The prelude to a new NFL season and its college counterpart has been a familiar one, laced with constant media treatment of American football’s cultural crossroads: Concussions, sexual violence and black activism. Will this be the year public consciousness about them changes?
Some football books published ahead of the season also drive home these topics, again not a surprising development. Some of these books have become increasingly strident as the football-loving fandom seemingly ignores them.
But are they?
More damning studies of brain disease in retired NFL players, criminal acts by players against women and social protests by African-American stars have become routine (and quite often overdone) storylines.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
The Dangers of Female Basketball in Somalia; A Ballpark in Buies Creek; A Segregated Tennis Court in Virginia; The Humility of George McGinnis; The Curse of Bobby Layne; New Sócrates Biography; Remembering Gene Michael, Sugar Ramos and John Duxbury
It’s not that they’re not important. They are. But so much of the media attention toward these matters, from daily news reports to magazine pieces and books, is missing vital cultural and historical context.
A good contemporary cultural synthesis of football is desperately needed, one that blends together the nature of the sport itself, its history, social backdrop and present concerns. What we have seen far too often in this respect in recent years is rigidly ideological or purely polemical, arguments that try to shut down understanding and discussion.
The voluminous hand-wringing stories greeting the new season have not been able to explain how wildly popular football remains—other than making throwaway arguments over bloodlust and such—even with a ratings decline in the NFL in 2016.
Baseball troubadour George Will has rehashed his scorching anti-football sentiments, fretting about the “degrading enjoyments” of a game he insists is in the midst of a fading romance.
Even the usually measured Allen Barra is synthesizing the “storm clouds gathering over football” mantra, running with a media herd he usually does well to steer clear from imitating.
Is this what these writers really believe? Is this all that assigning sports editors think will be read in their publications? Are these tales really heeded by the public as much as the heavy volume of grim stories about football may suggest?
I’m not questioning motives here, not with the seriousness of the issues at hand. It’s always been the role of journalists and social critics to raise uncomfortable questions. They’re not wrong to raise these subjects.
The horrific sexual violence that was ignored by the Baylor University athletic department, and examined in “Violated,” may end up being as unseemly as the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.
The growing number of retired NFL players diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative brain disease, is alarming. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who first made these discoveries examining the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster, is right to raise awareness, as he does in his new book, “The Truth Doesn’t Have a Side.”
Mike McIntire, whose investigative journalism examining sexual violence and Florida State football players was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has expanded that work into a book published this week, “Champions Way.”
Clearly there is a public appetite for more information and knowledge about these topics, perhaps as much as there is for the game itself. Many avid fans I know are troubled about the social and moral issues at hand, and admit they’re not watching or following the game as they once did.
Also tearing apart the fabric of the fan base is the Colin Kaepernick saga, and more recently, Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett. A sports media that’s been in full-fawning mode over Kaepernick’s national anthem protest last year is in overdrive with his unsigned status.
There are those who believe the NFL is unwise for making a martyr out of him, but it’s largely the media doing the martyring. Kaepernick’s apparent “awakening” has generated piggyback coverage and reportedly has triggered a widespread movement.
While I don’t begrudge Kaepernick, Bennett or any other NFL players their social views, like most employees, there’s a real problem with taking it to the office. There’s a big difference between engaging in acts of humanitarian generosity and staging a political protest on the job.
The Kaepernick episode persists, not because he’s unemployed, but because it’s an example of what many journalists, academics and progressive activists detest: the “culture” of football.
This too is hardly a new subject, first erupting in the early 1970s with former NFL player Dave Meggyesy’s book “Out of Their League.” This gave birth to the more recent wave of sports and “intersectionality,” with the new-fangled addition of partisan politics.
“With its authoritarian masculinity rooted in toughness, the culture of football also dismisses thoughtful reflection on larger social issues as effeminate or distracting.”
But wait, there’s more:
“Since the 1950s, football has transformed from a national pastime to a political tool. The college gridiron has helped turn states red not simply by amusing the Silent Majority on game days, but by promoting economic growth and spreading the values of hierarchy, order and masculinity that have been central to the right’s political ascendancy. Over the past half-century, football has preserved these principles, which conservatives view as under siege by the left. The game and its pageantry, steeped in tradition, have hammered home the tie between the culture of the past and American greatness, and have imbued men with the perceived competitiveness and toughness required to thrive in an unforgiving free-market economy.”
It’s also rather ridiculous. Most football fans I know, regardless of their politics, aren’t looking for a “safe space” when they watch football. They watch football because—wait for it now—they like football. The disconnect between the critics and the fans has never been bigger, and it’s why any serious analysis of football’s true cultural impact remains elusive.
In the South, football is so much more than the stereotypes of toughness and macho antics. Ace Atkins, who played on Auburn’s undefeated 1993 team, and whose father was the MVP on Auburn’s 1957 national championship team, illustrates the cultural resonance of a sport in a region that many football critics are eager to demonize but resist understanding:
“A Southerner’s love of football transcends the usual cultural conventions at play in the rest of the country. The biggest Southern football fan I know is a writer pal in New Orleans who happens to be gay. I’d put his knowledge up against any tobacco-chewing truck driver’s in west Alabama.”
The closest any contemporary writer comes to addressing the real culture of football is in Gregg Easterbrook’s “The Game’s Not Over,” (Sports Biblio review), although it’s heavier on concussions and the big business of the NFL than the cultural terrain explored here.
