Sep 19 • 18M

The ELAINE Show 2: Claire de Lune (and not Jessica Wuetschner)

The Guardian basketball maven and Tiny Deaths musician explains the Knicks to Jesse, an idiot Knicks fan; Essendon Bombers' forward does not appear on a podcast, but in the accompanying writing

 
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The podcast is about basketball. The writing is about Australian football. All of it is about learning more...

By Jesse Spector

I woke up on Sunday and looked at the score. I’d been awake when the game was played, but I didn’t tune in, or figure out how to tune in, or keep up with what was going on as it happened. I had been dialed in on catching up on the day of college football, after coming home from the APOTO Dollars 4 Dingers fundraiser raffle and Mets-Pirates game. I knew the game was happening, but I avoided it.

It wasn’t because I didn’t want it spoiled. I barely even know what anything means when I watch. The game was Essendon against Richmond, round 4 of this AFLW season — the Australian women’s football league1 — and, as it stood when it got underway, the biggest creative block I’d faced in years. It was all over something so simple, a Q-and-A with Jessica Wuetschner, the Essendon forward who I’ve followed on Twitter, and who for some reason follows me back, and agreed to talk about her sport.

I’ve been curious about Australian football since the first time I heard about it, and I’ve watched more hours of it than anything else on Earth that I do not understand. The mystery is part of the appeal. What is this confounding sport of “disposals” and “behinds” and “marks” all about? I know it’s good when the official, who used to wear a huge-brimmed hat when I first became aware of the sport, does double finger guns. That’s the signal for the scoring play.

As the years have gone on, technology really has made the world a smaller place, and it’s rather easily illustrated by Australian football becoming more available – on satellite in bars, then on specialty channels like Fox Soccer Plus, and now online through the AFL’s own site. Or through Willets Pen, right here. Here are the highlights of Essendon-Richmond.

I have a much better idea now of what’s happening than I ever did before, and that’s not just from watching, but because I’ve started to pay more attention, ever since AFLW, the women’s league, grabbed me and my insomnia a couple of years ago.

A lot of the time, women’s leagues are derided because – okay, because misogyny – but also because, like, you’re not seeing the tippy-top, upper-echelon level of the sport as played by men. The same people who deride women’s leagues here also often happen to be college football fans, so go ahead and ask them sometime about that dichotomy and watch their brains explode.

Take the WNBA, where the Las Vegas Aces just beat the Connecticut Sun to win the title in Becky Hammon’s first year as coach. Now, read that again, and think about how that sentence would have read in 1997. The WNBA has evolved in its own way, and taken the sport in new directions. If you want to see innovation in basketball right now, it’s the W where you need to be looking, not to the league that’s quickly turning into Formula 1 for tall guys – and that’s said with all respect, because it’s fabulously compelling, but simultaneously strategized and optimized within an inch of its life.

What women’s leagues have, and what the ones that succeed take advantage of, is a blank slate. They are not trying to be a direct replica of whatever the local men’s league is, but to push the artistry of their sport in new directions, their own directions, bringing fans along as they build it. In America, with the Aces, look no further than Kelsey Plum, the Olympic gold medalist in 3x3 basketball, and now WNBA All-Star Game MVP and champion. Plum already was really good, and the things that the WNBA has gotten right, have put her in position to be a legend, right alongside A’ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray, Vegas teammates themselves carving out legacies.

In Australia, Wuetschner has done her own scrawling on the early pages of a league’s history book. She’s Brisbane’s leading career goalkicker with 37 in her six seasons there, and now eighth in league history with 40 total goals, thanks to three so far this campaign for expansion Essendon. Also, she was struck by lightning while working as a stevedore, very open about the ensuing mental health issues, and came back in 2021 and scored two goals in the Grand Final. Don’t think it doesn’t mess with my head to have someone agree to chat with me, just me, not me with a press pass around my neck because I work for someplace. She’s a freakin’ rockstar — look at this in the biggest game of her life, even if you know nothing about her sport whatsoever.

She didn’t score in this weekend’s game. Well, that’s not true. She did score, one point, on a behind – the consolation point for missing a kick wide of the big goalposts. Goals and behinds, that’s how they score — and Essendon lost its round 4 game by two points – 26-24, or 3.8-3.6, or 26 (3.8)-24 (3.6). Had that behind been a goal, well… ifs and buts are the familiar language of all sports, aren’t they?

