Sports Gods and antiheroes we think we know

“Try as we will to weigh him down with meaning, the athlete remains one step ahead of us.”

– Stephen Amidon, “Something Like the Gods”

* * * * * * * *

Has the contemporary sports star finally been caught in the grasp of social media mobs who scrutinize, judge and presume guilty with the ridiculous ease and light-speed that digital technology and electronic gadgets provide?

The continuing saga stemming from the Ray Rice case has engulfed the top rung of NFL leadership, the ownership of the Baltimore Ravens and a lucrative, powerful sport seemingly operating with oblivion in a moral vacuum that is turning off many who call themselves fans.

Whether enough people will ever turn away for good is doubtful, but the lasting impact of the league’s inaction over Rice’s brutal, videotaped episode of beating his now-wife Janay Rice has been devastating, and not just as far as the former Ravens running back is concerned.

Something Like the GodsAmidon, a novelist, published his book, subtitled “A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron,” two years ago, just as the sordid Lance Armstrong story was unfolding.

That seems like child’s play compared to what’s been transpiring in recent weeks, and it goes far beyond a few gruesome seconds caught on tape in an Atlantic City hotel elevator, or harrowing accounts of alleged child abuse by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Commentators predictably piled on to the meme of football’s inherent violence, its “pseudo-military tactics” and thus its apparently anti-female ethos for answers, before also squeezing in the observation that violence against women and children touches every corner of society.

That many more of those piling on are female voices has only furthered the righteous indignation against a sport that embodies what many view as a virulent strain of masculinity, complete with rampaging homophobia and misogyny.

The certitude of the commentariat — that we think we know all we need to know about Rice, based on one incident — is most troubling. Presumptions from anti-domestic violence advocates that Rice had beaten Janay before were based on nothing more than that, presumption. So were suggestions that she suffers from battered-wife syndrome for standing by her man, and for lashing out against the media after the video was released, and his contract was terminated.

“Something Like the Gods” recounts the thousands of years of history of the enduring iconography of the athlete, from the days in which he was treated as a proud shaman in ancient Greece and Rome, to his seeming decline as the age of Puritanism beckoned with the rise of Luther and Calvin.

The athlete regained his pagan power as boxing entered the public consciousness as a spectator event in the 1800s, followed by organized competition in team sports during the Industrial Revolution. Once again, the athlete adapted as Victorian society demanded a gentlemanly, amateur participant, in service to empire above all and in particular to its capitalistic puppeteers, who truly acted with impunity.

From the banished Black Sox to the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the athlete’s story in the 20th century ranged from powerlessness to political revolution. In his final chapter, “Up Close and Personal,” Amidon fingers what drives the public’s obsession with today’s athlete: the level of intimacy we believe we have with him (and a few hers) through media exposure and product endorsements. Many fans, Amidon writes:

“. . . come to feel as if they have a right to participate in his private life. They are invested in his struggles and redemptions off the field as well as on it.”

Even better put on Twitter:

Here’s more from Amidon:

“It’s not just about gossip.  There is a moral dimension to this presumed intimacy. Athletes are now supposed to inspire us with more than just their play. While the competitor’s performance has been used as a source of uplift since the dying wrestler Arrichion refused to give up the fight, his entire life is now expected to be exemplary.” JeterNewYorker

Those we find exemplary we tend to know even less about. While Rice, Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald and Jameis Winston are caught in the glare of football’s sprawling existential crisis, America has been bidding a fond farewell to Derek Jeter, who is playing his final games at Yankee Stadium this week.

Of course there are blowhard detractors, but much of the praise about Jeter for more than two decades has gone beyond his stellar play that surely will land him in Cooperstown. He’s a model of gracefulness and admirably good behavior off the field, a stark contradiction to so many in uniform in so many sports.

But how much do we really know about Jeter? Peyton Manning? Other seemingly stand-up guys?

Do we like the athletes we like because we really don’t know much about them away from the game, because they’ve worked to keep their private lives just that — private? And that they’ve never gotten their names in the press for all the wrong reasons?

Whatever shortcomings they may possess are assiduously kept away from public consumption, and that is to their credit. Here’s Amidon again:

“As spectators come to know the ‘humanized’ athlete better and discover that they do not really like him, there is a growing tendency to dehumanize him in order to maintain his purity.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

“For us to identify with the athlete, to thrill in his performances, he still needs to be like us. We still need a vital connection to him.”

Like characters in a book, play or movie, we want athletes to be likable, even empathetic. It’s human nature to want this, of course, and it’s understandable. But we assign a status in society to athletes that we don’t seem to demand of other public figures.

Is this because sports matter more to many of us than empty celebrity culture? Are the games more redeemable than the throwaway music, films and television programs that denigrate and debase women more than any NFL player and the “football culture” ever could?

I’d like to think so, in spite of all the awful news of the last few weeks.

As I’ve written before, I’m watching less football these days for other reasons, and I understand those who may be boycotting the NFL even though I think the game itself is getting an unfair rap. Many Americans are just uncomfortable with football the way some have become about boxing.

But ditch the sanctimony about football’s failure to deal with persistent social and criminal problems.

Roger Goodell’s leadership leaves an awful lot to be desired, but he shouldn’t be expected to compensate for what police, prosecutors and judges address very unevenly in thousands of local law enforcement jurisdictions across the country.

