The modest birth of a sporting spectacle

This NFL Films clip of Super Bowl I gives you an indication how far ahead of their times the likes of Pete Rozelle and Lamar Hunt truly were. The celebrity sightings and entertainment pizzazz were there from the start. We’ve gone from birds flying overhead in 1967 to fighter jets, pop culture halftime shows and endless parsing of television commercials.

But ultimately, for purists, the Super Bowl is really all about a game. Green Bay’s dominance over Kansas City was just about as complete as what the Seattle Seahawks accomplished last night over Denver, and Peyton Manning is in good company with the vanquished Len Dawson, who later came back to direct a Super Bowl winner.

Much will continue to be made of the NFL’s continuing existential crisis over concussions and other crippling injuries. It’s important to note that the oft-concussed Percy Harvin busted the Broncos with his kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half on Sunday, maximizing his limited role in stinging fashion.

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In the aftermath of another spectacle, and with eight months before the start of another season, the acerbic and deeply cynical takedowns of the NFL’s cult of violent masculinity will continue. They deserve deeper examination and response for another time, but for now, this is the best rejoinder we have to those who fret about the nature of the game.

But what the scolds and hand-wringers also have not been able to properly counter in nearly 50 years of this spectacle is embodied in the 22-minute compendium of highlights below and narrated by the iconic John Facenda. Unlike the heroic language and music of much of the NFL Films genre spawned by the late Steve Sabol, this is bread-and-butter gridiron strategy, execution, physical endurance and, in the truest sense of the word, beauty.

For there is a grace, a beauty, an aesthetically appealing component to American football that is rarely being acknowledged these days, and needs to be asserted. This is my feeble attempt in a short post to inject that notion back into the debate about a game that few of us have ever, or will ever, play, but that watch in astronomic numbers.

Sports History Files: Baseball’s hidebound gatekeepers

This time a year ago I wrote about baseball’s dwindling Romantics — those who have Hall of Fame votes but want to deny any player they suspect of steroids use from a having a plaque in Cooperstown — and thought the matter couldn’t get any more bizarre.

But that was last year. The addition next summer of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas as the Class of 2014 wasn’t a surprise, but the rationale some writers gave for what was on their ballots — or not — in voting disclosed this week reveals more troubling issues at work within the notoriously cloistered Baseball Writers Association of America.

Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?It’s bad enough for a longtime writer and BBWAA ballot-holder, Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, to unfurl such an ahistorical explanation for casting a vote only for Jack Morris and refusing to do so for any player from the steroids era, even Maddux. Gurnick never indicated when he thought that era began, nor did he acknowledge that Morris, whose eligibility on the BBWAA ballot has now expired, may have been playing during this time.

As some have noted, at least Gurnick came clean with his explanation, as indefensible as it may be. He’s entitled to do with his ballot whatever he likes according to the loose instructions laid out by the Hall of Fame, and says he won’t vote any longer. The BBWAA on Friday also released an aggregated list of 136 members who made their votes public (out of 571 writers with ballots), and this also is a valued public service.

But at the same time, the BBWAA swiftly punished perhaps the most honest member of its tribe. The day after the inductees were named, Deadspin revealed that the voting writer whose vote it had attempted to buy was Dan LeBatard of ESPN.

LeBatard insisted he wouldn’t take any money for letting Deadspin poll readers in an attempt to show how broken the voting process has become, and the website never revealed how much cash it offered. Here’s why he said he did it:

I feel like my vote has gotten pretty worthless in the avalanche of sanctimony that has swallowed it.

I have no earthly idea if Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas did or didn’t use steroids.

I think I understand why the steroid guys were the steroid guys in this competition-aholic culture

I hate all the moralizing we do in sports in general, but I especially hate the hypocrisy in this: Many of the gatekeeper voters denying Barry Bonds Hall Of Fame entry would have they themselves taken a magical, healing, not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs, especially if lesser talents were getting the glory and money. Lord knows I’d take the elixir for our ESPN2 TV show if I could.

I don’t think I’m any more qualified to determine who is Hall of Fame-worthy than a fan who cares about and really knows baseball. In fact, many people analyzing baseball with advanced metrics outside of mainstream media are doing a better job than mainstream media, and have taught us some things in recent years when we were behind. In other words, just because we went to journalism school and covered a few games, just because accepted outlets gave us their platform and power, I don’t think we should have the pulpit to ourselves in 2014 that way we did in 1936.

Baseball is always reticent to change, but our flawed voting process needs remodeling in a new media world. Besides, every year the power is abused the way I’m going to be alleged to abuse it here. There’s never been a unanimous first-ballot guy? Seriously? If Ruth and Mays and Schmidt aren’t that, then what is? This year, someone is going to leave one of the five best pitchers ever off the ballot. Suck it, Greg Maddux.

