Quantifying the art of Lionel Messi

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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Words often fail when the subject is Lionel Messi, even from those who are wordier than most.

Famous for declaring the Argentine star “a magnetic spectrum of genius,” and “magisterial Leo!” among other ornate monikers, the American-based Geordie soccer commentator Ray Hudson is left squealing like a little boy more often than not.

Messi’s only 27, but his Barcelona exploits have long been the stuff of legend. Playing in his third World Cup, he’s finally shining on that stage for Argentina, which meets The Netherlands Wednesday in the semifinals.

Before the knockout stage got underway, Benjamin Morris of Five Thirty Eight unfurled a comprehensive analysis of Messi’s game that illustrates the ideal use of advanced statistics. Sometimes metrics can create a whole new narrative, but in “Messi is Impossible,” Morris uses numbers to show Messi’s effectiveness with astonishing depth.

Some may think a numerical approach isn’t necessary. Messi’s the greatest player on the planet; all you have to do is watch. Well, yes, but why, and more importantly, how?

There is the familiar, often-recounted tale of Messi leaving his home in Rosario, Argentina at age 13, to train and learn in Barcelona’s famous La Masia youth academy.

But the clickbait-style headline aside, Morris expands our understanding of Messi’s brilliance in ways that mere words, and the stirring tale of a precocious soccer upbringing, simply cannot.

Messi Graph (Morris)Morris pulled four years’ worth of statistics from Opta, a British sports data firm that specializes in soccer, and compared Messi to his few true peers — Portuguese and Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. Across this wide spectrum of measurements — shooting and scoring production, passing accuracy, creation of scoring chances and how often they lead to goals — Messi rates at, or near, the top, in just about every one of them.

But Morris also looked at where on the field Messi shoots from, how effectively he takes on defenders, and even how he kicks the ball to help guide his assessment. The final product — and it’s a very, very long post with lots of graphics — is as inexhaustible as Messi’s game. Morris concludes he couldn’t get everything into his post that he wanted:

“It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.

“But Messi does all of this and more.”

Sifting through chart after chart, metric after metric — some I never knew existed, like “Number of Long Balls Played from Midfield” and “Value Added vs. Total Offensive Participation” — I felt my head was going to explode. I’m still grinding my way from being a math-phobic journalist, but it’s a very gradual process.

There’s no way to understand even a little of this in one sitting, yet I was ecstatic drowning in the wondrous ways that exist to analyze how Messi does what he does. Here’s another insight from Morris, based on detailed numbers-crunching, that really jumped out at me:

“The percentage of shots Messi makes from outside the penalty area is absolutely stunning. He scores almost as often per shot from outside the penalty area (12.1 percent) as most players do inside it (13.1 percent).”

When Messi did that, against Iran in the dying moments of a group match for a 1-0 Argentina win, it was something that has been seen many times before. It was the stuff of genius, of a small-sized man finding a sliver of space to destroy an opponent. Knowing those numbers above makes it so much easier to appreciate Messi’s talents. thenumbersgame

“The Numbers Game,” published last year, is the definitive book about metrics in soccer, which like other sports has some media naysayers, or at least skeptics.

Morris’ post is a valuable addition to a still-emerging field. Unlike baseball and basketball, soccer doesn’t lend itself to the easy cataloging of stats from a box score. And like American football, it’s easy to misinterpret the value of possession.

Few soccer teams possess the ball like Barcelona, and fewer individuals still can display a dazzling array of talent with the ball at their feet like Messi.

There just aren’t enough ways to savor Messi, in other words.

So I’ll give Hudson the final word about all this, uttered after a Messi goal against Real Sociedad in early 2013. When numbers aren’t enough, there is this Messi platitude:

“Like Oliver Twist . . . he wants more. He never just says, ‘Please, sir.’ He just takes it.”

Monday, Monday: Leafblowers and LeBron Twitter

On Monday my post is generally related to a timely sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random.

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I just Tweeted the above headline, but deleted it and thought those two things actually have something more in common than I first realized.