It’s been far too easy to bash Goodell, the “culture” of the NFL, and “toxic masculinity,” but they’re not the culprits.

Some want the NFL to “send a message” about violence against women, and to lead efforts for a cultural rethinking, when the tangible, lasting change will come about in the broader society.

If the news from the gridiron has you down

The Ray Rice story and the continuing angst by many Americans about the National Football League and the game of football is snowballing into a truly disturbing heap, and this probably will not stop anytime soon.

It’s too soon to know if these events reflect some kind of tipping point in our reverence for football — especially Roger Goodell’s handling of the sordid Rice saga. I do know more and more people who are terribly conflicted about that story, as well as concussions and the physical violence of the gridiron, that they’re not watching the game any longer, or they’re seriously considering turning away.

I understand all that. “Football is wonderful. The NFL is awful.” There is absolutely no dispute with that in this corner. None at all. My fandom was severely tested several years ago during the nauseating Michael Vick story that still bothers me.

On the college scene, the Penn State scandal is still hard to shake, although anger at the NCAA’s restoration of the program’s bowl eligibility this week has been strangely muted.

And then last night, I opened up the current issue of The New Yorker — with Derek Jeter on the cover — and read “Phi Beta Football,” a splendid little story by John McPhee, recalling the glorious Princeton single-wing teams of his youth, and what became of the men of his generation who played there. It was written in typically graceful, elegant McPhee fashion, and I quickly thought about a post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the challenges of writing stylishly about football.

“Phi Beta Kappa” more than fits the bill for what I hope will be a future collection of football stories.

Why Football MattersThere’s also this excerpt in the Los Angeles Review of Books from “Why Football Matters,” which I blogged about recently. I think I was a bit unfair to author Mark Edmundson, whose love-hate relationship with the game more finely balanced than I first thought. Mostly, he writes of how compelling the game has always been for him, in spite of its dangers and dehumanizing effects, and he rightly suspects he is far from alone on this:

“I’m fascinated by the way that the game combines violence and beauty. Pater said that he loved it when art merged beauty and strangeness. But violence and beauty — there’s something about that, too. It’s been said ballplayers look like Homeric warriors, and they do, but football players may more closely resemble knights, jousting in a tournament, with rules and standards and dignity and respect for the opponent, though it is dangerous, too.”

At some point I’d like to think there will be an honest, open public discussion about football along the lines of Edmundson’s argument. For the moment, the mainstream media and social media channels are convulsed with football — and many other sports — primarily in the context of social issues (domestic violence, gay athletes, race and gender, etc.), and that won’t be subsiding anytime soon.

The question is whether there might be some room for something beyond the white-hot outrage machine, with its idiotic and pretentious trolling, snarky, clickbaity gumsmacking and a mob mentality that greets any attempt at a nuanced perspective with a sledgehammer of shame and cultural arrogance.

I still believe that while the game of American football is inherently brutal, it is an honorable code that is played, coached and operated by mostly honorable people who do not commit crimes, who do not brutalize women and who do not try to evade or sweep away ugly matters.

There is a traditional culture of the sport that is worth defending, even in these grim times.

It’s hard to call it labor when it doesn’t feel like work

Labor Day in the United States is being observed today, and I thought I’d use the occasion to select some blog posts that I truly enjoyed putting together.

What I discovered wasn’t surprising: The posts that were the most fun to write and ponder were those that best exemplified the intersection of sports and creativity that I try to explore here.

So not included in this collection are posts about the contentious issues of gender and sports, steroids and social issues (with a few exceptions). They tend to be about sports books I found truly pleasurable, sports history and artistic expressions of sports.

Pafko at the WallWhat connects all of these posts, in spite of the vast array of topics, is that they never felt like “work” when I was researching and writing them. The discovery of the ideas, the sources and the links were so easily immersive at times I got lost in what I was doing.

I will say that some of the topics I’m most impassioned about that I write here — especially about women in sports — have resulted in some of my strongest work. But I can’t say I always enjoyed it, although I realized how important it was for me to write this. When the posts were finished, I was relieved more than anything. I had engaged in verbal sparring, even combat, and felt satisfied with what I accomplished.

Those who help individuals along the path of professional full-time blogging are careful to point out that it’s easy to start a blog, but very hard to sustain one. I’ve certainly found that out here, although this isn’t a for-profit endeavor. What I attempt every time I sit down is to delve into the joy of examining sports topics that have become this blog’s stock-in-trade. At times it seems uneven and inconsistent, but I don’t regret having a broad approach. It’s something of a glorious mess that has brought me quite a bit of joy.

The result has been a collection of pleasant surprises that I include here for your (I hope) joyful consideration:

“A month of rereadings: ‘Pafko at the Wall,’ “ Aug. 19, 2010 — In remembrance of Bobby Thomson and the shot ‘heard round the world that formed the scintillating opening for Don DeLillo’s fantastic novel, “Underworld.”

“Bud Greenspan, equal opportunity Olympic documentarian,” Dec. 26, 2010 — Upon the passing of the man who humanized and celebrated the most obscure athletes as much as the famous ones.

“Free at last: Letting women’s sports grow up,” July 20, 2011 — The Women’s World Cup proved that female athletes don’t have to be symbols for anything but pure, joyous entertainment.

“A sportswriting giant: ‘The last of his kind,’ “ Dec. 8, 2011 — A tribute to the larger-than-life George Kimball.