Essendon is second in AFLW with 27 goals, and also second with 33 behinds in four games. Brisbane, Wuetschner’s old team, leads the league in both categories… and they’re 4-0. Scoring is good, and lots of behinds means that you’re getting lots of scoring opportunities, and that’s starting to seem rather familiar in a hockey way, and… hmm, Essendon’s next game is against Collingwood, the team with the second-fewest points in the league, and…

It can be hard, when you’re excited about something, not to fall so hard into it that you lose what you enjoyed about it in the first place. I want to understand Australian football, but do I? When I understand something, I start having opinions about it. I start finding sources of stress in it. I… I know I’m not the only one. I know that burnout is real, and that “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” is among the biggest lies that capitalism ever told.

I spent 20 years working in sports, right from the time I got out of college, a dream come true that started with taking high school football scores on the phone at the Daily News and took me so many incredible places. I did love it, but it was absolutely work, and I found my love waning as the years went on. I knew the danger was there, and had long said that if sportswriting wasn’t a fun job, then you might as well go do something else, because there’s no sense in working that hard, for that amount of money, if you’re not all in. Not to mention, the world doesn’t need so many white male sportswriters in their 40s. Let’s hear some other voices.

I’m working outside of sports now, and my relationship with sports has never been healthier than it has over the last few months since I quit my old job. I don’t have to pretend – I probably didn’t have to pretend, but I did have to pretend for myself – that it’s okay to have different levels of care about different things, and that those levels can rise and fall.

There was a point where I recognized, and I’m far from the only journalist of my generation who did, that pretending to be completely objective is stupid, and that it is, in fact, responsible to admit your biases. Hockey people know that Greg Wyshynski is a Devils fan, for instance, and nobody really cares, because Greg knows the sport up and down, and he’s open about how his fandom formed his understanding of the game.

There’s something different in admitting ignorance. Among the lofty goals of journalism is providing an expert voice, and – I don’t know how much of this is just me, and how much is more relatable, because we don’t talk about these things – admitting that you don’t know stuff is a sign of weakness. And if it’s not externally, it sure is internally.

The only episode of The ELAINE Show that’s aired so far is my chat with Craig Calcaterra about baseball’s antitrust exemption. It was a great time, and the next one, with Claire de Lune about the Knicks, was plenty of fun, too. You can listen to it at the top of this page, in fact. (Claire de Lune? Remember Claire de Lune? It’s a podcast with Claire de Lune.)

This interview with Jessica was initially meant to be an ELAINE Show episode, except that Essendon, much like the New Jersey Devils under Lou Lamoriello, have a no-podcast policy for players. Fine. It’s in-season, I know full well that different teams in different leagues have different policies, let alone in different sports on different continents. The policy actually saved us some trouble, because getting a good quality podcast recording set up between New York and Melbourne is not easy.

We ended up having a really nice interview, and I was going to get it transcribed and post it here. Then I read the transcript, and it turned out that I was Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney.

How could I struggle so badly with something that I’ve done hundreds of times before? That, more than “what’s a disposal?” became the question gnawing at me, and unlike so much writing, wasn’t something that I could solve by simply pounding through it.

It’s not like I’ve never had a long conversation before and walked away feeling like I got nothing from it. I interviewed Derek Jeter dozens of times in his career and nobody has ever been more polite in answering every question you have while saying not a damn thing. But this was different. I’d had a good conversation with Jess, felt like I came away having learned a bit more about her sport… and yet the transcript didn’t feel that way at all.

Was it really like that? I don’t know. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to something that was going to be a podcast, turning into not a podcast, and a struggle to adjust. It quickly went from being about Australian football to being a referendum on myself and my ability to do Willets Pen. I couldn’t run it as it was, I couldn’t figure out how to make it something that would read at all, and I couldn’t move on to anything else until I cleared this block that very quickly became almost existential.

I know that I felt like I wasted Jess’ time, betrayed an unspoken promise to her, and failed in what I really wanted to do, which was to learn more about this sport, which is so fun, but which learning about is so scary because of my own tendency to ruin things.

So, I’m not going to run it, because I know that it would be a waste of your time to read me bumbling not only through Australian football, but through my own understanding of what I set out to do with the interview, because that absolutely wasn’t “divert into talking about various basic things about Australia that Siri could answer, let alone a Google search.”

Tasmania, where Jess is from, is about the size of South Carolina, or about 19 times the size of Long Island… Long Island’s population of 7.6 million is about 14 times the population of Tasmania. That was knowable information without talking to the first goalkicker in Essendon Bombers Women’s history, in a game that was moved from Port Melbourne Oval to the larger Marvel Stadium because of the demand.