At the high school level, Kostya Kennedy does well to explore the cultural importance of the sport in his 2016 book “Lasting Impact” (Sports Biblio review) and is respectful of those traditions as he wonders about the future of the most popular prep sport.
A gaping cultural vacuum remains, one that if properly fleshed out could more intelligently and completely explain what football means to American society than what we’ve been inundated with from the establishment media.
It’s the the vacuum of lived football experience, those who have played, coached, breathed and embodied a culture of American football that many of its critics prefer to disdain, if not ignore completely.
A Few Good Reads
- The latest episode of Baseball by the Book podcast is with Joe Posnanski, who talks with host Justin McGuire about “The Soul of Baseball,” his barnstorming book with the late Negro Leagues star Buck O’Neill;
- At Baseball Nuggets, a growing digital collection of Spalding’s Official Base Ball Record Books is being compiled;
- In Somalia, where Sharia law is generously applied to women who dare to step out of their proscribed roles, some females are willing to risk their lives to play basketball;
- George McGinnis was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame Friday, which stunned me. I figured he had been enshrined years ago, and was moved by his very humble speech in Springfield. But that’s the kind of man—and player—he has always been;
- The U.S. Tennis Association is trying to restore a segregated tennis court in Lynchburg, Va., where Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson honed their skills;
- The Curse of Bobby Layne, or a theory why the Detroit Lions haven’t won an NFL title in 60 years;
- Jerry Knaak, the official historian of the Oakland Raiders, on the franchise’s AFL championship 50 years ago this year (and there are some great archival photos there too);
- Writing at milb.com, Ben Hill concludes his trip to minor league ball parks with a visit to Buies Creek, N.C., home of Campbell University, where the Houston Astros’ entry in the Carolina League began playing last year.
New Soccer Books
- The late Sócrates was the captain of Brazil’s 1982 World Cup side—arguably the best never to win a World Cup—and off the pitch a favorite of football philosophers and political socialists. “Doctor Sócrates,” by Andrew Downie, was published this week (Simon & Schuster UK), and the author had access to the player’s unpublished memoir. Excerpt here from The Guardian; review here from The Irish Times;
- Also published this week are two notable biographies of leading British soccer figures: Sir Matt Busby, by Patrick Barclay (Ebury Press), and Alan Ball, by David Tossell (Hodder & Stoughton);
- Also published on Tuesday was “On the Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s Northwest” by Simon Hughes (DeCoubertin Books), with an excerpt published in The Independent about Home Bargains FC, a Sunday League side in Liverpool;
- Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl, author of “The Beckham Experiment,” is at work on “The Masters of Modern Soccer,” which is due out in May (Crown Publishing) ahead of next summer’s World Cup in Russia;
- Out in July Down Under and forthcoming in November in the U.S.: “The Death and Life of Australian Soccer,” by Joe Gorman (University of Queensland Press), which delves into the country’s first national soccer championship. Excerpt here about Mark Viduka, the son of Croatian immigrants, who later played in the English Premier League; review here by The Footy Almanac, which explains the backstory behind Gorman’s book, a tribute to Soccer World editor Andrew Dettre. The author also appeared on the Behind the Game podcast on the day Australian football icon Les Murray died. Gorman, whose next project is about Rugby League in Queensland, also referenced the rise of the Western Sydney Wanderers and why he can’t get into the A-League. As I listened to the podcast, I heard some interesting parallels to Major League Soccer in the United States. He’s not optimistic about soccer in Australia, but is bracingly honest about why.
- Gene Michael, 79, was nicknamed “The Stick,” and embodied an identity for the New York Yankees that was often understated, given the gigantic figures in the club’s history. But his 40-year history with the club bridged not only the divide between the “Golden Age” and its successor. He was the architect of the Derek Jeter-Joe Torre years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As general manager, he knew how to deal with “The Boss,” volatile owner George Steinbrenner, letting baseball personnel take care of business on the field. As Joel Sherman wrote in the New York Post, Michael “put the cornerstones in place for the last Yankees dynasty;”
- John Duxbury, 80, was known as “The Answer Man” for his encyclopedic knowledge as a sports researcher for 41 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He got calls from sports media figures beyond his newsroom, including Bob Costas, who was blown away by the collection of sports books Duxbury had at his home. The nickname led to a column by the same name in The Sporting News, based in St. Louis for many years, and it was much more than trivial. Duxbury retired in 2011 and had recently been in declining health;
- Sugar Ramos, 75, was the first World Boxing Council featherweight world champion, and the Cuban-born fighter was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But Ramos will forever be known as the man who inflicted a fatal blow in a 1963 bout with Davey Moore at Dodger Stadium. Bob Dylan was inspired to write and perform “Who Killed Davey Moore?” although it was determined that Moore’s brain stem was fatally damaged when his neck struck the ropes. In a 2013 piece for the LA Review of Books, David Davis revisited that tragic night, the men who stepped in the ring, and its inadvertent legacy:
“But in its brutal honesty and wretched beauty, the fight game survived to find a unique niche, even enjoying several renaissances, led by the voluble Muhammad Ali, who attracted a salon of literary luminaries (Mailer, Baraka, Plimpton, and Talese, among others), and extending to George Foreman, Roberto Durán, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather.”
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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 95, published Sept. 10, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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