“The Southern swagger of Kim Mulkey,” April 2, 2012 — The Baylor women’s basketball coach exudes personality, shrewdness and a demanding style, and she isn’t always easy to deal with. But that’s not such a bad thing.

“RIP Steve Sabol, the football poet,” Sept. 19, 2012 — The creative force behind “NFL Films” is remembered.

“A few riffs on the culture of Southern football,” Nov. 1, 2012 — My part of the country is better at something than anywhere else, and its development is necessarily caught up in the history of the region. On Boxing JCO

“A rare kick of wartime soccer splendor,” Nov. 13, 2012 — Even in the dying days of the Third Reich, a little bit of joy on the pitch was staged as the Allies began advancing from Western Europe.

“Baseball’s dwinding Romantics,” Jan. 10, 2013 — Those wishing away steroids are noble in their sentiments, but it’s a foolhardy notion to embrace given the game’s history with all kinds of stimulants.

“The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football,” Feb. 2, 2013 — It’s easy to bemoan the violent nature of the gridiron but harder to supress the desires of those who seek to participate.

“The genuflection of the baseball poets,” March 5, 2013 — Verse about the diamond should be avoided at all costs.

“Saving a museum for a forgotten team,” May 4, 2013 — Efforts to preserve the memories of a baseball club that had few good ones to offer and now competes in a different part of the country.

“A life in sports letters,” Aug. 16, 2013 — A fitting award for Frank Deford.

“Baseball cards at the Met,” Aug 23, 2013 — They come with more than just bubblegum — they’re a valuable slice of Americana.

“Women writers on boxing, gender and culture,” June 28, 2014 — Joyce Carol Oates is unsurpassed, but she has plenty of esteemed company in this category.

In defense of the culture of football

It’s getting harder, if not impossible, to defend the culture of football, and the raw expression of masculinity that comes with it.

Concussions, brain trauma and other crippling injuries suffered on the gridiron are blamed for the suicides of players, some famous, some not.

The names of football players, some famous, some not, are attached to too many cases and allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The first openly gay player in NFL history attempts to make an opening day roster amid claims that if he’s not on a sideline somewhere this fall, homophobia will be the culprit.

Why Football MattersThe pumped-up game day atmosphere at football stadiums, with big-ass American flags unfurled and F-14 fighter jets flying over during the Star-Spangled Banner, represents to some an overheated, militaristic, capitalistic, embarrassing and shameful enterprise.

How can anybody defend any of this?

The most popular spectator sport in America is assessed with a litany of anxieties by activists, social critics, academics and journalists, as if they are the officially approved travel agents for a sports-and-culture guilt trip.

That most football fans are oblivious to these ruminations causes even more distress for those who insist we must change the culture of the sport for it to be fair and humane to all.

To that I say balderdash. There are some reflexively strident defenders of football and all it represents, but they tend to be as hackneyed as this former sportswriter:

“We used to be a culture that celebrated the rugged individualism of a man willing to take chances with his God-given talent, but then we also used to keep score at our kids’ Little League games, and businesses weren’t ‘too big to fail.’ As a people we are becoming soft — both around the waist and in the head.”

So much of what I’ve been writing about this week has addressed valid concerns about player safety, brutish behavior toward women, a lack of acceptance of full gay equality and war-like exuberation that seems to overshadow what happens on the field. Football has never been my favorite sport — give me basketball and soccer above all else — but that isn’t the point.

Related posts:

  • The increasingly guilty pleasures of the football fan
  • The challenging art of stylish football writing
  • The saga of Saturdays in the fall
  • The original sins of college football
  • But the hand-wringers miss the point. The “culture” of football is not the problem. Individual behavior is.

    In fact, I think that American popular culture, with its obsession with celebrities, rap and hip-hop and films and television programs such as “Breaking Bad,” is more corrosive, misogynistic, homophobic, greedy, amoral and gratuitously violent than football has ever been. But that’s just me.

    University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson tries to explain some of these contradictions in “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game,” to be published in September. He was a former high school football player with admittedly conflicted feelings about the game. In a piece published this week in the Los Angeles Times, he followed a familiar narrative — football is American, as we are now, because of our war-like society:

    “Football is about destruction. Sure, you win by getting more points than the other team, but to get more points, you generally have to slam the life out of your opponents. You try to do away with their skill players — by violence. Knock out the first-string quarterback and chances are you will win.

    “It is beautiful, to be sure. The wide receiver competes with the ballet dancer in grace and style. The runner recalls the flashing leopard, the tiger on the move. It’s lovely to watch. War can be beautiful too, one understands. The bombs create a memorable light; the crack of rifles is its own music.”

    This is a trite and wrong-headed metaphor that Marv Levy perceptively shot down, having experienced both war and football. For most fans, football isn’t a reflection of anything but a game they enjoy watching, and once upon a time some of them played.

    Football is a game that has its problems, and as I was first drafting this post yesterday, some of those issues came back to the forefront when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revised the league’s personal conduct policy to include stronger measures to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. Against Football

    He was applauded in all the correct media circles, which isn’t a surprise. But it’s troubling that other journalists have chosen to skim over that the new policy apparently doesn’t require an NFL employee — player or otherwise — to be convicted of or plead guilty to a crime. Two “incidents” — is an arrest all that’s needed? — and there’s a lifetime ban.

