In attempting to explain the blending of sports and politics in the United States, Kenneth Cohen, a curator at the National Museum of American history, traces the historical arc back before the founding of the nation.
The author of the recently published “They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic,” Cohen expands on this theme in a related piece at Slate, writing that “explicitly political sports were the norm in American life for the nation’s first 125 years.”
Cohen cites examples of politicians exploiting sporting events to attract voters, even organizing their own competitions. Campaign cartoons in the early 19th century frequently depicted candidates in foot races, boxing matches and card games.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also in This Issue: Library of Congress Baseball Americana Exhibit; PEN Literary Sports Writing Finalists; Bill Belichick’s Football Library; Indy Star’s Pulitzer-Worthy Work; The ‘Milan Miracle’ Preserved on Film; The Tragedy of Hakoah Vienna; Remembering Warren Miller
The context of race in that history, as the United States was ravaged by Civil War, the end of slavery and the ugly legacy of the failed Reconstruction project, is vital. Cohen provides a useful framework for understanding the present furor that has tangled up sports, race, culture and politics.
For nearly a century, until the 1960s and the rise of Muhammad Ali and a new generation of political journalists, that nexus was mostly absent.
Conservative patriotism and attitudes abounded—playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” before games, having American presidents throw out the first pitch and banning black athletes from competitions to placate white audiences—and these “traditions” wouldn’t be challenged until Jackie Robinson.
It’s mostly the methods and presumptuousness behind much of today’s “athlete activism” that rankle. It’s also a clear departure from the historical threads Cohen has expertly weaved together.
Almost all of that activism, dating from the 1960s, is related to race, gender and sexuality, the Holy Trinity of cultural identity politics, which has been all the rage in academia, media and popular culture, and which has become generational catnip to impressionable millennials.
This brand of “progressivism”—people from “marginalized” groups cannot escape their collective identities nor their eternal victim status—is a direct counter to the more traditional culture of sports, which is predicated on hierarchy, social order, individual discipline and self-sacrifice for the good of the team.
The culture clashes that brewed in the late 1960s, and that put Harry Edwards, John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the map, have flared up a half-century later, having a souring effect on public discourse in which certain views can brook no dissent.
The Colin Kaepernick saga and ESPN’s controversies in mixing its own troublesome brew of sports and politics were at fever pitch even before President Donald Trump weighed in on the NFL and players kneeling during the national anthem.
Bryan Curtis of The Ringer, a savvy sports media observer, can’t stop writing about it. Where he once wrote for Grantland about the likes of Bob Ryan, he’s written more recently about sports media types whose main claim to fame isn’t what they write, but what they Tweet, or bleat about, usually on topics that have little or nothing to do with sports.
For those wishing for a sliver of a separation between sports and politics, even for a few hours on a weekend afternoon: it’s ovah. Other profiles have flowed from Curtis’ pen: Jemele Hill, Bart Hubbuch and, most recently, Dave Zirin of The Nation, the socialist king of sports media wokesters, no longer the lone wolf of a genre that’s getting quite crowded with bylines.
While Zirin is worthy of examination, Curtis is dreadfully uncritical. We’re told that Zirin is an “aw-shucks” guy in person (they were “scarfing down” pizza together at Penn Station!), and he has the ear not only of Kaepernick but Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, and he’s doing a book with another kneeling NFL player aimed at uptight Caucasians. Curtis concludes:
“There are scenes from the springtime of athletic resistance that are so extraordinary that you have to repeat them until they sink in.”
Radical Chic is back. There’s no mention of Zirin’s scurrilous denunciation of former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, and his frequent tirades against Tim Tebow, only because of their political views.
What’s lost in all this is the sports fan, the paying customer, an everyday devotee of a team, a league, a player or just someone who just wants to tune in after a long day and forget about the rest of the world. The individual whose patronage has made Kaepernick and his fellow kneelers very wealthy men, and has kept what remaining sportswriters there are still employed. Fans like this are the audience for a product, and a message, they didn’t ask for.
There’s a valid place for every one—athletes, the rest of us—to speak out about what we feel is wrong in society, and to take action if so moved.
I don’t think that place is on a ball field, or tennis court, or swimming pool. It cheapens the important hands-on work that has to be done in communities, with schools, police departments, political groups, and service providers.
Sports have played a critical role in social progress, but the inflammatory expressions we’re being subjected to today—from the Zirins and Trumps of the world—aren’t producing constructive results. They only further divide people who come to sports for just the opposite reasons.