At 8 a.m., as I was still waking up, landscaping crews began their weekly leafblowing ritual through my community, which is sort of strange for the middle of summer.

There aren’t many leaves to be cleared from the streets and walking paths, and not much debris: A waste of time and expense, and a whole lot of mindless noise, with nothing accomplished.

Which is what my (admittedly limited) Twitter feed feels like this morning: All LeBron, all the time, as NBA free agency ramps up.

Credentialed reporters at mainstream news outlets Tweeting “hunches” and “gut instincts” instead of verified facts.

It’s a relentless, crude grab for the attention of readers, and to prop up those increasingly fleeting credentials with scoops, or at least creating the appearance of being ahead of a story.

As Sports Illustrated’s media reporter, Richard Deitsch, has been peppering his Twitter feed over the weekend:

But it’s not just about ESPN, which infamously brought us “The Decision,” pushing its new SportsCenter set.

It’s what far too much of the sports media has become — and for too long now — in the chase for eyeballs and attention. These Tweets in particular, from an employee of the WWL and ostensibly an NBA reporter, are all the rage for the moment:

He’s just pulling this out of his ass, but he knows there are legions out there happily retweeting his drivel. Tens of thousands of them.

This was late Sunday night; Broussard hasn’t Tweeted since.

Even Adrian Wojnarowski, the respected NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports, has taken to Twitter to chime in on James. He appears to have more meat on the bone:

It’s all speculation at this point — sources! after all. Yet based on his past work — and Broussard’s — I know whom to trust when “The Decision II” is revealed.

If any of these reporters turn out to be wrong — and some will, because they’re spewing out just about everything — don’t expect any mea culpas.

However, what social media steals from brain-cell development, it also rewards with these pitch-perfect ripostes to Broussard’s windbaggery:

I really hope Leitch doesn’t have to come back with another column explaining all this away if Broussard is actually right.

But some days, such as a Monday in the dog days of summer, these cheap little vignettes (laced with necessary humor) hit just the right chord.

I hate it when I can’t resist the temptation of falling down the rabbit hole of bitching about sports media. This blog is aiming for a higher road, and today I couldn’t stay on it. Instead, I ended up rolling around in the ditch of sportz.

(And my apologies for the bad words. There is profanity, and there is cussing, and I usually prefer the former. Today, the latter prevails. I do feel better, though.)

But sometimes, a good rant about the hot-air noise of media leafblowers like Broussard is the only way I can think of to rise, to paraphrase an anti-sportz acquaintance, above what we’ve been sold.

Sports History Files: Remembering Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic distance runner, World War II prisoner of war and the subject of an acclaimed biography by Laura Hillenbrand, has died at the age of 97.

Zamperini’s life was recounted in “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” and published in 2010.

He was a track star at USC, making the U.S. Olympic team at the 1936 Games in Berlin, where he shook hands with Hitler and later stole a Nazi flag from the German Reichschancellery.

UnbrokenServing in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater, Zamperini survived 47 days adrift in a life raft after his bomber plane was shot down in May 1944. He was captured by the Japanese, enduring beatings and other mistreatment for more than a year until the war’s end.

Zamperini was adrift in other ways in the first years after the war, not unlike many World War II veterans. His marriage was threatened by his alcoholism, but hearing a sermon by Billy Graham changed his life. He had a long career in commercial real estate and wrote two memoirs before Hillenbrand penned her biography.

A Coen brothers film based on Hillenbrand’s book will be released in December, starring Jack O’Connell and Angelina Jolie, who is also the director.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Steve Oney talked to Hillenbrand after the release of “Unbroken” about how she came to do the book, as she talked about her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome that has left her largely homebound:

“I’m attracted to subjects who overcome tremendous suffering and learn to cope emotionally with it.”

Hillenbrand said Zamperini’s resilience came from his rebellious nature:

“As a boy he was a hell-raiser. He refused to be corralled. When someone pushed him he pushed back. That made him an impossible kid but an unbreakable man.”

