Summertime has become the biggest window of the year for women’s sports to emerge as spectator entities. This year is no different, with the cricket and rugby World Cups being staged, as well as the women’s Euro 2017 soccer tournament.
In the United States, women’s pro basketball and soccer are also in-season, and for the first time in a decade and a half the Solheim Cup will be shown on network television in America.
For a non-Olympic year, this summer calendar is a richly generous one for female athletes, and they’re being presented more robustly than ever. Sadly, for too many influential women’s sports observers, it’s not enough.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
In This Issue: Camden Yards at 25; Midnight Baseball In Alaska; A Tennis ‘Trophy Son;’ Pistol Pete’s Lost Season; Remembering Larry Grantham, Tony DiCicco and Frank Kush; Steve Oney
While media coverage and the business of women’s sports is only a fraction compared to that for men, such comparisons belie significant strides that have been made in the last couple of decades.
Two books published in late 2016 about women’s sports history were written to address that vacuum of attention. To a certain degree, these books, written by younger writers, also are needed departures from a dreary collection of women’s sports history books burdened by stale feminist dogma and an exclusively American perspective. (See my previous post on all this, and why Allen Guttmann’s luminous “Women’s Sports: A History” is a notable exception.)
Television producer and documentary filmmaker Molly Schiot’s “Game Changers: Unsung Heroines of Sports History” (Simon & Schuster) was borne out of the author’s frustration with a lack of books and other materials about female athletes.
She started an Instagram account that provided much of the photo-driven narrative thrust for the book. While the cover display is of Wilma Rudolph, many of her subjects and their sports are quite obscure, and they have interesting, compelling stories to tell. This is the most welcome component of “Game Changers.” However, like too many books about women’s sports, and particularly those with American authors, Schiot’s also obsesses a good bit about a lack of “representation.”
Erica Westly’s otherwise excellent “Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game” (Touchstone) also is marred by a mournful epilogue about “appallingly sparse” television coverage of women’s sports.
If only this were actually true. Dozens of nationally televised college softball games are shown on American television each spring, and the recently completed Women’s College World Series drew ratings highly encouraging for ESPN to continue accelerating its coverage.
Westly makes a good point that “many Americans today would find it hard to believe that it was once commonplace for entire towns to rally around women’s sports teams. Yet it happened.”
But undoubtedly, citizens in Stratford, Conn., who supported the iconic Raybestos Brakettes softball team have left behind descendants who are equally fanatic these days about the UConn women’s basketball team.
The reigning women’s college basketball national champion, the University of South Carolina, has become a statewide phenomenon with generous media coverage. Fan bases for women’s pro team sports haven’t developed to such a degree, but they’re still in an early stage.
It’s possible that instead of big cities with many sports and entertainment options, small towns built around colleges and universities might be the ideal places for grassroots women’s sports fan development.
This week as American women in sports observed the 45th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the usual stories about fighting for equal rights and respect were mixed with “report cards” about a lack of diversity in the hiring of women’s sports coaches.
While Title IX requires this kind of bean-counting, using it to apply to media coverage, hiring practices and related issues is misleading. I got hammered for suggesting a couple years ago, during the soccer Women’s World Cup, that there’s never been a better time to be a women’s sports fan. But the niche-focused nature of online media has resulted in a rich variety of consumption options that continue to proliferate.
Andy Bull writes in The Guardian “that the women do win, and they still don’t get the sustained coverage they deserve.” Sometimes I think there’s more coverage about the lack of coverage of women’s sports than actual coverage.
But carving out space in a competitive, fragmented media and business environment isn’t about what one thinks women athletes “deserve.” Getting beyond such representational thinking is crucial, although it’s rarely to be found in sports media, which is rife with false charges of “marginalization.”
Comparisons to what men have developed over many more years must be discarded in favor of the pragmatic building of solid sports leagues, tours, fan bases and community outreach programs.
The need for better sports business and marketing efforts for women’s sports and their growth around the world also reflect the limits of Title IX. Several global developments also provide a more accurate gauge of some truly bright horizons for female athletes than narrow perspectives coming out of the U.S.
Women’s Australian Rules Football has a rich history of its own, and the recently completed first season of the Women’s AFL has prompted interest in expansion.
The presentation of the Women’s Cricket World Cup, just underway in England and Wales, is to get a glimpse not only of the future of women’s sports, but to appreciate a more promising present than many might want to admit.
