Pickleball moved up another rung on the sports ladder this week by being the subject of a funny and withering put down from national sportswriter Rick Reilly.
We here at Murmurs from the Losers’ Bracket are generally in favor of funny and withering put downs, especially in capable hands.
And that certainly would include Reilly, who isn’t just some sports guy with a big mouth and a flair for hyperbole. He’s a graybeard of the sports scribe tribe. He made his bones writing the back page column for Sports Illustrated and moved on to be a featured columnist in ESPN magazine.
Along the way, he wrote several sports books and won the National Sports Media Association’s Sportswriter of the Year Award 11 times.
He has written long and lovingly about a wide variety of sports over his long career. And this year, at the age of 65, he dipped his inkwell into the sport of pickleball.
But there was little love in evidence.
In a Washington Post piece entitled, “Why I hate pickleball”, Reilly argues that pickleball doesn’t deserve a place in the roster of credible sports.
“Any game that you can take up after breakfast and be pretty good at by lunch is not a sport,” he wrote.
Reilly paints pickleball as an athletic imposter popularized by mostly immobile senior citizens who promote the game with evangelical zeal.
“Why do you insist I start playing with you?” Reilly asks. “I get it. You moved less than 18 inches in each direction for two hours, hit a greenish ball a lot and beat Ed and Nancy Finkler in three games. SportsCenter will be right over.”
Reilly says he has tried out the game, but didn’t like it, declaring that it was “not as elegant as tennis. Not as pretty as golf. It was a lot of people who hadn’t played a sport in 30 years suddenly thinking they’re athletes.”
As a talented writer, Reilly found a way to make his protestations in an amusing way.
“Every time you see a new pickleball court open, an orthopedist gets a new boat,” he wrote.
OK, there’s some truth to that.
But Reilly’s objections were mostly cartoonish: He complained about the court being the size of a bathroom rug. That the game’s limitations could be expected due to its founder being a “rich Republican politician.” And he predicted preposterously that young people will turn away from the sport because the ball-striking sound is too loud on the wooden paddles.
Wooden paddles? Oh well, at least he got the ball part right.
But it’s all good. Seriously. There’s nothing Reilly could have written about pickleball that wouldn’t ultimately help to promote pickleball.
That’s because the takeaway here isn’t that pickleball got savaged by a venerable sportswriter. It’s that a venerable sportswriter didn’t write about one of the sports he has been writing about for the past 40 years because he could no longer ignore the fastest-growing sport in America.
The news is the attention pickleball is getting.
It made me think of the Beatles. If your awakening to American pop culture was in the 1960s, you had to process the sudden popularity of this rock band from Liverpool.
It’s impossible to underestimate the way the Beatles quickly overwhelmed popular music in America during their relatively short musical heyday.
Radio stations played an enormous role in popular music those days. Getting a song on the radio was the difference between stardom and oblivion. Over the span of eight years, the Beatles had 50 songs that made the Top 40 songs on the Billboard charts.
You couldn’t ignore the Beatles.
These days, the Beatles are revered as musical icons, and their music still being played and sometimes offered for study in university courses. But during those years when their songs were being released and their concerts were packed with delirious, shrieking fans, the other recording artists who got pushed aside were especially wary or dismissive of the band.
“I thought the Beatles would die in New York,” Frank Sinatra famously said.
Elvis Presley complained to then-President Richard Nixon that the Beatles were promoting “anti-American values” with their music.
Jazz composer and arranger Quincy Jones had this early impression of the Beatles: “They were the worst musicians in the world. They were no-playing (expletive deleted). Paul was the worst bass player I ever heard.”
Charles Mingus, the brilliant jazz bandleader, composer and bassist, accused the Beatles of being musical thieves and frauds, and thought they should be taken to court.
"For the Beatles to be able to come here and take all the millions of dollars away from this country by copying our own music and composers, selling it back to 'em and nobody even suing 'em yet!" Mingus wrote.
Some of this Beatles bashing played on American TV. Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin had a prime time TV show, and in 1965, he and singer Vic Damone, sang a parody song with Allan Sherman.
Sherman was a musical satirist who had a Billboard hit in 1963 with his summer camp song called, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.”
This time, Sherman put lyrics to the child’s tune, “Pop Goes the Weasel” lyrics and turned it into a song called, “I Hate the Beatles.”
Martin, Damone and Sherman sang it together on the prime-time TV show. Here’s one of the verses:
After reading Reilly’s pickleball piece, it made me think of that clunky putdown of the Beatles. Reilly is just a writer’s version of Dean Martin, who was being left behind by the Beatles.
Martin found his lone hit of 1964, “Everybody Loves Somebody” would have to contend with the Beatles new release, “Hard Days Night” – just one of the seven Beatles songs that would make it to the top of the pop charts in that year alone.
And if Reilly is Dean Martin in my little analogy, well then pickleball is The Beatles.
Make fun of pickleball all you want. Call the court too small. Say it will never be as good as what came before it. Fault it for a lack of elegance and an absence of being “pretty” – whatever that means.
Yes, pickleball is Ringo, and tennis is Buddy Rich.
But all that does in the end is make it more clear that these sorts of complaints are borne out of frustration, a frustration of being left behind by a loveable mutt of a sport that’s growing in popularity – eight days a week.
So don’t complain about Reilly’s piece. Celebrate it.
MURMURS FROM THE LOSERS' BRACKET
Read past editions of Murmurs from the Losers' Bracket, including:
- The Ozempic Ad
- Ball On Court? Maybe Not
- The PPA, the APP and Monty Python
- Time to Get Help at Bangers Anonymous
- "It's an Injury Sport"
- A Pickleball Translation Guide
- What's Your Pickleball Nickname?
- Tennis the Menace
- Is There Such a Thing as "Pickleball Torture"?
- How to Be an Effective Pickleball Snob
- All You Need Is Glove
- The Lesson McDonald’s French Fries Have for Pickleball
- Tunes on the Court
- The Poetry of Empty Courts
- “Head Targeting” Rule Change Not a Brainy Idea
- Getting Beyond "Good Game"
- Why Are Pickleball Trophies Such a Big Deal?
- Stop Messing with the ATP
- When Discussions of Rules Turn Unruly
- A Former Pickleball Addict Speaks Out
- Separating the Drinkers from the Dinkers
- Turning Every Magazine into a Pickleball Magazine
- Zen and the Art of Pickleball Maintenance
- Spirited Pickleball Poetry
- Making Pickleball Less "Devastating" to Amateurs
- Finding Romance on the Pickleball Court: Top 10 Pickup Lines
- Sign of the Times: Pickleball License Plates
- Red Light, Green Light: Playing Traffic Cop on the Court
- The Pickler Limerick Challenge
- The Pickler Limerick Challenge Heats Up
- The Pickler Limerick Challenge Wraps Up
- Pickleball & the $100 Hamburger
- Before We Play, Partner, Please Sign This...
Pickleball's Most Powerful Spoken Word
Frank Cerabino is a long-time columnist for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, a pickleball addict like the rest of us, and a newly published author. Check out Frank's newly released book, I Dink, Therefore I Am: Coming to Grips with My Pickleball Addiction (available on Amazon and a great read (or gift!) for any pickleball player), for pickleball tips and laughs!