As a result, the former Miami Herald columnist has been banned from ever casting a Hall of Fame vote again, and his BBWAA membership has been revoked for a year.

I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect the hammer came down on LeBatard — whom I’ve never been terribly fond of — as it did because of what he said as much as what he did.

And the members of the BBWAA lodge really let him have it, reflecting an insular, arrogant organization that comes across as being fearful of change. The Road to Cooperstown

It’s a club that seems to be harder to gain entry to than the College of Cardinals, and is perhaps even more medieval and less transparent.

Yes, that’s a lot of hyperbole there, and who the hell am I? I never covered baseball, and I’ll never get a vote. Neither will the Deadspin readers and other fans, as well as quite a few online writers and sabermetricians who seem to have a greater appreciation for the history of the game and the place of contemporary players in it than some BBWAA voters.

What some of us on the outside are learning now is that some voting members don’t write about baseball that much or at all any more, enjoying “honorary” status for having been annointed during the halcyon days of newspapers, before those troublesome bloggers and stats geeks started making noise.

If you do get a membership card, as SB Nation’s excellent Rob Neyer just has, you have to wait 10 years to cast a Hall of Fame vote.

At this rate, some of the most interesting, knowledgeable and dynamic baseball writers we have — Jonah Keri, Maury Brown, Jay Jaffe and Craig Calcaterra, just to name a few whom I think are really good — are unlikely to be welcomed aboard. Many were inspired by Bill James, who also remains an outlier despite his enormous influence not just regarding statistics, but in using those advanced numbers to expand and even challenge the standard narrative of baseball history.

The James revolution has some mainstream adherents, most notably Joe Posnanski, who has deepened his reverence for the history of the game in part by embracing sabermetrics. He also voted for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and was one of the BBWAA members making his vote public today.

But when one of the leading gatekeepers thinks the voting system needs only “tweaking” instead of a sledgehammer, there’s a more serious problem at issue than purposely leaving off slam-dunk inductees to protest the presence of performance-enhancing drugs. As Tomas Rios wrote on Sports on Earth today:

Maybe there was some stretch of time when Hall of Fame voters functioned as the truest distillation of our collective baseball knowledge, but it’s not a time worth remembering, given the present. The modern world of sports writing is fully incompatible with the old-guard standards of legitimacy and value.

That’s what I suspect has the BBWAA old guard on the defensive more than anything. The age of steroids has brought a level of scrutiny to the Hall of Fame voting process like never before, and some writers don’t like it. Some, in fact, sound as retrograde as the good ol’ boys at the Augusta National Golf Club about all them dadgum women agitators.

And yet . . . exactly how to usher in meaningful change?

Calacaterra belongs to a four-year-old organization called the Internet Baseball Writers Association, which he likens to a shadow government. It conducted a similar Hall of Fame voting process, and came up with the same BBWAA three this year, plus Craig Biggio, who for the last two years has barely missed official induction. Calcaterra writes that while “process matters, not just the results,” and that change will come, don’t expect much of what’s different in those results than what we’re seeing now:

We should not, however, [change] in the hopes of getting our preferred candidates into the Hall of Fame. Because no matter what changes, it’s still going to be an exercise in getting hundreds of people to agree on something, and that never happens. We should do so only in the hopes of cleaning up a messy system and making the process one in which baseball fans and baseball writers alike can have confidence and about which they can be proud.

New January sports books: Wooden, Beckham and athletes’ minds

A good variety of newly published sports books will be out this month, and here’s a quick look at some of the leading titles.

wooden_coaches_lifeJohn Wooden: A Coach’s Life, by Seth Davis — Davis, of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, went in-depth with a 608-page full-scale biography of the late UCLA basketball legend that’s broken down into the four “seasons” of Wooden’s long life. (Book website.)

This comes on the heels of the publication last fall of “The Sons of Westwood” by Georgia Tech history professor John Matthew Smith, the latest in a long and continuous line of books about the Wizard and his legacy.

Writes Tom Hoffarth at the Los Angeles Daily News:

You have to think at some point there isn’t anything new readers can glean about the revered coach who died at 99 in June of 2010. But for collectors of Wooden memorabilia, the focus is going more from a seemingly never-ending adoration fixation toward a healthy examination period.

David Beckham, by David Beckham — There’s no lack of books about, and by, the recently retired soccer and celebrity icon. His latest was released in the States on New Year’sjX41AgAAQBAJ Day, and prompted long queues at a book signing event in London shortly before  Christmas. It’s less memoir and more a picture-book collection of career highlights. The Daily Mail, not surprisingly, runs ample pictures suitable for gents’ fashion mag, complete with pop-up eBay clothing ads.

