college in California. There was a Bleacher Report story about him. It was headlined THE FORGOTTEN PRODIGY.

And that’s where David Sills slips permanently out of public consciousness and goes on to live a life of quiet desperation, like most of the rest of humanity. Except that Sills didn’t. Instead, he eked out a year of juco exile, swallowed his pride, and asked his West Virginia coach to take him back again — as a receiver.

It was along about there in the Sports Illustrated story on Sills I was reading last September that I sat up in abrupt recognition: I knew David Sills. Oh, not personally. But I’d met him before, in dozens of incarnations — all of them based on Heather Simmons, the heroine of the first “bodice-ripper” romance novel published in the United States, in 1972: Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower.

If you’ve ever read The Flame and the Flower, chances are you’ve never heard of David Sills. The reverse is also likely true. That I’m familiar with both is sort of a fluke. When I was right out of college, I read a romance novel while I was stuck on a train. The basic arc seemed easy to grasp: beautiful woman beset by dire circumstances — the death of her parents, say, or a shipwreck, or war and occupation — is thrown into turmoil, calls on her inner resources, and triumphs her way into blissful marriage with the most coveted bachelor in all the land. This scenario didn’t, in my experience, appear particularly realistic. But it did seem fun, and relatively easy to duplicate. Over the next few decades, I published more than a dozen romance novels — a fact my non-admirers, who are legion, love to throw in my face in the comments sections of articles I write these days on more respectable (read: not womanly) subjects. How, they harangue, could anyone who once wrote such piffle ever have a serious or worthy thought?

But I’m also a lifelong sports fan — one who watches Phillies and Sixers and even Union games religiously — and when my son racked up enough frequent flier miles to earn a magazine subscription, I suggested Sports Illustrated, thinking it would interest us both. For the past year or so, I’ve been reading it faithfully every week. And it gradually dawned on me that there are distinct similarities between sports journalism and romance novels. You want to talk dire circumstances? How about these, from a 2013 Eli Saslow profile of LeBron James in ESPN magazine?

He began that fourth-grade school year the same way he had begun so many others: sleeping on a couch in a one-bedroom apartment that belonged to another of his mother’s friends, where parties continued late into the night and police were sometimes called to investigate noise violations. His mom, 25-year-old Gloria, had recently quit a job at Payless Shoes, according to a friend. She was living on welfare. She liked to go out, friends said, and sometimes left LeBron to supervise himself.

Or this, from my colleague Bob Huber’s 2010 Philly Mag profile of Allen Iverson:

Iverson comes from nothing — he’s said that himself — or, more precisely, from Hampton, Virginia, born of a single mother, Ann, who had him at 15 and supported herself however she could. Cousins and uncles piled into one tiny house. Sometimes there was raw sewage on the floors.

If it’s not poverty and chaos, it’s self-destructiveness, as in this Los Angeles Times piece on one of baseball’s great redemption stories:

It was 2 a.m. when Josh Hamilton, strung out on crack cocaine, his once-robust six-foot-four, 230-pound body withered to 180 pounds, most of his $3.96 million signing bonus squandered on booze and drugs, staggered up the steps to his grandmother’s house. …

Now tell me these guys aren’t kindred to our poor Heather, per this Wikipedia summation of the start (just the start!) of the plot of The Flame and the Flower:

After Heather Simmons, a penniless orphan, kills a man named William Court who was attempting to rape her, she flees the scene. Near the London dockside, two men, who mistake her for a prostitute, seize her and escort her onto a ship. Heather believes she has been arrested for murder. …

You can argue, if you like, that the lives of athletes, unlike that of Heather Simmons, are real, and so is their suffering. That’s not what matters here, though. What matters is how their stories are framed. These are men who rise above all odds to achieve greatness. There are lots of ways to tell a story; that this rags-to-riches trope fills issue after issue of sports magazines is no accident. Romance novels tell the tales of heroines; sports stories, whether in old-school print outlets like SI and ESPN the Magazine or online incarnations like The Ringer and Bleacher Report, tell the tales of heroes. They’re two sides of the same coin.

And yet for decades, ex-New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani used “romance novel” as a pejorative: “the cloying, precious terms of a romance novel,” “romance-novel prose,” “a cheap romance novel.” But in a largely admiring review of Shooting Stars, the LeBron James/Buzz Bissinger memoir that Bissinger himself called an “epic failure” and admits he only wrote for the cash, the Times’s Ihsan Taylor wrote:

James’s first-person narrative begins with a wistful tour of Akron, “a place you could put your arms around, a place that would put its arms around you.” He is fiercely loyal to his inner circle, a result of childhood fears and longings. There are glimpses of Akron’s hardscrabble side — James grew up fatherless, and his mother struggled to provide a stable home — but the book’s main thrust is the team’s perseverance, on and off the court.

Perseverance. It’s the one magical quality all romance heroines and sports heroes share. It’s what enables them to spend freezing winters shooting foul shots at the schoolyard or suffer long, miserable stints as kitchen wenches while keeping their eyes on the prince — er, prize.