Zamperini offered his own thanks to his biographer:

“Laura brought my war buddies back to life. The fact that Laura has suffered so much enabled her to put our suffering into words.”

Bringing the story to film has been something of an ordeal that others have experienced for decades, as Jolie found out.

Sports longform and soccer: An ideal match

As the World Cup got started a couple weeks ago I laid out a rambling summary of how various media outlets — including more traditional ones — were jumping on the soccer bandwagon.

What I didn’t do was get into was how the new longform sports sites have excelled in covering the sport all along. We’re truly seeing this now, and the jaw-dropping quality of British journalist Sam Knight’s May Grantland piece, “The Rise of the Red Devils” details much more than how a national soccer team evolved.

Knight writes a deeply-reported, richly nuanced story about the evolution of a Belgian nation that has had historical identity problems. The Red Devils rose as high as No. 5 in FIFA rankings in the last year, and their run at the World Cup probably won’t have a long-term discernible effect on that society. But this is the kind of story that American readers used to find only on a British newspaper site, or perhaps in The New York Times.

05-15-knight-beligum1Soccer-and-society stories in such skilled hands are now becoming standard fare for American sports websites that have cropped up since the last World Cup, Grantland especially, but Knight’s work is truly exceptional:

“And for a time, it appeared as if soccer — like Belgium’s school system, its bar association, and its Boy Scouts — would split along linguistic lines. More than 400 clubs defected. The bifurcation might have become permanent, but then Flemish football took a turn for the fascist. Vranken was succeeded by Robert Verbelen, a right-wing nationalist who admired the sporting intensity of Hitler’s Germany and who would go on to found the Flemish SS after the Nazi invasion of 1940. “A great miracle took place,” Verbelen wrote that summer inVolk en Staat, a Flemish nationalist newspaper. “Out of the east there came a people, a superior broedervolk (fraternal people) … Flemish people will not stay behind.” After the war, Verbelen fled to Austria and soccer separatism disappeared with him. The Belgian FA published its rules in Dutch, and football became strikingly national and harmonious. The only unwritten rule, present in the mind of every Red Devils coach, was to pick a roughly equal number of Flemish and French-speaking players. Crowds watching the national team chanted in English to circumvent the language problem.

“This was the unhappily balanced environment into which immigrants, mainly from around the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, but also from farther south, began arriving in large numbers in the late 1980s. The demographic shift was a shock, particularly in Belgium’s urban centers, many of which had aging, shrinking populations. Unlike in, for example, Paris, the poorer districts of many Belgian cities are centrally located, so the newcomers — young Africans, Turks, and Moroccans, looking for work and bearing children — were particularly visible. A series of immigrant riots, mainly over joblessness and cramped housing, shook the country in the spring of 1991. Immigration also forced many ordinary Belgians to confront their country’s colonial shame in Congo. Between 1885 and 1908, the enormous central African state, 80 times the size of Belgium, was owned as a personal possession of the Belgian King Leopold II. Millions of Congolese died in a genocidal rubber production program that made Belgium rich.”

When Grantland started up three years ago, it pried away Run of Play blogger Brian Phillips to write about soccer and other sports, and he’s among the growing army of American-born writers establishing a viable presence in expanding soccer space. Someone I also like is Noah Davis, who’s writes in so many places, and is filing for American Soccer Now from the World Cup.

I particularly liked his 2012 piece on German soccer in World War II that’s part of the excellent SB Nation Longform series. And if you saw the SB Nation homepage this morning, in advance of the USA-Belgium game, it’s all about one thing. SB Nation Cover 7-1-2104

There’s also no small amount of pretentiousness in some of this new-fangled soccer prose. For my money Tomas Rios, a frequent contributor to Sports on Earth, is the best (or should that be worst?) in show in this category. His heavy-handed attempt to weave the present-day Chilean national team with that country’s history of political violence, and especially the post-Allende Pinochet regime, just doesn’t work. Here’s a classic example of how not to write a soccer-and-politics diatribe:

“For Chile, the cost remains tangible. Pinochet is rightly remembered as a vicious authoritarian, but he was also a dreadfully stupid man beholden to the American interests that enabled his rise. This is best illustrated by his reliance on the so-called Chicago Boys, a group of young male Chilean economists trained in the University of Chicago’s economics department by neoliberal forefathers Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. The group filled key roles in Chile’s finance, education and government and used Chile as a test lab for advancing an agenda of privatizing public services and extreme economic deregulation. Unfortunately, the half-life of such policies is much longer than that of any dictatorship and can be seen both in Chile’s wealthy ruling class and its place as one of the 15 most economically unequal countries in the world. Yet again, a leader of the Chilean national team served as the bellwether of an ongoing resistance.”

If you reach far down enough between the cushions, you’ll dig out a few coins of soccer in there. There’s no mention of the very liberal presidency on Michelle Bachelet, who’s on her second stint in office.

But Rios has a penchant for this sort of thing, taking a bludgeon to sports business-and-culture topics on decidedly non-sports sites, and has taken it upon himself to bash overt myopia in the supposed Golden Age of Sportswriting. It’s always too easy to apply contemporary social tastes and standards to another time and denounce it, tossing in a couple of contemporary comparisons to illustrate a continuity.

Fortunately, Sports on Earth has plenty others writing much better on soccer: stick to my friend Chuck Culpepper, a newspaper refugee, and Will Leitch, a Deadspin refugee, and you can’t go wrong.

For the most part, the emergence of American soccer journalism online is every bit as good as what those of us of a certain age read on The Guardian and other British newspaper sites. And while I’m still partial to the quirky, non-commercial voice of When Saturday Comes, the soccer writing on the independent site The Classical (launched through a Kickstarter campaign) has some flair and iconoclasm, as demonstrated by Conor Huchton on the U.S. men’s national team.

If pre-match analysis is your thing (as well as the post-game variety), The Shinguardian blog is as good as anything.

What this work all demonstrates is the abiding passion of a younger generation of writers, most of them men under 40, who grew up playing, or at least watching soccer as it became more abundant on U.S. airwaves. I can’t think of a better way to end this post than to reference Andy Glockner, formerly of Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, and who now oversees the sports vertical at the newish Medium site.

In his first posting there, just as the World Cup was set to kick off, he wrote an impassioned piece on what it was like to grow up playing soccer in “U.S. Soccer’s Dark Ages,” when World Cup appearances and games on television were a pipe dream.

His writing style (as well as his Twitter account) can be exasperating, and I mean that in a good way. But there’s no mistaking what’s driving him and so many of his brothers-in-arms. This is their moment to shine, and they are helping a once-indifferent soccer nation better appreciate where they’ve been. Glockner may just be the king of the hardcores:

“We have moved from consuming the World Cup on TNT (with commercials inserted right into the middle of matches) to ESPN leading the charge with world-class coverage, from almost no availability of foreign club matches in this country to multiple TV networks battling over big-money rights. We’ve gone from MLS being played in front of modest crowds in ill-suited venues to a country with soccer-specific stadiums and players making millions of dollars a year playing soccer for a living. We’ve transformed ourselves from nobodies into the best team in our region and one of the better ones in the world. If you lived through this entire process, you know how stunning this all is.

“This helps explain why, in 2010, I openly cried on my couch after Landon Donovan’s goal beat Algeria. It also explains why one of the greatest thrills of my professional career was receiving an email from Bruce Murray, one of the stalwarts of the 1990 World Cup team, saying he liked a soccer story I had written. I was a fan of his long before he was one of mine.”

Sports, the arts and the gloriously obscure

On Saturday night, while serendipitously flipping through channels, I reached ESPN Classic and for the first time watched “Bud Greenspan: At the Heart of the Games.”