A Few Good Reads
- In 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in Baltimore, unintentionally setting off a renaissance of old-fashioned baseball stadium architecture. On the excellent 99% Invisible architecture and design radio program, host Roman Mars notes, “being a nice and familiar place to watch a game is important for baseball;”
- Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association this week presented a $1 million donation to the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City;
- Wednesday was the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, and for the 112th time in Alaska, a venerable tradition was repeated: The Midnight Sun minor league baseball game;
- At Tiger Rag Extra, Cody Worsham writes about Pete Maravich’s freshman season at LSU, and how he revived a stale sport with a flashy game at a football-mad school. Recommended reading: “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich,” by Mark Kriegel (Free Press);
- In the 1960s, the NFL played a consolation game for teams that came up just short of reaching the championship game. At MMQB, Tim Rohan writes that while “The Playoff Bowl” wasn’t a popular idea for those vanquished teams and drew only a few fans, it contributed to the growth of professional football at a critical time;
- By an 8-0 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week in favor of the Washington Redskins in a trademark case that’s expertly explained by Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann. The decision is a big blow to those wishing to eliminate what they claim is an offensive nickname;
- In 1946, Joe Louis defended his world title against Billy Conn in the first heavyweight bout to be shown on national television. The fight also grossed nearly $2 million in gate receipts at Yankee Stadium;
- At Scalawag Magazine, Robert Greene II writes how Atlanta’s landscape of spectator sports and leisure activities, including the 1996 Summer Olympics, is inextricably linked to its history of political and cultural ambitions.
Sports Book News
Accusations of doping that have been rife in the world of tennis are explored in Douglas Brunt’s new novel, “Trophy Son” (St. Martin’s Press); but he tells The New York Times his larger impetus was to write about how youth sports have become professionalized and even vicious. (Review here in the New York Observer).
His protagonist is a rising male star whose father is loosely based on the father of Andre Agassi:
“But for these athletes it’s like being born into the Church of Scientology. How do you know you’re in this crazy church when you don’t know anything else and it all started at an age where you weren’t making your own decisions?”
At first, “Trophy Son” is limited to fictitious characters like Anton Stratis, but then Brunt employs real names of current players on the men’s pro tour. Among those players Brunt talked to include American John Isner, who said he doesn’t believe there’s ample use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Brunt defended his switch from fictional to real characters and his depiction of a touchy subject in the sport:
“I’m not the one out here throwing darts — these darts have been thrown for years.”
- Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin’s new memoir, “Sting Ray Afternoons” (Little Brown and Company) delves into his childhood in the 1970s. This excerpt explains how his love of toys and other totems of that decade helped forge his love of sports.
- Larry Grantham, 78, didn’t get the headlines of Joe Namath but he didn’t care. The undersized New York Jets linebacker was the leader of an unheralded defense that helped preserve a stunning victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The former Ole Miss standout, who was buried in his hometown of Crystal Springs, Miss., battled alcoholism and lymphoma after his retirement, and was just as proud of his recovery as what he accomplished on the field;
- Tony DiCicco, 68, coached the U.S. women’s soccer team to Olympic gold and the 1999 Women’s World Cup and “helped put the women’s game on the American sporting map.” The so-called “99ers” formed the core of the first women’s pro league, WUSA, which DiCicco led. Julie Foudy, one of those key players, rounds up some of her teammates’ reactions. Recommended reading: “Catch Them Being Good” (Viking Adult);
- Frank Kush, 88, won 176 games as football coach at Arizona State, and his success in part prompted expansion of what is now the Pacific 12 Conference. He never regretted the incident that led to his forced retirement in 1979, an accusation that he struck a player in a game.
Off the Sporting Green
- What I’m currently reading: David Sax’ new book, “The Revenge of Analog” (Public Affairs Books), about the resurgence of vinyl, print and other hands-on, tactile cultural artifacts and experiences. Review here in Pop Matters;
- From The Millions, Bring Back the Book Jacket Photo;
- From the Smithsonian, Joe Pyne Was America’s First Shock Jock, with a great vignette involving Frank Zappa’s long hair and Pyne’s wooden leg;
- Newly discovered 1959 recordings from the French film “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” embody jazz pianist Thelonious Monk in his prime;
- If there were an Olympics of reading regimens for journalists, Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker would win the gold medal;
- What is a library? Lines and lines of incredible spines;
- America’s real arts capitals are in places you might not imagine.
Gregg Allman, who died earlier this month, was the subject of an excellent 1984 profile by journalist and author Steve Oney in Esquire. “A Sinner’s Second Chance” is reprinted here with permission at the Bitter Southerner site; Oney interview here with the Macon Telegraph after Allman’s death.
Earlier this month, Alex Belth did this Q & A with Oney upon publication of his new collection, “A Man’s World” (Mercer University Press), whose subjects include Allman, Hubie Brown, Jim Bouton, Herschel Walker, Brandon Tartikoff, Harrison Ford, Herb Alpert, Robert Penn Warren, Harry Crews and Atlanta architect John Portman. As Oney tells Belth:
“I’m fascinated by accomplishment. I’m also fascinated by struggle. I admire people who fight to make their mark.”
Oney grew up reading the likes of Gay Talese Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, John McPhee, Nora Ephron and Paul Hemphill, and it shows in so much of his work. Oney’s acclaimed 2003 book, “And the Dead Shall Rise” (Pantheon), details the tragic case of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager who was lynched in 1913 just a couple miles from where I live outside Atlanta.
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I’m taking a break from the newsletter next week, through the July 4 holiday, and will return with the next edition of the Sports Biblio Digest on July 9. Thanks for subscribing and happy reading!
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. 86, published June 25, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
I’d love to hear what you think. Send feedback, suggestions, book recommendations, review copies, newsletter items and and requests for interviews to Wendy Parker, firstname.lastname@example.org.