Media | What’s that echo? Gary Smith, on the Fugees

Long-form Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith again has applied his odd epistemology to soccer (“Alive and Kicking,” Jun 23). In 8,000 words, he writes passionately in his familiar mode of author-vacated all-knowing about the Fugees of Clarkston, Georgia—ground already well plowed by Warren St. John of the New York Times (see 25 Jan 07).

Smith’s approach has confounded me for decades. He appears to have adopted a role as a press-card-toting psychotherapist, delivering his subjects of confessions, but only rarely allowing these personalities to speak for themselves (see 26 Sept 03 for consideration of Smith’s article “The Secret Life of Mia Hamm”). Luma Mufleh, founder and coach of the Fugees, for example, is only quoted directly toward the end of Smith’s analysis. Yet untold hours of query and reply were required as Smith filled scrolls with his jottings, or consumed gigabytes on a well-traveled digital voice recorder, wresting enough self-disclosure to depict events, in you-are-there format, that he could not have witnessed.

One anecdote involves Mufleh entering the apartment of an Afghan refugee player and his family. The fifth-grade boy has been hurt in a fight before practice. Mufleh must allay the mother’s concerns:

“You said your coach was a woman!” she barked at her children. “You said she was a Muslim!”

The children fell to the floor laughing. Luma turned to face her. O.K … she was a woman. Sheila stabbed an accusing finger at Luma’s bare legs. “No Muslim you!” she cried.

“Muslim yes!”

“No, no!”

Luma thought fast. ” ’Ashhadu ’an la ’ilaha ’illa-Allah, wa ’ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasulu-Allah!” she rattled off. It was the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief …

The snatches of dialogue—excluding the Islamic creed—are an imaginative reconstruction, the journalist working alongside the interview subject to piece together fragments of memory. Smith does come up with gems. He has worked hard. “We went from Kroger [grocery store] bags to Nike bags!” one player is quoted as saying, following the attention afforded the team in the New York Times and subsequent flush of funding.

The Fugees, we imagine, in addition to learning about survival and grace from their families, coach, community leaders and volunteers, have absorbed a great deal in past years about the upper echelons of American sports media. For months and months now they have been running the gauntlet of St. John, Smith, assistants and photographers as the writers and multimedia teams work on their prose projects and glossy feature spreads.

St. John’s book, Outcasts United: A Story of Hope, Conflict, and Transformation on the Playing Fields of a Small American Town, has been scheduled for release in Apr 09. Hollywood will follow.

Lacking thus far in the professionally wrought conjurings has been the truth that existing and potential Fugees sides—parallel XIs of exiled Kosovars, Liberians, Salvadorans and Burmese—exist in multiplicity in Atlanta and throughout America. Sacrifices continue to be made and battles fought to gain for the displaced young footballers, female and male, a right that seems neglected in the landscape of American striving and isolation: spaces to play in solidarity, spaces of remembering and forgetting.


The New York Times in Sept 08, plugging Smith’s collection Sports Illustrated: Going Deep, labels Smith the “sports whisperer” for his capacity to “probe the psyches of wounded people.” Writes Richard Pérez-Peña:

His essays are genuine tear-jerkers and tales of redemption, utterly free of wry detachment. The people he profiles describe the experience as cathartic, some saying that Mr. Smith explains things about them that they had not understood themselves.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. How could you possibly disparage Gary Smith‘s style? His writing is a cut above mere mortals. The story was amazing. Do I detect professional jealousy?

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