This was released in early 2008, right before what would be Greenspan’s final Olympics in Beijing. It was a documentary film about how the Olympic documentary filmmaker came to be, and why he excelled at it, and for two incredible hours I was transfixed at the behind-the-scenes details of a master of his form.

Greenspan essentially had the field to himself when he finally dug in and devoted himself to the form, starting with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His eye for the well-told story of obscure athletes from small nations competing in little-known sports (at least to average Americans like myself) is well-known.

What I was struck by the most were his tales of the “losers,” of those who never medalled, barely showed up and sometimes struggled to finish.

In Mexico City in 1968, the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith were the unforgettable and iconic images of a contentious time. And then there was Greenspan’s telling of Tanzanian marathoner’s John Stephen Akhwari’s determination to cross the finish line, dead last, hours after Mamo Wolde had been awarded the gold medal.

Some might think this was whitewashing controversy with a heartwarming tale to please the establishment — the Olympic ideal of a classic expression of the human spirit was uplifted, after all. But this was the essential Greenspan, as he famously, and unapologetically continued along this vein through Beijing.

I wrote as the London Games began that the Olympics were missing their most famous lens. But when Greenspan died in late 2010, he took that eye with him. His was a unique and novel perspective, honestly told without contrivance. Another tale involved David Moorcroft, the British 5,000-meter runner who was the world record holder entering Los Angeles but, competing injured, fought against being lapped in that event by race leaders. Said Moorcroft:

“One of Bud’s great skills, and he does it in victory and in defeat, is putting it into perspective without overdramatizing things.”

This approach seems quaint now. It’s becoming a lost art form, and in saying this I mean no slight against the excellent 30 for 30 sports film series created by Bill Simmons and that includes the superb “The Two Escobars,” released before the 2010 World Cup.

I write all this because there is a point here, amid my rambling. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how wide-ranging this blog is, and what it says about my scattershot approach to covering sports through books, art, literature, music, culture, history and other “off field” topics. Many think that there’s not much overlap between sports and the arts, but I’m trying to explore that area here.

Sometimes I think I’m trying too hard, or just not pulling it off. There’s still too much of the detached newspaper reporter in me, my prose too impersonal, not “bloggy” enough, not engaged or connected with some fascinating subject matter. My posts feel forced, as I strenuously try to capture the space of a subject area that is hopelessly, but gloriously obscure.

I’m still striving for authoritativeness in a way that doesn’t fit the blog form. Online authority is authentic and reciprocal, not forced as in the one-way vehicle of print, and at times I forget that. I need to do a better job of discovering an audience for this, as small as it may be, and reach it.

Bud Greenspan went about what he did without much of a concern for commercial imperatives, and whether his storytelling would go over with an American public starving for stories about “winners” in competitions we dominate. It took some time for his methods to find that audience — and he was dogged in finding financiers for his projects. Yet his endearing legacy is cemented.

I’m not making any comparisons between my aspirations and what Greenspan accomplished. I’m intrigued by his example because I’ve been thinking a lot about lately about the imperatives of doing meaningful work, and diving really deep down into it, and enjoying the satisfactions that come with it. It’s not about money or making a splash with peers or getting it in front of the right eyeballs for the sake of career advancement. As deep-work advocate Cal Newport blogged last week:

“At some point, we tire of the shallow – necessary as it might be – and foster a desire to retreat into depth, create the best possible thing we’re capable of creating, then step back, point, and remark simply: ‘I did that.’ “

This all sounds very self-absorbed, but it’s a craving I have — to see sports through a different, more measured lens than what abounds in popular culture. I want to take a step back — a few, actually — and find context and perspective that never gets a nod in the immediacy of the page view- and ratings- driven world of contemporary sports media.

What I post here may seem unfocused and all over the place, but in my sportswriting career I have loved the variety of what I was assigned to cover. There’s a glorious messiness to going deeper into places few venture to visit. The challenge is making some sense and order of it while fashioning a viable online niche.