The Story of the World Cup 2014The Story of the World Cup: The Essential Companion to Brazil 2014, by Brian Glanville — The venerable British soccer journalist has updated his best-known title for this summer’s tournament in South America. For Americans still learning about the sport and for those deeply in the know, this is an excellent historical narrative of the planet’s biggest sports spectacle. I first read this when the World Cup came to the United States 20 years ago, and enjoyed meeting the author covering the 2002 World Cup.

The Champions’ Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive, by Jim Afremow — The well-credentialed sports psychologist dives deep into the mental processes of top athletes and offers techniques for peak performance, including “getting in a zone,” adapting to team environments, and developing productive routines for every facet of competition. Among the examples cited in the book are the “Golden Reflections” of Olympic champions who’ve benefitted from Afremow’s suggestions.

Backtracking 2013: The best of Sports History Files

On Monday, I wrote about the marvelous longform sportswriting that continues to proliferate on the Web, despite some crabbiness to the contrary.

Today I’m linking to posts I wrote in the past year about sports history, one of the foundations of this blog and something that will become a stronger focus here in the coming months. Over the weekend I’ll link to plenty more sports history writing by others whose work was among the best I read in 2013.

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Baseball

talesdeadballera“Legends of the Dead Ball Era” was an exhibit of baseball cards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was on display over the summer, as boyhood souvenirs were transformed from mere collectibles (and very valuable ones) to vital historical components of a vanished time. In February, the book “Tales from the Deadball Era” continues telling the story of a game eventually modernized by commercialism, scandal and a springy new ball.

• The Philadelphia A’s are long gone, but thanks to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society lives on.

Basketball

• I loved, loved, loved the American Basketball Association, and was inspired to write “When the ball was red, white and blue” in February after University of Michigan professor and basketball historian Yago Colas roused up an old post of his about the ABA’s colorful, if forgotten, legacy, and especially, as he saw it, “its resistance to narrative.”

Football

The continuing anguish over concussions and other crippling injuries in football was encapsulated this fall with the PBS Frontline special “League of Denial” and the publication of a book with the same title. But despite the tragic stories of diminished memories and suicides of NFL players, the sport continues to draw young men into its fold.

Even, as I wrote in February, some of the sons of wealthy suburbia, who attend elite universities and know the risks, can’t stay away from it. From “The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football:” league-of-denial

In all the fulminating over violence, concussions, brain damage, suicides, lawsuits, bloodlust, carnage and bounty-hunting, what’s missing is an acknowledgement of an aspect of human nature that draws young men to the game, including my hometown standout, and always will.

• In October, after “League of Denial” did its thing in making the NFL look really bad, I followed up with “A century of ‘reforming’ football.’ “ I’m as troubled as anyone by how the league has dodged accountability here.

But as Nate Jackson reveals in his recent NFL memoir, “Slow Getting Up,” there will always be men like him “who want to hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I’m dead. That’s the feeling I want.”

Proudly unsentimental about the beatings he dished out — and accepted — was Deacon Jones of the Los Angeles Rams, who died in June.

Miscellany

The history of the Negro Leagues was just one part of a special remembrance sof segregated sports in America in August to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

In “The backroads of Jim Crow sports” I highlight efforts as the preservation of the history of the Negro minor leagues and an oral history project in Mobile, where the feats of African-American athletes were well-known before Henry Aaron and Willie Mays reached the majors.

Soccer

• Phil Woosnam never wavered in his belief that soccer would emerge from its long obscurity on these shores. The former commissioner of the North American Soccer League was someone I got to know covering soccer in Atlanta in the 1990s, after he returned to the town where he won the first NASL title as coach of the Chiefs. As I wrote upon his death in July:

Whether it was the World Cup coming in 1994, the rise of women’s soccer and the arrival of MLS, he always believed the sport had a better future than the naysayers ever imagined.

soccer-in-a-football-world-the-story-of-americas-forgotten-game-david-wangerin• Dave Wangerin was a dutiful historian of that obscure American soccer history, even after he emigrated to the U.K. His book, “Soccer in a Football World,” is the definitive work on the subject, and he was given space in the British soccer fanzine When Saturday Comes to expand on what had been a topic of mocking incredulity in his adopted land.

When he died in May, the magazine launched a writing competition in his honor. He left this world concerned about the preservation of American soccer history, something he worked hard to flesh out.

• Allegations of doping in Germany’s national soccer team — including the World Cup winners in 1954 — were reported by the Süddeutsche Zeiting in August, rocking a sport that hasn’t been dogged much by charges of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s not likely that the German sporting public will get worked up over this, given the passage of time and Der Mannschaft’s accomplishment in helping lift the spirits of a nation that had destroyed much of Europe.

Backtracking 2013: Longform sports hits its stride

‘Tis the season for year-end “Listicles,” “Bests Of,” etc., that try to come off as more authoritative than they really are. If you read enough of these pieces, you’ll find that there’s a certain “must read” herd mentality to them.

