BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Let’s just suppose that a few years into the history of this show, On the Media producer Mike Pesca had gone to work for NPR, mainly covering sports from the Super Bowl to the World Series of Poker to the Westminster Dog Show, let's just say. And suppose that at the same time he started cohosting a Slate sports podcast called Hang Up and Listen and then, maybe, suppose he left NPR and widened his portfolio to include everything on the daily Slate podcast The Gist in which he refuses to take any expression of human activity at face value? If this man were to produce a book, you know, hypothetically, what book do you suppose that would be? That book would be Upon Further Review, The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History, a curated set of essays imagining how familiar sporting narratives would have turned out if one significant variable had been turned upside down. He calls these scenarios counterfactual. Mike, welcome back to the old stomping grounds.
MIKE PESCA: Wow, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Variables turned upside down, what if Muhammad Ali had gotten his conscientious objector status as soon as he’d asked for it --
MIKE PESCA: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -- is one interesting bit of supposin’ in this book. Give me some other examples.
MIKE PESCA: Well, to go to that one, what’s interesting about that is maybe people don't realize the fight he had but that certainly burnished his image as an outsider, an iconoclast and someone who stands up for his convictions.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Shoot them for what? How could I go shoot them? They’re little poor little black people and little babies and children, women. How can I shoot them poor people? Let ‘em just take me to jail.
MIKE PESCA: But we go from those simple turning points that we all recognize as turning points and then flip ‘em. So what if the Jets hadn’t won Super Bowl III? You could say I guess the Baltimore Colts would have had a Super Bowl trophy. But the ripple effects of that include Joe Namath not getting into the Hall of Fame, probably include the entire alignment of the NFL and probably include the immediate juggernaut, the economic juggernaut that is football. There is what if Title IX hadn’t passed, what if Richard Nixon were good at football, what if Game 7 of the 2016 World Series suddenly had --
BOB GARFIELD: Hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it. What if Richard Nixon had been good at football.
MIKE PESCA: Yes,
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me.
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] Richard Nixon was, what's the word, sucked. He sucked at football. But he loved football.
BOB GARFIELD: He played for his Whittier College team.
MIKE PESCA: That’s right. Do you remember the nickname?
BOB GARFIELD: The fighin’ unindicted co-conspirators?
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] The actual nickname is not quite as intimidating as that. They are the Whittier College Poets.
And he, he weighed about 150 pounds and insisted on playing offensive line, not well.
MAN: He was so uncoordinated, literally uncoordinated, I mean, he fell down.
MAN: Nixon was useful to the team during practice but mostly the tackle dummy for the other players.
MAN: Richard Nixon was the worst possible football player imaginable.
MIKE PESCA: The Nixon that we came to know as someone who believes at winning at any cost, as someone who thought that the odds was aligned against him, as someone who actually created the equivalent of a fraternity or an eating club for the players on the team who weren’t the halfbacks and the quarterbacks and the stars, the forgotten man, the offensive lineman of the football team, and, and then you say, well, what if the guy were a star, what if he had an ounce of confidence, you know, what if he didn’t have to, have to cheat and scrape to get by?
RICHARD NIXON: More than the enormous spectator sport that it is, football is a spirit, a spirit of competition, a spirit of when we lose of trying to win the next time out.
MIKE PESCA: Maybe we would have still been on the gold standard, I guess, is one way to look at it.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And Pat Nixon, well, would have worn fur.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah, she would have worn fur, Checkers would be safe to this day, so many ripples.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] One especially funny idea to me, as a journalist about journalism, was what if there had always been sports PR flacks? Sports Illustrated columnist L. Jon Wertheim imagined a world where you’re devoid ever of any color or spontaneity or genuine human emotion permitted to reach the, the sports audience. Like a Yogi Berra-less world from the get-go, it’s horrifying to imagine.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah, someone cleaning up his quotes, someone taking Babe Ruth and giving a little facts blast to the press corps that Babe Ruth will be at the Strikeout Scotch Charity Dinner, please come and join him. An entry from the Players’ Tribune, you know, that is the Derek Jeter-helmed publication where players can burnish their own image and so imagining a -- if a great work of journalism were put through the Players’ Tribune and Bobby Knight had to, say, just tell his own story rather than have a journalist explain who Bobby Knight is.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the essays are, by and large, quite witty and they make pretty solid arguments --
MIKE PESCA: Aha.
BOB GARFIELD: -- assuming history works like a spreadsheet. You change one value and everything else shifts predictably and accordingly, like the butterfly flaps its wings in China and the Dodgers leave Brooklyn.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: But see, those things didn't happen, so why speculate?
MIKE PESCA: We actually have an essay, which is what if Brandi Chastain’s World Cup-winning kick hadn’t gone in, what if her penalty shot hadn’t gone in? The writer of that essay, Louisa Thomas, does a really good job narratively of painting what seems like a dystopian future where girls’ sports has trouble getting funding and where sports leagues open and fold and where the attention paid to women’s sports is but a minute fraction of the attention paid to men’s sports, and then the reveal is and that is exactly the case today; this dystopia is upon us. So we do at least one “what if” where the answer is, yeah, nothin’ much changes.
I think that considering the possibilities is actually a useful exercise in making decisions in the present.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, hold that thought. We shall return to it presently, whereupon I will crush your soul.