So here’s a thumbnail summary of what appears on this blog on designated weekdays:

    • Monday: Sports Potpourri: A timely sports topic prominently in the news and focused on the business of sports or a sports subject at random.
    • Tuesday: Sports Media: Developments in sports media, occasionally stepping back in time to a different era in sports journalism.
    • Wednesday: Midweek Books: Noteworthy new sports books are highlighted, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.
    • Thursday: Sports History Files: An issue, personality or event in sports history is examined, as is the field through books, authors and scholars.
    • Friday: Weekend Arts: Delving into sports and culture, including, but not limited to, history, literature, books, visual art, films and music as they relate to the world of athletics and recreation.

Women writers on boxing, gender and culture

This week I’ve been devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts:

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Long before there was such a thing as women’s boxing in the Olympics, the sport most commonly associated with raw violence and archaic masculinity drew the scrutiny of a sharp female mind.

On Boxing JCOBut in her acclaimed 1987 book, “On Boxing,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates didn’t dress men down, as feminist explorations of sports and culture often do. Nor did she glorify in the physicality of or comment on what she witnessed in the ring in almost detached, race-horse style, as the sports pages often did.

Oates, who went to Golden Glove bouts with her father as a girl in upstate New York in the 1950s, claims at the very beginning she doesn’t consider boxing a sport. Nor does she think of it as invariably brutal. In the preface to the 1994 version of the book, she says that no other subject for a writer is “as intensely personal” as boxing, which puts her in the company of many esteemed male writers, among them Norman Mailer. But he wouldn’t have written this:

“Without doubt, it is our most dramatically ‘masculine’ sport, and our most dramatically ’self-destructive’ sport. In this, for some of us, its abiding interest lies.”

For more than 270 pages, she tautly weaves cultural commentary while contemplating the history of boxing, referring to it as “tragic theater.” The fascination with sports in the United States, she argues:

” . . . has not only to do with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or render obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, muted, eclipsed and wholly unarticulated underside of America’s religion of success.”

But it’s early on in her critical essay that she touches on gender in the most binary fashion:

“Boxing is for men, and it is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”

“Machismo as sheer poetry” indeed.

My first reaction upon reading all this was: “A woman writing this?” Free of invective and scolding, informed by a keen literary sensibility and a fierce desire to portray boxers, and what they do, in fully human terms.

For someone who never stepped inside the ring, Oates offered a worthy example of how women might fare if they truly dared to operate audaciously in the male-dominated arena of sports. (And she has continued as a frequent commentator and reviewer.)

Instead of judgments based on a gender prism, Oates plumbs deeply into a world to understand it, and to accept it on its own terms. Her strongest observations aren’t directed at boxing’s macho-ness, but on American society’s revulsion of its essence:

“As boxing is ‘reformed,’ it becomes less satisfying on a deep, unconscious level, more nearly resembling amateur boxing; yet, as boxing remains primitive, brutal, bloody, and dangerous, it seems ever more anachronistic, if not in fact obscene, in a society with pretensions of humanitarianism.”

Oates’ conclusions are not the words, or sentiments, that carry sway today. We’re witnessing renewed efforts to “reform” gridiron football in the wake of concussions and brain trauma that may have prompted the tragic suicides of former NFL players. The sport is under some serious existential pressure, to be sure.

But will these concerns, including those expressed by a president who has only daughters, really keep young men from getting in the game?

Likewise, there are growing calls to ban headers in youth soccer, which affects boys and girls alike. In a society that fetishizes safety and relishes litigation, it demands almost incessant regulation. In our desire to “protect,” we are gradually losing a sense of what true risk is all about.

When I read “On Boxing” a couple of years ago, this was just after I had finished writing “Beyond Title IX,” my e-book on the cultural laments of women’s sports. After drowning in dreary feminist dogma for months, I found “On Boxing” a refreshing, authentic delight, transporting me into a bizarre world that I could never know, or ever hope to understand. Boxing a Cultural History

And this was just the point. It dawned on me that I find things I can never fully comprehend the most compelling. I never played American football, but I am lured to it in part because I never put on shoulder pads and a helmet, never took a hit, never absorbed one and never experienced the pain and the pleasure of the game.