This week I’m referencing a few of my favorite links from the past year in the areas of sportswriting, sports history, sports books, women’s sports and sports potpourri. This blog this year has centered on these topics more than others, and while my frequency in posting hasn’t been what I always wanted, I’m occasionally including at the end of these posts some links from what I’ve written on these subjects.

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At the end of 2013, a media scold declared sportswriting as dearly departed as Jim Murray.

An editor at Editor & Publisher magazine -- remember that? -- has declared that sportswriting is as dearly departed as the legendary Jim Murray.

Today, I’m leading off with what I liked about sports journalism and sportswriting from 2013, especially how this part of my profession is transforming itself. There’s been plenty of nostalgiac hand-wringing about how the business ain’t what it used to be.

But I’m encouraged about the renaissance of a form that’s withstanding the bombastic noise, speed and endless sensation of all-sports television and the clickbait side of the Web.

While much of the writing and blogging about sports media is overly obsessed with television, longform sportswriting on the Web flourished this year like never before. It may rate only passing mention behind the latest ratings reports, profiles of sports media (usually television) “personalities” and ginned-up pundit controversies, but the range of first-rate stories has been a real treat.

Tim Marchman of Deadspin trots out a collection of what he liked. There’s a lot to gorge on here — some of it pretentiously overwritten –but if you look around a bit you’ll find something to suit your taste, and will want to keep searching for more:

There’s definitely something gratuitous and undisciplined in a lot of the long stories that run today, and in the general fetish for them, but this is just part of the price paid for the ready access we all enjoy to an astonishing depth and variety of quality work.

If there’s one story that captured my attention above the others, it’s a piece from late July on NASCAR driver Dick Trickle, who committed suicide earlier this year. Jeremy Markovich, writing for SB Nation Longform, doesn’t get in the way of the story. Nor, as Farhad Manjoo points out on Slate, does the story’s presentation get bogged down in showy multimedia features that irritate readers. “Elegy of a race car driver” unpacks the tragic story of a no-nonsense figure in a straightforward manner, without the mawkishness of standard human interest features devoted to death:

Race car drivers don’t like to talk about pain. It shows vulnerability. And besides, it might keep them off the track. Dick Trickle endured a lifetime of crashes and hard hits. He wasn’t a complainer. But he’d been through a lot of pain. His chest. His hip. His granddaughter. His nephew. Dick Trickle was always a guy who looked ahead. He didn’t dwell on the past. He always raced so he could race again. But there were no more races. Ahead, all Dick saw was suffering.

This is a story about an individual I wasn’t familiar with in a sport that frankly doesn’t do much for me. But Markovich applies just the right touch throughout a very long story without self-consciously pandering to cheap emotionalism.

Behind the scenes at SB Nation Longform is Glenn Stout, the general editor of the fine annual “Best American Sports Writing” collection and the author of several books about sports history, most recently “Fenway 1912.” Earlier this year he told AdWeek magazine that longform sports, once showcased in Sunday newspaper magazines, is finding new life on the Web, but is still in a very early stage: basw2013

“A number of sports entities are seeing that the future of sports journalism lays in longform, as people become more accustomed to reading on phones and tablets.

“There might not be a whole lot of money in it yet. But you can not only find a place to show your work—you can find an audience for it.”

(Here’s still more on longform across all of journalism from David Folkenflik of NPR, who talks to Stout, among others.)

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Stout explains more about how he puts together the BASW on The Stacks, which Deadspin debuted this year to give Alex Belth a wider audience for his masterful curation of classic sportswriting. Like any good historian of anything, Belth links the work of those from the pre-television past with those working in the 60s and 70s — an era some think is the golden age of sportswriting — as well as the present, demonstrating the continuity of quality, compelling storytelling.

And lastly, as the holidays approached, Michael Wilbon’s fretting about the current state of sportswriting got a proper — but respectful — pushback from Rob Neyer, SB Nation’s baseball sabermetrics ace:

“I suspect there’s just as much brilliant writing about sports as ever, but that the market for that sort of thing is smaller than it was. Which means you have to look a little harder for it. I think what’s really tripped up Wilbon isn’t a decline in great writing, but a decline in great writing where he used to find it.”

‘Time is short, don’t waste it:’ A tribute to Dr. Z

I haven’t been enamored with the rebranding of NFL Films to suit the here-and-now programming needs of the NFL Network.

But “A Football Life” has been a refreshing NFL Films-produced series profiling leading coaches and players, some with a more recent historical perspective.

6629794And just recently, NFL Films has gone back in time with a wonderful short film about former Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman, the curmudgeonly but authoritative “Dr. Z,” one of pro football’s seminal historians.

“Yours Truly, Dr. Z” — which is linked here to NFL.com because it is not embeddable — is less than 10 minutes, but movingly explains how Zimmerman has been unable to read, write and communicate since 2008, when he suffered the first of three strokes.