    This was clearly a face-saving ploy by Goodell, who has ceded himself more unilateral power following intense criticism over a two-game suspension for Ray Rice. Goodell talked to those who work with domestic violence victims, which was wise. What about those who defend the wrongly accused?

    It doesn’t seem as though he did, and I doubt there will be a soul in the mainstream media who will wonder why. They’re busy cheerleading what’s essentially a public relations response, pointing out the need for the league to send a message and work to gain the trust of female fans.

    On Monday I wrote about journalist and author Steve Almond’s screed, “Against Football,” and was mildly put off by his assertions that those who enjoy the sport are culpable for terrible things by buying into a “nihilistic engine of greed,” including that dastardly “patriarchal domination.”

    Then I came across a longer excerpt of his book in the Village Voice, which includes some truly sanctimonious wailing about the “Football Industrial Complex:”

    “It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.”

    It’s doubtful that fury will stop anybody from watching football who already likes it. Almond also bristled with know-it-all arrogance in an open letter to NFL wide receiver Wes Welker, who has suffered multiple concussions, suggesting that he get the hell retired, already:

    “Your decision to leave the game would send a powerful message to other players: that sometimes heroism resides in turning away from danger rather than letting it smash you into the turf on national TV. And it would also send a message to your many fans, those who love watching you dart and weave, but who have no idea what it’s like to suffer actual serial brain traumas.”

    So add football to the listing of shaming topics — smoking, obesity, etc. — that figure to get more treatment from self-appointed scolds like Almond. He may be ultimately disappointed that for all his screeching, it’s no counter to what will always draw young men to the sport.

    Here’s a comparison of the two books highlighted today. The troubles in football deserve more serious critical scrutiny that’s thoughtful, intelligent and empathetic, along the lines of Joyce Carol Oates’ classic, “On Boxing.” Perhaps it might take a woman, someone who’s never played the sport, to get at the heart of what ails it.

    Edmundson and Almond don’t really come close.

    Sports History Files: The original sins of college football

    The violence, crippling injuries, academic short cuts and other dysfunctional components of the present-day world of college football are hardly new.

    Nor do they date back only a half-century or so, when the NCAA finally modernized in the early 1950s, cracked down on rule-breakers and reigned in athletic departments that wanted to cut their own television and business deals.

    That’s partly because the problems referred to by reformers, academics, media types and others these days — usually with little to no effect — have been with college football from its origins.

    the opening kickoffSports historians have been writing about these matters over the years — notably Ronald Smith and Michael Oriard. But with college football’s primacy on the rise again — the new SEC Network, a new playoff format, among other lucrative changes — a journalist employed by one of the major players in the college athletics industry has taken a fresh, unflinching look at the game as it has always been contested.

    Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine’s “The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultous Birth of a Football Nation,” has received plenty of well-deserved attention for making it very clear that the nefarious activity we fret about today has never been separated from the compelling entertainment product first popularized more than a century ago.

    Revsine, whose book examines college football between 1890 and 1915, writes in his introduction:

    “What if I told you the current problems in college football might actually be viewed as an improvement — that, in some regards, the college game was once far worse than it is today?”

    His first chapter, excerpted here in Sports Illustrated, details the 1893 Thanksgiving Day game between Princeton and Yale in New York City that contained all the elements familiar to today’s fans: Excessive media hype, a full-house crowd of more than 50,000 at Manhattan Field (on the site of the future Polo Grounds) and heavy wagering.

    Only four years later, the death of Von Albade Gammon, a 17-year-old University of Georgia football player injured in a game against Virginia, prompted calls that football be banned (GQ excerpt here).

    These cries would continue into the new century, from within the academy as well as the media responsible for so much of the hype. Notably, Oriard contended the newspapers were lashing out to boost circulation more than reflect concern over player safety.

    But in 1905, after 18 players died from on-the-field injuries, President Theodore Roosevelt finally called college football leaders to the White House. Rules changes, such as the forward pass, were enacted, though player deaths continued. The organization that eventually was created out of this movement was the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation.

    Revsine, a former ESPN host and son of a late Northwestern University professor, also weaves into his narrative the story of Pat O’Dea, an Australian who played for Wisconsin in the late 1890s. He was one of the sport’s first big-time stars, boasting supreme kicking skills in an age when brute force dominated.

    And as Hiawatha Bray noted in a review in The Boston Globe, Johnny Manziel had nothing on O’Dea when it came to off-the-field notoriety, especially with the ladies.

    David Jones of The Patriot-News has more on how Revsine came to write, and research, the book; Revsine sat down with John Feinstein and Bill Littlefield for radio interviews that are worth the listen.

    On his own network, Revsine also was the host of a panel discussion about the problems of college football, seen through the historical lens he has provided, and including Ronald Smith as a guest. And here’s Revsine in a Q and A with Big Ten Network colleague Tom Dienhart earlier this week:

    “That is what I worry about the most with the game, the injuries and concussions. It’s an area where we certainly could learn (from the past). Part of what they did was they changed the rules dramatically. People say you can’t change the rules, the game is good as it is; you change the fundamental nature of the game (if you change the rules). And that’s exactly what they did then. They changed the fundamental nature of the game. You know what? Some would argue they got a better game out of it. I do think that’s an area we can learn from history.”

