Where have you gone, Bill Shankly?
A few years later, ex-athletes began to go into television in big numbers, at first those who had had only marginal success as players or coaches, but increasingly, in recent years, former stars. Schooled in the power of TV and public relations, they maintained eye contact with their interviewers or interviewees and addressed them by their first names, voices carefully modulated to suggest empathy. That the empathy more closely resembled the kind deployed by a human resources director, a real estate agent, or a mutual funds salesman than that of a friend with whom you'd schmooze over a drink or a meal or a cup of coffee didn't matter. Sincerity, and its close relative, personality, were commodities, packaged for quick sale in a crowded market.
As transparently calculated as those trends were, they made perfect sense. As increasing salaries moved athletes in the major sports stratospheres out of their fans' social and economic orbits, teams, networks, and newspapers had to fabricate substitutes for the social bonds that no longer existed. Broadcasters began referring to players by their first names. Fans who could no longer afford to come to games would be given The NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL Experience. Reporters were only too happy to overpraise as great human beings any athlete in the top American sports leagues who had never been in prison, to laud as a family man any male athlete who did not beat, mistreat, or cheat on his wife or girlfriend, or whose agent managed to keep the misdeeds out of the papers. (Read the great Onion parody "Pro Athlete Lauded for Being Decent Human Being" for all you need to know about this trend.)
And that's why Red or Dead, David Peace's novel about the former Liverpool FC soccer manager Bill Shankly, is so moving an experience. It is a reminder that things were not always this way, that a celebrated coach once existed for whom dedication to the job, love for team and its fans, and devotion to his family were more than slogans or easy hooks. It is a vindication of generosity, hard work, loyalty, and all those concepts cheapened by noxious waves of political and commercial hucksterism.
Peace deploys any number of techniques to create his version of Shankly, some of them stylistic and technical quirks that he admits might drive some readers nuts. (The novel's first three words, "Repetition. Repetition. Repetition," are an apt summation of both Shankly's technique and Peace's.) Others are more subtle, such as his relegation of notable historical events and milestones in Shankly's life to allusion rather than direct mention, the better to focus attention on Shankly's single-mindedness. Sure, commentary on Peace tends to focus on his technical tricks, but in Red or Dead, the man — Bill Shankly — is the thing.
Lest you think that Red or Dead wallows in nostalgia, that other great salable commodity in popular culture, know that if Shankly, who died in 1981 and who deplored what had begun to happen to sports in his last years, were to look over my shoulder at this post, he would not despair. Rather, I think, he would slap me on the back, give me an inspirational lecture, and tell me to buck up and get back to the task at hand. And I would listen and believe him.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014