He’s 81 now, and still with a sharp mind, but it’s simply heartbreaking to watch him look around his amazing home library. As Chad Finn writes in the Boston Globe, Ken Rodgers, the film’s producer, and actor Tom Wopat, the narrator, took some educated guesses about what Zimmerman wanted to say in making it a first-person tale. Says Rodgers:

“It was trial and error, a time-intensive process,’’ said Rodgers. “I would say, ‘So is it true you boxed Hemingway?’ And he would answer with his, ‘Oh, when-when-when-when,’ and shake his head. In this case, he pointed to his crotch. ‘Oh, when-when when-when-when.’ And I’d say, ‘Hemingway hit you below the belt once in a while?’ and he’d say, ‘when-when-when-when’ and shake no and point to his crotch. And I’d say, ‘He hit you below the belt more?’ And he lit up: ‘Yeah, yeah.’

“And so the sentence was, ‘He hit me below the belt more than he hit me above it.’ And the whole essay was done that way.”

Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar explains the originality of “Dr. Z” before the age of the Web and analytics:

“The thing I most like about Bill James’ work is the thing I most liked about Dr. Z’s — he was able to present concepts that would have been lost in the hands of others. He could make the most advanced ideas acceptable without talking down to the reader, because he had a wonderful, original, and conversational style. And with that, he would take you into the immediacy of the action, just as he would lay open the secrets of the game for all to see. When he wrote a game story, it was different than anybody else’s game stories. Why? Because he went through the door with his own ideas, and he wasn’t going to change that for anyone.”

In a 2009 post, shortly after the news of Zimmerman’s first stroke was being absorbed, Tommy Craggs of Deadspin gave his most notable title, “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” a fresh assessment:

“Reading the book now, you’re amazed not just at how well it holds up, but at how progressive it would seem if it came out today. He wasn’t much of a stylist, but Zimmerman had an offensive lineman’s instinctive empathy for the overlooked and underappreciated (he played on the o-line in semi-pro ball in New Jersey), and as much as anything the book is an exercise in elevating the anonymous, the thoughtful eccentrics, the violent technicians who gave their best years and a knee or two to football.”

Gregg Rosenthal thought Zimmerman’s 1988 book on Duane Thomas was not only underrated, but also Dr. Z. at his essence: 51zCsLIxlcL

“Zimmerman let the subjects of the Thomas book tell their story, like he did in so much of his writing.  Zimmerman knew, better than anyone, how to get football men to reveal the good stuff.”

At The Classical earlier this year, Diana Moskovitz pumps Dr. Z’s Super Bowl history as being ahead of its time:

“This is a collection of essays for cynical times, a collection that doesn’t embellish the game because the writer knows it is just a game, albeit one that gets more attention than the others. It’s a collection that predates the NFL owning its own cable station, the monstrous PR staffs kept by teams and many of the taxpayer-funded stadiums. And yet there is Dr. Z, in the 1980s, speaking his bitterness at how controlling, corporate and buttoned-up the NFL had become.”

The rise of literary sportswriting, on two shores

I love this piece from Simon Kuper about the rise of contemporary sporting literature in Britain, written last month as the 25th William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner was to be named.

Kuper’s a former winner of the award. His “Football Against the Enemy,” published in 1994, was essential reading for this American grasping to understand soccer as a global cultural phenomenon as the World Cup came to the U.S. that year.

9780140237290_p0_v1_s260x420In his essay for The Financial Times, Kuper points to Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” the 1992 William Hill winner, for triggering a literary sports renaissance in the U.K. Or, rather, the beginnings of a genre that had enjoyed a stronger connection to leading literary lights in America.

As Kuper notes, Hornby was influenced by Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” which in turn evolved from the literature of former sportswriters Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon and Norman Mailer, among others.

At the same time, Britain’s best literary stylists rarely wrote about sports until the 1990s (the cricket classic “Beyond a Boundary” was written by Trinidadian CLR James):

In sports writing, we owe it all to American cultural imperialism.

The British soccer “fanzine” When Saturday Comes has done some book publishing. “Tor! The Story of German Football” is perhaps its most notable title, first published in 2003 and recently updated (new excerpt here on the WSC site about Borussia Dortmund’s connection to the national team).

The soccer memoir market continues to proliferate in Britain, and former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has offered his latest.

At the same time, the literary sportswriting field in America is taking on new dimensions (as I wrote about last year) in a “longform” trend that is encouraging, to a certain degree:

This kind of in-depth sports writing has become more necessary as daily sports journalism has got harder. After the early 1990s, when satellite TV channels began showing endless sport, newspapers and websites expanded their sports coverage. Many men devour it. To quote Andrew Card, chief of staff of former US president George W Bush: “He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day.” Noam Chomsky, the celebrated American political thinker, argues that any “serious media critique” needs to look at sport and soap operas: “These are the types of things which occupy most of the media – most of it isn’t shaping the news about El Salvador for politically articulate people, it’s diverting the general population from things that really matter.”