    Midweek Books: The saga of Saturdays in the fall

    On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author. Today my focus is on the college football season that officially kicks off Thursday. In the coming weeks new books will be featured here about the NFL.

    * * * * * * * *

    Michael Weinreb is hardly the only author with a new book on college football. But he has originally, and expertly, blended the contemporary mania for the sport with a deep dive into the past of the game’s fanaticism, and some of its most signature contests, in “Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.”

    Weinreb, who grew up in State College and wrote one of the most memorable pieces on the Penn State scandal as it unfolded, makes a compelling case for each of the classics he catalogs — from the very first college game, between Princeton and Rutgers, in 1869, to last year’s stupendous Iron Bowl.

    Season of SaturdaysIn between are the 1966 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State, the 1979 Sugar Bowl win by Alabama over Penn State at the peak of the Bear Bryant era, Texas’ 2006 win over USC in the Rose Bowl, and Boise State’s thrilling Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in 2007.

    Those latter games are getting plenty of attention on the Web (excerpts here and here on Grantland and SB Nation, respectively). But there’s plenty of serious college football history here, as Weinreb references the significance of the Boise State feat to the early days of the game:

    “College football has never been very kind to the underdog, and I imagine some of this has to do with the fact that it is, and always has been, an unrepentant oligarchy. It used to be that this oligarchy was centered around geographic regions; now it’s based on rough (and often nonsensical) geographic conflagrations of teams called conferences. . . .

    “And yet it still happens that, every so often, a certain determined and enterprising school/coach manages to elevate a wayward program from the lower class. This has been true for decades, and it will remain true for as long as big-time college football offers both money and prestige to the schools that partake of it.”

    With a new college football playoff launching this season (see below), the novelty may be coming to an end. While Boise State, cut out of the automatic qualifier ranks due to realignment, plays Ole Miss tonight, Weinreb proclaims in a podcast with Will Leitch of Sports on Earth that college football is “the most political of all sports, because it’s based on complete subjectivity.”

    In an excerpt in Rolling Stone, Weinreb tries to understand how the old-school phenomenon of Nick Saban and the blade runner presence of the University of Oregon can co-exist in the same era. It’s all part of his desire to explain the eternally maddening incongruities of a sport with a past like no other:

    “In the end, it reverts back to the beginning. This is a pastime that was born as a spontaneous exercise on the grassy courtyards of the Ivy League, the brainchild of restless undergraduates seeking to blow off steam by barking each other’s shins and throwing punches. And even now, 150 years later, as it is industrialized and corporatized and rendered in Technicolor at places like Oregon, as it is commanded and controlled and repressed by scrupulous men like Nick Saban, it is still ultimately untamable. There are those who seek to maintain control over the beast, and there are those who wish to set it free. Eventually, the adults give way to the children, and all we can do is watch.”

    Weinreb is interviewed here by Jerry Barca and talks here with Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace.

    * * * * * * * *

    Stewart Mandel, formerly of Sports Illustrated and newly hired by Fox Sports, has followed up his 2008 book, “Bowls, Polls and Tattered Souls,” with an update on the state of the governance — such as it is — of college football with the new four-team format for determining a national champion.

    The games begin Thursday, featuring the SEC showdown between Texas A & M and South Carolina. The season culminates with semifinals in the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl, followed by a championship game that is later than ever, on Jan. 12, at the AT & T Stadium (aka Jerry Dome) near Dallas.

    thinking fans guide

    “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff” explores the recent wave of realignment, television contracts and a system to replace the Bowl Championship Series. Mandel is a hotel lobby camper extraordinaire, as he patiently waited for bowl, conference and television officials, administrators and coaches where they met to restructure the end of the season:

    “I’m a BCS governance junkie. I have an unquenchable thirst for recusal policies, host bowls and revenue distributions. So over the course of two-plus years I gained a pretty good grasp of the ins and the outs of the system that would eventually be called — wait for it — the College Football Playoff.”

    For its simplistic name, the CFP is confusing, hardly clearing up the chaotic organization of the sport he wrote about in his earlier book:

    “This being college football, you may find yourself scratching your head at various junctures. You may feel the need to reread a certain passage a couple of times. Don’t feel bad. Even the people that work in college football don’t fully understand this thing yet.”

    But do read with a pop quiz in mind, because that’s what Mandel has served up at the end.

    Podcast/radio interviews with Mandel are here, here and here.

    The challenging art of stylish football writing

    On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism. This week I am devoting posts to the upcoming American football season, college and pro, with a focus on new books and writings on the subject.

    * * * * * * * *

    Can high-minded writing about American football ever be as lyrical, as soaring, as the celebrated literature of baseball?

    Venerable sportswriter-turned-screenwriter John Schulian has taken as serious a stab at this question as anyone with the new anthology “Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.”

    It’s the latest sports title in the continuing Library of America series (I wrote about previous collections of the work of Red Smith and Ring Lardner here and here), and Schulian has done a marvelous job selecting 44 pieces, from Grantland Rice to Michael Lewis.

    The illustrious names include Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, Dan Jenkins, Red Smith, Gary Smith, Frank Deford, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Murray, Rick Reilly, Rick Telander, Larry Merchant, Leigh Montville, Mark Kram, Ira Berkow, Charles Pierce, Paul Hemphill, Richard Price, John Ed Bradley and many others.