I’ve read lots of disdainful stories and posts about sportswriters like Mitch Albom, Jay Mariotti, Jason Whitlock and Stephen A. Smith. But I’ve never seen anyone publicly scorn a sportswriter for his choice of subject matter — only for his unworthy handling of it. And yet a USA Today article about the federally funded Popular Romance Project, a research initiative that aimed to “explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance,” ran with the sub-headline “Nothing is too stupid for Washington to subsidize.” The Popular Romance Project cost nearly a million dollars. A report last year by the Brookings Institution found that since 2000, federal taxpayers have financed $3.2 billion in private sports stadiums across the country.

Who’s the romantic now?

If our society provided more opportunities for women in sports — or politics, or business, or any other major societal endeavor — maybe a third of all the fiction published in the United States wouldn’t be romance. Maybe women would happily turn to books in which the heroines pursue postgraduate degrees or track down obscure South American flora with all the intensity of Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey. But for most of human history, females have been pretty much stymied in their life choices, including this really quite important one: Who will my husband be? For the men who dictated life’s terms for the past few millennia to mock women for reading about fictional heroines who demand agency in making that decision is breathtakingly ballsy. Or, as a romance novelist might put it, “just like a man.”

I gave up writing romance novels in 2003, when my daughter turned 13. I was worried, as she rounded puberty, that she’d grow up believing what such books seem to be saying: Find the right man, persevere, and your happy ending is at hand. It’s from this reductive pat-ness that the romance-novel denigration seems to spring. Life’s so much more nuanced than in romance novels, haters like to say. And yet, what’s Pride and Prejudice but a romance novel? As best-selling “chick-lit” author Jodi Picoult once fumed to the Telegraph:

Look at The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men.

Detractors also love to point out that romance novels culminate with marriage, and thus don’t bother to address the hard parts of relationships that follow in its wake. Which is weird, because you don’t often find ESPN or Sports Illustrated following up 20 years later on the heroes of the 1997 World Series to see how happy-ever-after they are. (The MVP of that series was the Marlins’ Livan Hernandez, who recently filed for bankruptcy despite making an estimated $53 million in the course of his career, which rather proves my point.) Is winning the Lombardi Trophy or hitting a grand slam ipso facto a more worthy goal than finding the right partner with whom to settle down, share life and reproduce? Think about it evolutionarily. If Darwinism were driving humankind toward sports superstardom instead of procreation, we’d have a lot more Mychal Kendrickses and a lot fewer hipster dudes with those big dumb beards.

Could we get back for just a minute to that “cloying” romance-novel prose? Sports journalism is so rife with clichés that it parodies itself; remember the scene in the 1988 movie Bull Durham where Crash Davis tutors rookie Nuke LaLoosh?

You got something to write with? Good. It’s time to work on your interviews. You’re going to have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends.

When Oakland A’s rookie Mark Canha gave his first-ever Major League post-game interview in 2015, he deadpanned Crash’s suggestions almost word for word:

I’m just trying to help the ball club and give it my best shot. Good Lord willing, things will work out.

The following night, he baldly acknowledged the borrowing: “I mean, I’ve been waiting to pull that one out.” I’ll see your flushed, throbbing manhood and raise you one “just came to play and give 110 percent.”

I’m not here to make fun of sportswriting. Why on earth would I? Done well, it makes me cry. Hell, it makes me cry even when only done halfway well. I’m a sucker for tales of superhuman feats of strength, of unholy determination — William Wallace in cleats, the Light Brigade wielding baseball bats. What I’m trying to understand is why there’s such a stigma attached to romance novels but none to their masculine kin.

In truth, it’s hard for me to grasp why, in a world of texts and tweets and TL;DR, we — we humans — would make fun of anybody who’s still reading anything whatsoever. It’s how, throughout our history, we learned about places we’d never get to, eras we couldn’t visit, people unspeakably different from us and yet also the same. Men read about what they’ve missed out on in life, and women do, too, whether it’s having thousands of fans wildly cheer your name or having a guy so besotted with you that he’ll risk anything for your love.

Child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim has taken a reputational beat-down since his death in 1990, but until I read his National Book Award-winning The Uses of Enchantment, I never gave a second thought to fairy tales. It was Bettelheim who pointed out for me that the cow that stops giving milk in Jack and the Beanstalk is a stand-in for a breastfeeding mom, and that Cinderella is all about castration anxiety. Bettelheim’s summation of the message that fairy tales impart to children applies to sports journalism and romance novels, too:

[T]hat a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human experience — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.

Whether it’s Snow White threatened by her stepmother or Harry Potter crammed into the Cupboard Under the Staircase — or Jesus born in a stable — fairy tales address what Bettelheim calls “the basic human predicaments.” These stories are purposefully stripped down and simplified, filled with stereotypes; we need only hear “Once upon a time” to know we’re headed into the land of good vs. evil, beauty vs. beastliness, diligence vs. sloth. Fairy tales may seem uncomplicated on the surface, but they have uncanny resonance; as children, we’re happy to hear them over and over again.

As adults, too, it seems. Millions of people read Sports Illustrated every week; more than 175 million romance novels are sold in this country each year. We long to believe that our tribulations have meaning — or if not ours, at least that someone’s do. If the world were more just and fair, we might outgrow such stories. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Still. After Josh Hamilton made his miracle comeback, in 2012, he hit four home runs in a single game — something only 15 other players in Major League history had ever done. Know what he said then? “It doesn’t always work out, but we give it everything we got.”

Published as “Happily Never After” in the November 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.