However, as sports clubs grew richer on the new TV money, they became more media-savvy. Now they control and limit sports journalism. Players get “media training”, press officers censor interviews and sports journalists are corralled into the manufactured pseudo-events that are press conferences.

But while the most recent William Hill winner is written up in The Guardian, American sports media observers are largely concerned with what’s on television and what ratings it gets, the off-camera soap-opera at ESPN and letting us know when they’re going on radio and TV to talk about all this. 9781250031358_p0_v3_s260x420

None of them, as far as I can tell, paid much attention to the winner of the recent PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (It’s Mark Kram Jr., author of  “Like Any Normal Day,” about what happens to a star high school quarterback and his family when he becomes a quadriplegic.)

While this is relatively new honor — first awarded in 2010 —  it pays homage to a rich literary tradition that has deep American roots. Along with a fairly new lifetime achievement companion award, I’d like to think that this could spark a revival of the genre here.

Sportswriting in the U.K. isn’t without snark and celebrity obsession. But I think the reason sports books and literary sportswriting are treated differently there is because is because its general literary culture is a stronger component of its popular culture.

Over here it’s niche fare. But in a culture in which sports is reduced to mere entertainment, that shouldn’t be such a surprise.

Sports History Files: Remembering Walt Bellamy

There have been some marvelous tributes over the weekend to Walt Bellamy, the NBA Hall of Famer who died on Saturday at the age of 74.

He had played for five other NBA teams when he joined the Atlanta Hawks I grew up watching, and featured on a team with Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson that helped elevate to some respectability.

bellamycardThose years in the early 1970s came at the end of Bellamy’s career, and I always marveled at how hard he still managed to play, and how he doggedly did the unglamorous work of cleaning up around the basket — rebounding, defending, scrapping away.

Yet he averaged 20 points a game and scored nearly 21,000 points in his career, to go with 13.7 rebounds and nearly 15,000 boards.

Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson got most of the attention on those Hawks teams, which was understandable to a certain degree, but Bellamy just kept on working, an enduring and underrated figure that personified his 13-plus seasons in the NBA.

Writes pro basketball historian Curtis Harris on ESPN’s True Hoop:

At the back end of his playing days, Bellamy enjoyed a renaissance in Georgia. Placed alongside the penetrating and high-scoring combination of “Sweet” Lou Hudson and “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Bells was freed to cruise for sledgehammer dunks and bruise for boards. These talented Hawks pushed Atlanta to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.

Ben Golliver does a nice job of rounding up how Bellamy was regarded in the NBA during the age of Russell and Chamberlain, and how he was admired by his peers.

“Bells” had a strong resume by the time he became a pro. A native of basketball-rich North Carolina, he was first Indiana Hoosier to be a No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and won an Olympic gold medal in 1960 with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas.

But fate swung against him in many other ways. He was NBA rookie of the year in 1962 for a very bad expansion team in the Chicago Packers (later Zephyrs); the Bulls came to be in 1966.

After winding up with the Knicks and playing behind Willis Reed, Bellamy was swapped to Detroit in the Dave DeBusschere trade. Harris marks that point when “Bellamy’s career perhaps takes its biggest hit.”

Freed from the Pistons and revived with the Hawks, it still took the length of Bellamy’s career, plus five more years, from his retirement to enshrinement in Springfield.

Here’s an official statement from the Atlanta Hawks, which announced Bellamy’s death. He had been active in civil rights work in Atlanta after he was done playing basketball.

My social media friend Clarence Gaines, a former Chicago Bulls scout and also a North Carolina native, ranks “Bells” among his top five best high school stars ever from the Tar Heel State, ahead of David Thompson and Dominique Wilkins.

And here’s a fine highlights tribute from NBA.com. I won’t spoil the last clip, but it was indeed a very sweet one.

Midweek Books: Remembrances of Octobers past

It’s been 36 years — my high school days! — since the legend of “Mr. October” was cemented.

Reggie Jackson was the catalyst of three consecutive World Series championship teams with the Oakland Athletics in the mid-1970s. After he signed with the Yankees as a free agent, guiding title teams in 1977 and 1978, that moniker, and his already-outsized persona, took on new dimensions.

But that dizzying fame — which included the creation of a “Reggie” candy bar, because, well, Babe Ruth had one — took a heavy toll, as Jackson told Bryant Gumbel Tuesday in the season premiere of “Real Sports” on HBO (link to trailer). He opens up about troubled relationships with teammates and managers and race relations as he rose to prominence in the decades marked by racial and ethnic tensions in America.

Becoming Mr. OctoberThe interview was aired a day before the start of a new World Series, as the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals tonight begin another Fall Classic at Busch Stadium, the fourth time they’ve met in the World Series.