    Football Anthology SchulianSchulian has included chapters from a number of celebrated books, among them David Maraniss’ “When Pride Still Mattered,” his superb biography of Vince Lombardi, “Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger’s portrait of small-town Texas high school football, and Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.”

    There are some lesser-known (to football fans) writers in the collection that include Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose 2008 GQ article, “G-L-O-R-Y!,” profiled the unglamorous jobs of NFL cheerleaders that have been in the news recently. The other female byline in the anthology is that of Jennifer Allen, writing about her late father, coach George Allen.

    The other subjects — from Red Grange to Dick Butkus to Jim Brown to Johnny Unitas to Tom Landry to Bear Bryant and more — are all compelling enough.

    But does the nature of football tie the hands of even the best writers to produce the kind of (Angellic, even?) prose commonly associated with baseball? Is it even a fair comparison to make?

    In a lengthy interview on Deadspin with Alex Belth, Schulian has a theory about that, indirectly, pointing out that “primitive conditions” for covering football in what he termed the “Pleistocene era” made an already difficult sport to write about more challenging:

    “I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey.”

    The Rice selection is not his famous 1924 column for The New York Herald-Tribune about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. No “blue-gray October sky,” as Schulian tells Belth he didn’t want to go “wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way.” Instead, Schulian has chosen a piece from Rice’s memoir, “The Tumult and the Shouting,” about how he came to write the Notre Dame column. Schulian adds:

    “I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.”

    Another writing luminary Schulian includes is Southern humorist Roy Blount, Jr., whose love for the Pittsburgh Steelers prompted a 40-year reprisal of Franco Harris’ touchdown catch in the 1972 playoffs published as “Immaculate Memory” in Sports Illustrated:

    “Who reminds us of who we are? People who knew us when. I went to see L.C. Greenwood, the former defensive end. L.C. is the one Steeler not in the Hall of Fame who most should be. (No. 2: Donnie Shell.) In the first Steelers Super Bowl he blocked three of Fran Tarkenton’s passes, and in the second one he was even better. He had more career sacks than Joe Greene. I wrote in my book that L.C. might leave practice wearing a blue pullover sleeveless suit, brown pantyhose, a shoulder bag and a necklace a lady had given him that said TFTEISYF, which stood, of course, for ‘The first time ever I saw your face.’ “

    In a review for The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, Jonathan Eig, while admiring many pieces in the anthology, concludes:

    “I was left with the sense that whatever the changing fortunes of individual sports might be, the best football writing is still not as good as the best baseball writing.” Fifth Quarter

    Eig, a biographer of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, praises baseball’s simplicity and linear qualities he says are easier to write about than what transpires on a gridiron. But he raved about Wright Thompson’s ode to Southern football, “Pulled Pork and Pigskin,” for

    “Overwritten? Hell yes! And keep it coming.”

    Eig figures that football writing is gaining ground in style as it reflects its high status in popular culture, amid the crunching tackles, concussions and seemingly vicarious violence:

    “When writers look back on American culture in the early 21st century, I suspect they’ll turn to football more than baseball. The loudmouthed Richard Sherman of the Seahawks will seem a lot more attractive to storytellers than that elegant but hopelessly gray Yankee, Derek Jeter. The crunch of shoulder pads will tell more about society than the crack of ball on bat.”

    Schulian wonders how the presentation of football will shape writing that aims to go deeper than what couch-sitting fans can readily see and experience:

    “What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.”

    An audio interview here with Schulian, on NPR’s “Only a Game,” in which he says that football “has certainly entered a dark period” with the concussion issue and the suicide of Chicago Bears great Dave Duerson, another topic in his anthology. Schulian, Laskas and Deford also talk about the book, and their pieces in it, on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” with Scott Simon.

    Concludes Erik Spanberg, in his review for The Christian Science Monitor:

    “Other than the billionaires who own NFL teams, no one in football has it easy. Which, for better and worse, helps explain why we can’t stop watching the glamorous wreckage before us.”

    The increasingly guilty pleasures of the football fan

    On Monday my post is generally related to a sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random. This week I am devoting posts to the upcoming American football season, college and pro, with a focus on new books and writings on the subject.

    * * * * * * * *

    This time two years ago, I drafted a post that went unpublished about why I’m never ready for football season. In the wake of the Penn State tragedy, enormous hand-wringing about concussions, suicides, bounty-hunting and the brutal nature of the game that belies the entertainment product we eagerly consume, there was this:

    The NFL season began on a Wednesday.

    In college football, which kicks off this Thursday with three games and another on Friday, every fall Saturday feels like New Year’s Day. For diehards, this is absolute heaven. For SEC diehards, with the arrival of an ESPN-run network devoted entirely to their conference, this is beyond heaven.

    For the moment, I simply want to enjoy the summer a little longer, even with the pests and the heat and the dimming prospects of a Braves post-season run.

    Against FootballWhen I covered college football, I occasionally thought this way too, but quickly got jolted into action by the reality of games, practices, press conferences, deadlines and travel. As a fan these days, watching from afar, through the relentless filter of the tube, I fear that my admiration for the sport is getting overwhelmed by the spectacle it has become.

    Not just the televised spectacle, where pro and college games regularly run past three hours, 30 minutes, featuring a deluge of commercials and mystifying remarks from commentators speaking very loudly and inventing their own blithering language as they go along.