MIKE PESCA: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: But for the moment let me just observe that in the book some of these alternate histories are not like the others. One of the essays, by Nate Jackson, who was an NFL tight end, discusses a “what if,” not in the past but in the future, which is to say to reduce cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain injury that, that plagues football players and others. He proposes a more democratized version of football, essentially a football rules redesigned, speculating not on an alternate history but an alternate future. And the suggestion is fascinating but what’s it doing in the book?
MIKE PESCA: When you write a book like this, there are some huge issues that you should grapple with. I wanted to have Muhammed Ali. I wanted to have something about Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs or at least a Battle of the Sexes and a Title IX. I wanted to have some essays about race. And I wanted to have the big issue of our day is football and the morality concerning football. Let’s just reinvent it, let’s just start from scratch. Let’s just take the permission of the hypothetical, address the big issue of today and, as much as any other essay, that really does get us to rethink our assumptions. So I, I think it works.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’ve referred a couple of times to Title IX. There’s an essay which imagines what would have happened had the sex civil rights law, known mainly for forcing universities to devote more resources to women’s sports, had it not gone into effect? And in this case the answer is, more or less, well, you know, Hope Solo would be anonymous and a lot of women wouldn’t have gotten scholarships but otherwise everything else would have been exactly as it is now with Title IX.
MIKE PESCA: There was a recent anniversary of Title IX and it was bothering me that a lot of sports media were doing, were doing little hagiographic stories, little Vaseline-on-the-lens stories about the heroes of Title IX and they will usually end with a shot of, you know, eight-year-old girls chasing a soccer ball and isn’t it great?
WOMAN: But I’m proving, time and time again, there’s no wrong way to be a woman.
BOB GARFIELD: A Nike commercial, in other words.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah, a Nike commercial, we got game, we’re next, all that stuff. Hey, this huge story just came out about Nike not living up to their ideals internally.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Questions and critiques around the company’s bro culture and some bad behavior led to Trevor Edwards, who is the Nike brand president, actually leaving a few weeks ago and now another executive departure.
MIKE PESCA: And that a bunch of women met in the Mia Hamm Building on the Nike campus to complain about the gender discrimination they were getting. So let’s be real about this and let’s not subcontract out our history to huge apparel makers and media partners of sports leagues to tell us how great Title IX is going.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now Mike, you are among friends here and, therefore --
MIKE PESCA: Okay, Circle, Circle of Trust?
BOB GARFIELD: Therefore, it’s with some trepidation that I now fulfill my promise to crush you.
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You have said that this approach of hypothetical history forces us to reconsider our assumptions about inevitability.
MIKE PESCA: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: And, you know, I, I guess I buy that because there is no such thing as historical inevitability. But, my friend, you are assuming in these essays that the alternate spreadsheet also would have created an inevitability and that's what your essays are about, describing the alternate outcome, as if it were the only thing that could happen. So it's very much a butterfly-flaps-its-wings kind of worldview versus, I don’t know, did you ever see the movie Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow?
MIKE PESCA: Sure, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that supposes that no matter what variables change in the middle, the outcome is always destined to be the same.
MIKE PESCA: Well --
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm not suggesting that that's the way the world works. [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA: Aha.
BOB GARFIELD: But you are using the very inevitability as the payoff to a premise that you doubt. Boom!
MIKE PESCA: You are incorrect, sir, good sir --
-- because the name of the book or the subtitle of the book contains a phrase and that phrase is “what if.” That phase isn’t “here’s what.” That phrase is “what if.” It supposes one alternative. And to quote another Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Avengers: Infinity War, okay, she was in it for like eight seconds, but Dr. Strange puts himself in a trance and imagines 1.4 million futures. All I am doing is taking but one of those futures and laying it out there. I am not saying it is inevitable, I am only saying, what if?
BOB GARFIELD: My question is whether the approach that you’ve taken and which the HBO drama series Confederate that is based on the premise of the North not having won the Civil War and a sovereign Southern country with supposed modern slavery, also The Man in the High Castle, imagine what if the Axis powers had won World War II? Does this exercise apply to, you know, other areas of human enterprise beyond sports? Can we look at the political world, for example, through this prism?
MIKE PESCA: I think it’s both important and tempting and also we should caution ourselves not to go too far. We do look at history as inevitable. I open the book with my introduction, talking about the Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Long Island, it being foggy, Washington being able to escape. You know, but for the fog, but for the cloud cover, maybe the entire Revolution wouldn't have happened.
BOB GARFIELD: And we’d be spelling labour with a “u.”
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] Yeah. It can go too far. And I think that the last election is a good example of that. We can't say but for a visit to Wisconsin. It was an overdetermined outcome. Many, many factors went into that outcome. And I think that is most of history.
Yet, when I look at, say, the war in Iraq, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I could be wrong but, you know, but for a different president, I’m pretty sure we would have had a different decision. It is useful to say how would the entire Middle East have looked. History is not a march of inevitability. There are some things that are much more likely to happen, there are some things that are much less likely to happen, and I think there is value in wondering and using imagination and trying to figure out which is which.
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BOB GARFIELD: Mike, [LAUGHS] thank you very much.
MIKE PESCA: You’re welcome, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s The Gist podcast, is the author of Upon Further Review, The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History, which will also be a Slate podcast in five parts, which is, you know, available wherever podcasts are sold.
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That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. And our show was edited this week by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Greg Rippin. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.
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