Some think Trump’s interjection has rendered the Take A Knee movement impotent. King’s niece pointed out that when her uncle took a knee, it was in prayer. Black conservative Shelby Steele believes the protest has lost its power.
Yet the NFL has agreed to create a “social justice committee” to help address player concerns about issues in the larger society, and tossed in a good amount of money for the effort. Some are skeptical about its effect, and whether it’s more public relations than anything.
The NFL also has rejected an ad for its Super Bowl program from a veterans group that urges fans to “Please Stand.”
The “politics has always been in sports” fomenters accept only one kind of politics, and this is the problem with “the springtime of athletic resistance.”
At the Australian Open this week, the young American Tennys Sandgren was asked not about his surprising quarterfinal run in a Grand Slam tournament, but his conservative views that earned the ire of Serena Williams and prompted him to delete Tweets.
Sandgren fired right back at the media, which is likely to continue pressing on even though he’s begun apologizing. This is the game that must be played in these “woke” times. He’s not a political figure, but that’s not the point any longer. Neither is Nick Krygios, and he was just as bamboozled at being asked about his support of Kaepernick instead of his play in Melbourne.
With the Super Bowl a week away, political footballs are already being lobbed, with Frank Bruni of The New York Times dropping a rather odious pile of Buffalo bagels on the festivities:
“Football, like Trumpism, likes to believe that it’s about working-class folks in the heartland. But this year’s Super Bowl, like the Trump administration, bows to the Acela corridor. It nearly brought together two teams from underexposed cities, Jacksonville and Minneapolis. Instead it brings together two teams from celebrated theaters of history in the Northeast. So much for the little guy.”
In “The Joy of Sports,” Michael Novak’s metaphysical romp written on the heels of the 1960s, he shrewdly tapped into the true cultural relevance of sports. The term “culture” means something very different today, but I think it’s placed in a rightful historical perspective that doesn’t get considered in the pages of the Old Gray Lady or by Smithsonian curators:
“Sports are deeper than politics—deeper than any single political system, and deeper in the human heart than political authority. Sports lie at the very root of liberty and law, in the free play of intelligence and imagination, and in the animal (and the spirited) zest for self-perfection.”
I couldn’t agree more, and Novak’s book is something of a bible for me, a major inspiration in starting the Sports Biblio project.
Novak took issue with writers who intentionally politicize sports, who see everything through the prism of politics, especially where it doesn’t belong. His timeless wisdom against this vulgarity is needed now more than ever.
The finalists for the PEN American/ESPN Literary Sports Writing Award were revealed this week (scroll to nearly the bottom), and they include two books about Muhammad Ali as well as Jerald Podair’s “City of Dreams.” The winner will be announced in February, along with a lifetime achievement recipient to join Bill Nack, Roger Angell, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Dave Anderson, Bob Ryan, and John Schulian;
To be published this coming Thursday, both by the University of Nebraska Press: “Tom Yawkey, Patriarch of the Boston Red Sox,” by Bill Nowlin, and “The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett,” by James W. Johnson. They’re both included in Sports Biblio’s winter sports book preview;
Now in online-only form, for the first time, is The Hardball Times 2018 Baseball Annual, as part of its new association with FanGraphs. A fiction section has been added, and while most links are free to read, a $50 annual membership lets you enjoy it all ad-free.
A Few Good Reads
In 2009, Smithsonian Books published “Baseball Americana,” a treasure trove of Library of Congress artifacts that celebrate the history of the game. This summer, Baseball Americana, the exhibit, will occupy significant space at the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, displaying printed, photographic, film and other items depicting that history across all aspects of society. The book is being revised, and another volume about early baseball cards is being published, also by Smithsonian Books. The exhibit is timed for the All-Star Game in July, not far away at Nationals Park;
Instead of the usual steroids-themed Baseball Hall of Fame narrative spun after another class is announced, Tyler Kepner asks a very good question, in light of the addition of Chipper Jones: Why aren’t there many third basemen in Cooperstown?
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s football library is plentiful, occupied mainly by strategy and leadership books, especially about NFL coaching luminaries Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Paul Brown, as well as Walter Camp;
Vince McMahon is bringing back the XFL, which I need like a dozen doughnuts, but which Jay Willis at GQ suspects may open another chapter in the culture wars, which we all can do without entirely;
If sports gambling is legalized, the NBA wants in on the action. Is one percent of all bets too much to ask?