“I’ve been lucky to play in some pretty big games before,” Jess said. “So, the thought of playing in front of a big crowd, I wasn’t any more nervous. I wasn’t too concerned about that. But the atmosphere and the level of, just, sound – and feeling – in the stadium that night, it was just electric. It even outdid my expectations in terms of the feeling within, the fans, the team, the clubs. It was, I don’t know, electric is the only word I can come up with, because you’re kind of buzzing the whole time, while obviously playing football and focusing on that. Like, if anything happened, anything big happened, you just heard this overarching, just ooh or ahh, through the whole stadium. It was crazy.”

That reads just fine, but the transcript is mostly not like that. Or at least it doesn’t feel mostly like that. It feels mostly like this part:

Me: The scoring gets confusing because the score gets, like, it was seven, parentheses, eleven. How does that work? I know it’s goals plus behinds equals…

Jess: Yeah.

Me: You’ve come up with a sport that has algebra in it.

Jess: I don’t know. I don’t know algebra.

Me: So, how many points is a goal?

Jess: A goal is six points, and a behind is one point.

Me: Okay.

Jess: And you just add them together.

Me: So, 6x+y=score.

Jess: Yeah.

Me: You could say the same for American football. We just, we… but do they refer… like, when you say the score… (somehow, a digression from this)

All that to eventually find out that when you talk about the score of, say, this week’s Essendon game, it was 26-24. Or 24-26. We didn’t talk about whether you say winner or home team first. Partly because I was busy getting in my own head even then, partly because for as torturous as that bit is to read, it really only took a few seconds in real time.

That’s how I got tripped up by an extremely simple format, with the cascading effect being a feeling of… if I can’t do this simple thing, a thing that was the backbone of my early career – offbeat one-on-one interviews – what am I even doing here? Certainly, I made the right decision to leave the business, but what am I doing here? Should’ve just given up.

Except, what I’m doing here isn’t what I was doing early in my career. Admitting a level of ignorance, and seeking out greater understanding of something – for greater appreciation of it – is much different than talking to Orlando Hudson about Steve Spurrier turning around South Carolina football back in the day. And it’s not an extremely simple format. The ELAINE Show requires that I actually do have some level of knowledge about the subject, so that I know what questions to ask.

I do want to learn more about Australian football, so that I can root for Jess with Essendon and wherever she goes, so that I can root for my best friend’s favorite team, St. Kilda, and so that I can appreciate what I’m seeing when I watch a sport that seems like chaos, but does have rules and strategy and so much more to appreciate than, “wow, this seems like real-life Calvinball” and “ref does the finger guns.”

Did I set a trap for myself by reaching out halfway around the world to interview someone I admire about their specialty, a thing that I’m curious but openly ignorant about? Certainly, nobody is better than me at sabotaging me. Except, I got ahead of that jerk by being here at Willets Pen, where I don’t have to keep trying to make a podcast concept into something written, and can instead let the lesson of the lost ELAINE episode be that the plan you thought you had doesn’t have to be the plan you go with, just to prove that it was a good plan.

A behind only feels like the universe giving you the finger.

And that sometimes scoring points in Australian football is bad. That’s still confusing, but not just to me.

“My partner, who's British, used to cheer when we got a behind,” Jess said. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing? Like, this is not... you don't cheer a behind. It's not a good thing to get a behind, unless you need one point to win a game.”

You might not cheer a behind, but you don’t say no to the point on the scoreboard. I did wind up learning about this sport, and I’m not scared anymore to keep learning. I have a blank slate, too, and I can learn how to love and appreciate sports in a healthier way than I ever have before.

Just as the WNBA is not the NBA, Essendon is not the Knicks. My relationship with AFLW will be one forged, for me, as an adult. And what I do here will be different than my career. It’s okay if I’m dumb about some things, which fundamentally I knew because that’s the entire point of The ELAINE Show. I just wasn’t ready for how dumb I really am. It just means there’s that much more to learn.

1

AFLW is in its seventh season, and the growth is evident in this year’s collective bargaining agreement, which saw minimum salaries go up to about $26,000 (American), quickly going from a league where one of the best players worked as a stevedore in the offseason to something approaching true professionalism with remarkable speed. This year’s WNBA rookie miminum was just over $60,000, while American minor league baseball players make $14,700 or less (for now, this is why unionizing is so important).