Narrating Nothing

“When did everyone become so obsessed with narrative?” I saw someone ask the internet the other day.

I didn’t answer at the time, but the question hasn’t gone away. I think we became obsessed with narrative around the same time we all realized how important it was to watching sports. Defining a “narrative” is the easiest way to view a sport in simple terms. It’s a way to give context to a bunch of games over a length of time.

I think as sports fans—and perhaps as humans—we are becoming more aware of how the media works. Not everyone has read Postman, but they get the gist. We are realizing how demand impacts the product media creates, and how the place we get information influences how we react. With this in mind it’s easy to see how a narrative brings clarity for fans as well as convenience for media members which, really, is what’s most important.

The Buffalo Sabres are a team badly in need of a narrative. I’m all for safety and common sense with regard to Tuesday night’s postponement, but they’re a squad that could have used a snow-swept, camaraderie-building home win in front of some of their heartier fans. Those games are fun when you win them. At the very least you get a nice story out of it.

The current narrative of this team is pretty weak. Right now it might actually be that the Sabres claimed a guy off waivers that has a pet bunny. It’s a cute bunny, I guess. Warner Brothers has managed to squeeze more than 70 years of material out of its rabbit. I doubt we make it a fortnight. It probably equals a fake Twitter account and a hashtag but that’s not exactly lasting. Immersion does not equal saturation when it comes to bunnies.

Last night the story was that Jhonas Enroth can’t win a game with the Sabres. He said something pretty surprising in postgame, but today it’s talk of a new general manager that dominates the narrative. It, too, will pass. Just like the rest of What’s Important has slipped away this season.

Part of the problem is that the Sabres are a team full of third line personalities. Dealing with them on a daily basis is enjoyable. They’re fun guys, but it’s tough for fans to smile about dance contests and ritual birthday paddling when the win/loss record is lackluster.

If a team is not winning, how it will get better becomes the major story. Personnel changes. Roster changes. Draft picks and draft position. Those are the big stories people begin to take interest in. Even with Thomas Vanek gone, the Sabres are a team full of question marks. What will happen to Ryan Miller? What about Steve Ott? When will we see the rookies again? The questions are intriguing if they have answers. What the Sabres need, however, is time.

The Mikhail Grigorenko situation is so irrevocably broken that it can only be fixed with time. He was on the ice for Thursday night’s pregame skate, but he needs time away from Buffalo badly. Time to develop the way a prospect should. Time to let him be older than 19 and time for fans to forget about the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations he was saddled with when he first came to town. He’s not a complete loss, but we won’t really know until next season. Maybe. It’s all up in the air at this point.

The plight of Grigorenko is probably our closest season-long metaphor, really. Everyone needs time. A new general manager‘s impact is measured in months and years, not on game days. Miller and Ott and Moulson and the rest of the trading assets will stay or go after the Olympic break. What happens to Ted Nolan will become clear after the season. Everything is in a holding pattern until Tim Murray gets settled.

With much of this team’s interesting bits sitting in the just-a-bit-too-distant future, we are left with pets and waiver wire pondering between hockey nights and the uninspiring copy they leave behind. The problem isn’t that the Sabres are necessarily bad, it’s that they aren’t bad enough to make for quality clips. No one is melting down. The formula just isn’t there for fireworks, and time isn’t a narrative that works on a daily basis.

I had most of this post written before I came across this piece by Dustin Parkes, which is a tremendous look at why so much about sportswriting is terrible. Gratuitous block quoting to follow:

When you spend eight to 12 hours per day reading and writing about sports, you can’t help but learn more about it, but you also can’t help losing touch with the casual fans who likely have a much healthier relationship with sports than you do. Bridging that gap while remaining intellectually honest is a difficult construction project, and that’s why sports journalism is such a wasteland. More and more are willing to compromise their integrity to provide casual fans with validation, rather than genuine insight.

Instead of a better understanding of how games are being won or lost, fans are presented with condensed narratives of extremes. Sports stories are artificial extracts, or soap operas for people who would be embarrassed to be seen watching General Hospital. It’s an accepted illusion because it’s an interpretation coming from figures representing authority who wear nice suits on the broadcast and appear professional-looking in photographs attached to their columns. The most frustrating aspect of it all is that the authority to interpret sports is granted by the very people who want their own opinions validated.

Most of the piece is about Dan Le Batard’s Baseball Hall of Fame voting ballot, which he gave to the readers of Deadspin and has caused the navel-gazing stir that predictably comes with you give sportswriters a chance to talk about other sportswriters. I want absolutely nothing to do with that debate, but what it reveals about sportswriting is important. A lot of what happens in the field is hollow, and most narratives definitely are.

The point is this: narratives are convenient, time-tested, easy ways to get from game to game, season to season and keep paying the bills. They can also help fans get from here to there while giving them something to talk about. But this year—both as media and as a fan—I’m struggling to find a consistent narrative to follow with the Buffalo Sabres.

I’m starting to think that’s good. Maybe it’s that I want to break away from this tired way of thinking about sports. Many of us have become lost in the idea that even if sports seasons can’t end in championships, they have to mean something else. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a bad team plays bad games and the things we write about it all are also bad.

But you can’t help but want something more.