    And not just the 24/7 media spectacle, a gluttony of “breaking news” that’s merely a confirmation of another outlet’s reporting, non-stop “power rankings” and quick-hitting “takes” filed moments after the final gun explaining “what we have learned” from the game that just ended.

    Who’s “we,” exactly? And why is it assumed I always want to learn something? Maybe I just want to watch a game, not prep for a pop quiz.

    But while I may be moderately chastened, short story writer and essayist Steve Almond feels so aggrieved by the sport he admits to loving that he’s written a blistering broadside just in time for a new season.

    “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” is being published Tuesday (book website here). In it, Almond regurgitates the familiar litany of those who feel the need to turn against the game, and proclaim this loudly, as if that will prove persuasive. He provocatively dared anyone to watch the most recent Super Bowl, openly questioning one’s morality for doing so, including his own.

    If Almond seems like a killjoy, then consider his evisceration of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the Baffler, which specializes in harsh denunciations of things that many people like.


  • A century of ‘reforming’ football
  • The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football
  • As the existential probing of the NFL continues
  • Two years ago, as I pondered my football indifference, Patrick Hruby heatedly stated his boycott terms on Sports on Earth. He is among a growing chorus of media commentators finding it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the sheer beauty and excitement of football — I’ve been watching the end of last year’s Iron Bowl all summer — with the crippling injuries and violence.

    Almond lashes out against all that too, and in a recent book excerpt in The Boston Globe, lays on the guilt quite heavily, going far beyond concerns about brain trauma:

    “Over the past year, I’ve studied the history of football and thought a lot about what the game means. I’ve come to believe that football fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, misogyny, and militarism. I believe it does economic damage to our communities and to the national soul. These are some of the reasons why I’ve stopped watching.” Out of Their League

    There is absolutely nothing new about any of this. For more than 40 years, this definition of American football has been under attack by many social critics and even former football players like Jack Scott and Dave Meggysey.

    In “Out of Their League,” his memoir of life as an NFL linebacker, Meggysey bemoaned what he called the “dehumanizing” experience of playing football. His was a sensibility rooted in the social justice movements of the 1960s and which came into limited prominence in the sports world in the following decade. It still endures with those on the hard political left.

    Their critique of American football embodies what they believe to be a toxic masculinity. This is at the heart of Almond’s hackneyed argument, and it is a topic I will take up later in the week. Unlike Meggysey’s time in the spotlight, we now live in a climate of queasiness about player safety, the place of women in sports and jocks whose names are in the news for all the wrong reasons.

    These worries are understandable, but as I will explore in the next few days, it’s not as simple as the claims Almond and others are making.

    In a review in the Tampa Bay Times, John Capouya believes Almond is agonizing over things that don’t appear to have convinced many in Football Nation:

    “Almond spends too much time making a case most football fans have already declined to prosecute or decided to ignore, which makes even this short book feel padded. And suppose a thinking captive comes to see the game for the corrupt, detrimental thing it is, what is he or she to do about it?”

    As the summer begins to fade away

    One of the best vacations I ever took was quite a few years ago, in Colorado, where I had done things I rarely ever did and in some cases haven’t done since.

    A friend had a time share in Breckenridge, and for a glorious week I filled my days with kayaking and canoeing, some hiking and taking the ski lift to enjoy the magnificent view.

    There were summer youth symphony concerts, fine little shops and restaurants lined up in the heart of town and a restful vista from the back deck of the house where I stayed, complete with barbecue grill and hot tub.

    I drove around the area and appreciated the rustic, hardscrabble roots of the West. When I got to nearby Aspen, any trace of what life might have been like before modern conveniences had been airbrushed away.

    I’m not an outdoors person at all. Although I live close to a river with fantastic water and recreational activities, I haven’t been in a boat since. I don’t hike, and I haven’t driven up any hill not part of my normal commute, although I live near a mountain famous for a Civil War battle that offers spectacular sights.

    Boutique-hopping is nice, if you’re into that kind of thing, but I’m not. In Breckenridge and Aspen, I found myself following familiar routines — bookstore-slumming and people-watching from an outdoor café. I may have been in the bucolic Rockies, but my brain was back in the great cities of Europe.

    Not long ago, I took one of those online polls that revealed to you, based on your answers, what nation best suited your personality and interests. Not surprisingly, my country was France, although trips to Berlin and London were just as satisfying as the one I took to Paris, the year after my Colorado sojourn.

    The combination of books, cafés, art museums and savory dishes that I indicated on this survey of not being able to live without gave me some sort of cyber-honorary citizenship of La République, I guess. C’ést la vie.

    This is how I roll, although the sedentary habits that I haven’t been able to shake don’t help in middle age.

    Sope Creek Bridge

    The peaceful waters of Sope Creek, close to where Sherman's army crossed the Chattahoochee River into Atlanta. (Wendy Parker)

    I could chalk this up to laziness, I suppose, and my meandering prose isn’t getting to what I wanted to express. I remember the Colorado trip fondly now because of the timing of it — right at the back edge of summer, in mid-to-late August, as it is now.

    This was right before I prepared to cover the Olympics in Sydney, so I wanted this vacation to be relaxed and fancy-free. I skipped the noise and hurly-burly of foreign urbanity and was glad I did.

    Although it’s getting humid again here in the South, just as children head back to classes — no after Labor Day school start here — this last gasp of summer brought back some fond memories.