Jackson has been making plenty of other rounds with the recent release of his memoir, “Reggie Jackson: Becoming Mr. October.” He admits to writing the book, in part, to counter a 2007 ESPN mini-series, “The Bronx is Burning,” based on a book with the same title by sports journalist Jonathan Mahler, that Jackson said vilified him.

Among the claims Jackson makes in the new book (written with Kevin Baker) is that he wasn’t the No. 1 pick by the New York Mets in the 1966 amateur draft because of race, and he quoted his coach at Arizona State telling him why.

In the New York Post, Larry Getlen writes that the book is classic Reggie, just being Reggie:

“Becoming Mr. October” is a score-settling lament about all the people who have wronged Jackson, who comes off as the A-Rod of his day — incredibly talented, disliked by his teammates and ignorant of why anyone would be mad at him.

Getlen says that while Jackson describes the book as an opportunity to clear the air about his many feuds and misunderstandings, he ends up stoking the flames even more, and against those who can’t answer back, like the now-deceased Yankees manager Billy Martin. Jackson accuses Martin of anti-Semitism and of ruining the arms of noted pitchers, including Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle.

Jackson strongly denies he made a disparaging comment about the late Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (who coined the “Mr. October” phrase sarcastically). The quote from Jackson — “Munson thinks he can be the straw that stirs the drink, but he can only stir it bad” — was published in a 1977 Sport magazine piece, “Reggie Jackson in No-Man’s Land.” Robert Ward, the article author, stood by his story when asked recently by the Associated Press:

“He’s been lying about it since it happened,” Ward said of Jackson. “He’s just lied and lied. And now I think probably he’s gotten to the age where he actually believes the stuff he says here. I made nothing up. Not one thing.”

So much for clearing the air.

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This World Series will be the last for Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver, who is retiring.

McCarver was a young catcher for the Cardinals when they reached the World Series 49 years ago. Their post-season victory over the Yankees was the subject of one of the late David Halberstam’s many sports books, “October 1964.”

That year marked the end of the virtually all-white Yankees dynasty, as they wouldn’t return to the World Series again until 1976, the year before Jackson’s arrival. The Cardinals, with young African-American stars in Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood, symbolized America on the cusp of the great events of the Civil Rights movement. October 1964

In a review for The New York Times, the legendary New York journalist Jimmy Breslin said Halberstam “takes only a halfhearted swing at social history.” But he admires how Halberstam portrayed the tough-minded Gibson purely within the realm of the game, saying that the author’s “moral romance works by isolating athletes from that larger social world where personalities, however forceful, remain subject to the powerful constraints of poverty and racism.”

But more recently, Rob Neyer contends it was 1963, when the Yankees were swept by Sandy Koufax and a more thoroughly integrated Dodgers team, that the social markings of America first revealed themselves in a baseball context.

So why didn’t Halberstam write October 1963? Because 1964 was a landmark year in the struggle for civil rights. It was in 1964 that three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. And it was not long before the World Series that Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So 1964 is a convenient backdrop for a story about the contrast between the baseball teams that understood the importance of integration and those that didn’t.

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Before the current post-season began, Mahler asked, in spite of baseball’s healthy financial state, “why does it feel so irrelevant?”

For as much as I like Mahler’s work in general, I think this attempt swings and misses.

There’s so much fretting about World Series ratings, and going up against the NFL juggernaut. For hardcore baseball fans, the answer is: So what?

I admit to becoming a bit nostalgiac about the game as I settle into middle age, and composing this post brought back plenty of memories.

Perhaps baseball will become for those of us aging boomers what it has for generations before.

Then again, I realize I’m part of the last generation that grew up steeped in baseball, listening to and watching it, absorbing its history and memorizing box scores. For those younger than me with a different experience, with sabermetrics as an anchor (which I’m not knocking) instead of deep emotional ties — if they are into baseball at all — there likely won’t be the same sentimental journey.

The best defense of baseball as it is comes from a commenter on Mahler’s essay named Chico Rose, who posted a quick response to the notion that the game is dying:

The rhythm of baseball is sublime. It allows you to fall in and out of paying attention, True, that is not a cultural value today, where everything seems to move to an incessant electronic beat. But that’s what I like about it. If that’s the road less traveled, in comparison with football and basketball, so be it.

Sports History Files: A century of ‘reforming’ football

Following the suicide of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau last year, and the media frenzy that surrounded his San Diego-area home, Buzz Bissinger blasted the press for trying to perpetuate a narrative he thought foolhardy as he asserted that the culture of violence in football was essentially unreformable.