LeBron James recently scored his 30,000 point, and I agree with Dwyane Wade that James, now in his 14th season, could eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA record 38,387 points. James, who just turned 33, should surpass Julius Erving and Dirk Nowitzki shortly, with only Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone standing between him and Kareem.
Sports History Files
On Sunday, Indiana University will screen a fully restored film version of the 1954 Indiana state high school basketball championship game. “The Milan Miracle,” which inspired the Hollywood film “Hoosiers,” has been available on VHS for years, and various clips can be found on YouTube.
Eric Grayson, an Indianapolis film preservationist who isn’t much of a basketball fan, has worked for the last two years to preserve deteriorating film of the game found in the Milan gym. He blended in music to the soundless footage: “My favorite film is waiting in a can somewhere, waiting for me to find it.”
A National Film Preservation grant funded Grayson’s restoration work for the title game between Milan and Muncie Central, and he funded the task of salvaging footage of Milan’s semifinal win over Terre Haute on his own, through Kickstarter. That game also will be shown at Sunday’s screening on the main IU campus in Bloomington, where the films will remain archived;
Several players and founders of the legendary Hakoah Vienna soccer club perished in the Holocaust. As Dave Rich writes at Forward, the sport’s stewards haven’t done much to remember the first champions of professional club soccer in Europe and the legacy of Jewish clubs before World War II;
Another one from The Hardball Times, Rachael McDaniel on the Asahi Baseball Club, players from Japanese immigrant families in Vancouver in the early part of the 20th century, and who were then broken up at the start of World War II, never competing again. Only one player from that era still survives, and in recent years the Asahi Baseball Association was reborn.
Sports Media News
As noted here last week, The Indianapolis Star’s exposé of sexual predators in the USA Gymnastics scheme led to its examination of Larry Nassar, who’s now been sentenced to 40-175 years for assaulting female athletes at a sports medicine clinic at Michigan State University.
Shortly after the sentence, MSU president Lou Anna Simon resigned under pressure, and athletics director Mark Hollis followed suit on Friday. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” is reporting about wider allegations of assault involving the Spartans’ football and men’s basketball programs. The U.S. Olympic Committee is ordering every member of the USA Gymnastics board to resign or it faces decertification as the sport’s governing body.
Tim Evans, The Star reporter who interviewed Nassar, recalled that meeting this week, and here’s the initial story the newspaper published in 2016 that prompted one of Nassar’s Michigan State victims to blow the whistle on one of the most sordid enterprises in American sports history.
It’s been 18 years since a Pulitzer Prize was awarded for journalism about sports. Given the public and media outcry over the Nassar saga, The Star might end that drought. But more importantly, its work finally brought decades of criminal activity and institutional negligence and cover-up to a blessed end;
The Columbia Journalism Review talks to a reporter who’s been covering abuse in American gymnastics for years, Scott Reid of the Orange County Register, who started digging into that cloistered world as a colleague of mine in the early 1990s at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution;
Bob Costas is blowing off the Super Bowl for NBC, restating his grave concerns over concussions and violence in the game;
Sports On Earth folded on Friday after five-and-a-half years, and Will Leitch, one of its mainstays, wrote the final post. The bylines and subject matter were vigorous and sprawling and rarely uninteresting, but the business remains unforgiving;
Several sports staffers in the SoCal News Group, including longtime Los Angeles Daily News sports media writer Tom Hoffarth, were laid off this week, as well as high school writers at other smaller newspapers in that company, severing a vital connection with their communities;
ESPN’s Jemele Hill is switching from “SportsCenter” to The Undefeated, which is hardly a surprise. The latter’s focus on race, culture and sports is right up her alley, while the mainstream television product still has plenty of traditional viewers who prefer watching sports highlights on a sports highlights show.
Warren Miller, 93, almost single-handedly created an action-sports film industry, mainly around skiing, making more than 750 films and writing related books and non-fiction stories. Along with it, he cultivated a lifestyle on the slopes, becoming an iconic figure in the post-World War II American ski culture.
His work was rich with engaging story-telling techniques and a deep understanding of an emerging demographic of the young and affluent ready to take a dare, whether it was on snow or elsewhere outdoors. “It’s all about freedom,” Miller often said.
No matter his audience, or venue, Miller was fond of telling his fellow adventuring enthusiasts never to wait, or hold back:
“If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.”
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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. 112, published Jan. 28, 2018. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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