    The vast array of sports books that I scour in order to write this blog is not nearly as much about spectator games as I imagined. What I have been intrigued to discover, after poring through so many booklists, is the sheer amount of books about recreation and the outdoors.

    And of that, so much of what is celebrated is alpha-participatory.

    For those not inclined to scale the Himalayas or sail around the world on a raft, this can be dispiriting. Adventure tales that have vaulted the work of Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger to best-selling fame are simply exhausting. Yet the human quests that they reveal are irresistible.

    What passes for my communing with nature these days is a nice sliver of a local public park, albeit within earshot of passerby traffic, and a rock-strewn creek that flows into the Chattahoochee River, where Union troops and horses once splashed about on their way to burning down Atlanta and more.

    It’s not easy finding a few quiet, blissful moments amid the suburban sprawl. But they await anyone who wants to take the time, and can carve out the psychic space, to enjoy a mini-vacation in their mind.

    A NASCAR tragedy and Southern culture

    My stepfather had just passed through Valdosta on his way back to Atlanta when the news came over his car radio that Dale Earnhardt had died.

    An avid NASCAR fan, my stepfather had seen the 2001 Daytona 500 in person on that fateful day, watching the legendary driver’s car collide along the back straightaway with Ken Schrader’s car in the final lap, with both vehicles sliding onto the infield in a smoking heap.

    Schrader got out of his car under his own power, but Earnhardt did not. Even today, it’s still hard to fathom the impact the tragedy has had on NASCAR, and its legions of fans.

    By the time he got back home late that evening, my stepfather was utterly shocked, unlike any reaction I’ve ever seen from him. As he left the track, all he knew about Earnhardt’s status is what everyone else knew, only that he had been taken away via ambulance.

    Magnolias Sweat Tea and ExhaustEarnhardt had replaced Richard Petty as my stepfather’s favorite driver, which is saying something. From the time I first met the man who married my mother when I was a teenager, he exuded a deep knowledge and passion for stock car racing that was new to me.

    If he couldn’t watch a race live on TV, he taped it. Daytona Beach was where he went on vacation, and in retirement, he and my mother moved there. Their home, in fact, is just a few miles from the track.

    Many years ago, at a place called Ponce Inlet, drivers sped up and down a wide, flat beach in their souped-up cars. There’s a restaurant there now, called The North Turn, named after a hairpin curve, where you can look out over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and imagine the noise and sand-spitting joy of what once took place there.

    This is how Daytona became an epicenter for a stock car racing culture, which has its deepest roots in the North Carolina whiskey- and moonshine-running world made famous by Junior Johnson (and even more famous by Tom Wolfe in his classic 1965 profile for Esquire).

    Petty and Earnhardt hailed from Carolina too, the latter etching his reputation as “The Intimidator” with his aggressive style and all-black gear, including the famous No. 3 car with white lettering. What began for both of them as a means to have a little bit of excitement in an otherwise uneventful, small-town and rural upbringing turned into fame, fortune and the enduring idolatry from white Southern males just like them.

    My Southern stepfather reveled in Earnhardt’s SOB bravura; in fact he revered it as deeply as he does college football and his beloved Georgia Bulldogs. That’s how a lot of men his age — he just turned 80 — roll in these parts, steeped in the lore of sports that the pro leagues still haven’t been able to surpass.

    On the other hand, my equally Southern father (War Damn Eagle!) doesn’t care a lick about racing — “how hard is it to turn left all the time?” — and neither did anyone else I knew. One weekend our family took in the festivities at a nearby dirt track, but to this day, racing does absolutely nothing for me.

    But NASCAR has been the subject of eternal curiosity by writers, starting with Wolfe, and more recently, Atlanta newspaper journalist Carole Townsend. “Magnolias, Sweet Tea and Exhaust,” published in July, is told by someone unfamiliar with NASCAR, but who grew to appreciate what this world was all about. (More women should write books about the male-dominated sports world like this — that is, with an open mind, instead of a rigid feminist baseline.)

    Likewise, Jeff MacGregor’s 2005 book, “Sunday Money,” came from his desire to learn more about how NASCAR went from the good ol’ boys of Daytona and Wilkesboro into a formidable sports business entity that’s ventured far from its Southern base. Sunday Money

    It’s regrettable, then, that their work wasn’t considered in reaction to last weekend’s tragedy involving Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr.

    Southern culture and masculinity are a toxic blend for media commentators not versed in the traditions of the stock car world. Oh, and its “history of confrontation” too, as if this is the only sport with this problem (hello, hockey?).

    Indeed, it’s become so easy to blame the “culture,” although Stewart (Indiana) and Ward (upstate New York) reflect NASCAR’s reach beyond the South.

    ESPN radio blowhard Colin Cowherd blamed the “eye-for-eye” nature of what presumably passes for life in Dixie for what transpired at a dirt track at Canandaigua, New York.

    Likewise, New York Post grouchaholic Phil Mushnick chimed in, because it’s impossible to bitch about the Yankees and Mets every day:

    “Testosterone and gasoline do mix, always have, often to no good end other than dead endings.”

    The whole thing is splendidly hacktastic. Thankfully, there’s been some needed pushback, although I doubt it will enlighten those badly in need of better information.

    If nothing else, the likes of Cowherd, Mushnick, etc., ought to “set down” next to folks like my stepfather and try to understand what the fuss has been about, for so many years.