(A few months later, Bissinger called for the banishment of college football for a variety of reasons, including the Penn State scandal, misplaced priorities in higher education and the medical dangers of head trauma stemming from the game’s inherent violence. He later participated in a highly publicized debate on the subject, taking sides with Malcolm Gladwell against Tim Green and Jason Whitlock.)

league-of-denialIn the wake of the recent documentary on PBS Frontline and companion book about the NFL, concussions and the suicides of a number of prominent players —  including Seau — the narrative has understandably escalated. The league’s refusal to cooperate, ESPN’s last-minute withdrawal of its name and logo from the project and the NFL’s $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players in a class-action case right before the program aired have drawn plenty of scorn from the press, football observers and medical experts.

Yes, the NFL clearly does appear to be in a “League of Denial” about the dangers of a brutal sport played today by larger, stronger and faster men than ever, and who don ever-more potentially lethal gear ironically designed to protect them from the harm they inflict upon one another.

The book written by ESPN.com investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru — and which formed the basis of the documentary — reveals even more damning evidence of how the league tried to torpedo independent inquiries and research into football-induced brain injuries that many believe led to a number of former Sunday heroes taking their own lives.

But will this provide the critical mass leading toward subtantive safety changes that so many assert must take place in order for football to avoid going the way of boxing?

That’s not so certain, and the reasons stretch back almost as far as the life of the sport itself.

As “The King of Sports” author Gregg Easterbrook recently noted, a total of 18 college football players died on the field, or shortly after games, from violent play — and just in the 1905 season. Those tragedies finally spurred President Teddy Roosevelt — the champion of “the strenous life” of an overly physical and Christian-oriented masculinity — to call for the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in an attempt to “reform” a seriously violent sport.

He feared that the football would be banished, especially since objections from religious leaders were harsh. As former Kansas City Chief-turned-professor Michael Oriard writes in “Reading Football,” his 1993 study of media coverage of the early period of football, what Roosevelt championed was built into the roots of the organized game during the Victorian era:  readingfootball

With industrialization, the closing of the frontier, and the migration to cities, the American male was cut off from the physical demands of everyday outdoor life, through which his manhood had once been routinely confirmed. Thrust into a new world where traditional masculine traits were no longer meaningful, he found in vigorous outdoor sports such as football a compelling validation of his manhood. The outcry against the football brutality was great, but concern over the possibility of an emasculated American manhood greater; football was saved not by eliminating all violence but by compromising on an acceptable degree of physical danger.

These are sentiments that, for better or for worse, have been hard to shake for more than a century. The NFL and college football have attempted to make some rules changes in the name of safety, including severe penalties for defensive players who “target” the head of an opponent.

Yet even the so-called “clean” unintentional hits abound. For a moment on Saturday, I channel-surfed to the Virginia-Duke football game and within seconds a massive collision took place, with helmets loudly making contact. The sound was as appalling as the sight.

Virginia quarterback David Watford, trying to sneak in a touchdown, was rocked back at the goal line by Duke safety Jeremy Cash. Both players stayed down for a while as training staff from both teams immediately rushed to the field.

They eventually were ushered off with assistance and later returned to the game, but we all know the long-term effects of that play could be truly damaging to both young men.

How can plays like this ever be “reformed?” What additional safety measures can be made without altering the nature of the game? Is football even worth saving? These are not new questions, but they do persist.

I’ve blogged previously on the existential arguments being made along these lines (here and here), and there is no shortage of their renewal after the “League of Denial” package. At Grantland, Andrew Sharp also makes a historical reference to the 1905 football deaths, but is hopeful something may be changing:

Nothing in the documentary is breaking news, but if nothing else, it gives us a definitive document of all the NFL’s hypocrisy and ignorance that’s defined this battle from day one.

We may still be clueless about solutions, but making the truth as clear and undeniable as possible feels like the first step.

slowgettingupExcept that the head coach of an NFL team that admittedly engaged in avid “bounty-hunting” is back on the sidelines after a year’s banishment, and his team may be the best in the league for the moment.

Leonard Shapiro, who covered the NFL extensively for The Washington Post, penned a mea culpa over the weekend, regretting that he “glossed over” the game’s violence. And yet:

The game is appealing and appalling at the same time. And I have no doubt that all of us, news media included, will continue to feed the beast, even if the beast keeps feeding on its own.

Money and the game’s insatiable popularity are at the center of the current bloodlust, and on the field contemporary players, even those who aren’t stars and know their careers will be short, can’t keep themselves away.

Former Denver Bronco Nate Jackson is painfully honest — pun sort of intended — in his recent memoir, “Slow Getting Up.” Dwight Garner concludes his review in The New York Times by encapsulating the eternal, brutal lure that can never be reformed:

Our author is that truly modern being, a self-aware warrior. At one point, he writes: “In our football lives, we pretend we are invincible; because we have to keep on playing. In reality, we are fragile and we are afraid.”

He also declares, however: “I want to get hit. I mean really hit. I want to hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I’m dead. That’s the feeling I want.”

As he says elsewhere, “I’m comfortable in hell.”