While I covered soccer for a number of years, the cultural underpinnings of a truly macho, global sport will endlessly exist beyond my grasp. Aside from the present excitement of the gilded World Cup is a dark, sometimes deadly connection between the game and the societies where it resonates the most. This will always be a mystery, more because I’m a woman than an American.

If you want to understand true gender-and-sports grievance, it can be found with a small few who rail about women and soccer with unblinkered ferocity and sometimes expand this narrative into other sports.

But there has got to be a cultural rethinking away from the victim-centered feminism I’ve been writing about this week, and have addressed in my e-book and previous posts here. If women are to make true lasting progress in sports, their leaders have to stop marginalizing them.

You can’t whine about sexism and equality if you’re shuddering from stepping in the arena. If you want your ideas and advocacy to be taken seriously, you’ve got to stand in the ring and do more than deliver one-way punches. You’ve got to take them, too, and learn how to fight back in a way that honors the code you demand women be allowed to enter.

A good way to start would be to look at sports culture and history as Oates has done with boxing, instead of cherry-picking and exaggerating male discrimination against women. Don’t leave the sexism out, but don’t caricature men and presume male athletic experience keeps women down.

In her 2008 book “Boxing: A Cultural History,” British academic Kasia Boddy serves up a comprehensive, glorious saga of the sport as seen mainly through art, literature and popular culture. Boddy, who teaches at University College London, has crammed together a collection of artwork, posters and other representations of boxing — Oates thinks it’s far too much — that includes women in and around the ring, from decades and even a century or so ago.

In a chapter subtitle called “The Prize Fighter and the Lady,” Boddy writes about journalist Nellie Bly’s interview with champion John L. Sullivan, and includes photos and drawings of females fighting. A sketch published in the British Police Gazette magazine in 1890 carries the caption “The Girls Who Biffed Each Other.” The Sweetest Thing

Boddy reveals examples of an early feminist strain in some of these works, as well as “a return to scantily clad heroines” designed for the prurient interest of males. In other words, a variety of expressions of the full range of human experiences, even in the Victorian age.

What about modern-day women who dare to fight, and who take issue with Oates’ declaration? Australian boxing champion Mischa Merz offered a counter in her 2011 book, “The Sweetest Thing: A Boxer’s Memoir.” I met her during a reading at the Decatur Book Festival that fall, and was impressed when she said that “Boxing is my man. Even my husband will tell you so.”

Merz began competing in the late 1990s, mostly as a personal challenge, a reason that appears to draw quite a few women into the ring. She’s middle class with a family, and wasn’t trying to fight her way out of poverty or a violent upbringing.

Yet her memoir recounts a familiar path to competitive success, even in the master’s division. She portrays some of the main advocates for women’s boxing, including Dutch professional Lucia Rijker. These are women fighting for opportunities to fight, gradually punching their way through the resistance of a fiercely male-dominated sport, yet they respect its more honorable traditions.

A year before the debut of women’s boxing in the London Olympics, Merz wrote that this inclusion “requires that women’s bodies be reimagined” far beyond Victorian myths of frailty. And yet:

“We also can’t keep imbuing them and their owners with moral purity. The increased acceptance of female athletes in many different sports has given women the freedom to be tough and mean and ruthless. And it is in the arena of women’s boxing where this narrative is playing out most eloquently.”

Diamond dilemma: Women, softball and baseball

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts on “Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance,” “Pop feminism hits the sports pages” and “Sexuality, Pride and women’s basketball.”

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On a family visit a few years ago, I noticed a very different image on my stepfather’s big screen television from I was accustomed to seeing.

He’s a huge college football and NASCAR fan, and those are about the only sports he watches, along with the NFL. On this particular occasion, which was in May, the game on the set was from the Women’s College World Series — the NCAA softball championship.

I was stunned, since I don’t ever recall him watching softball. As a ponytailed hurler fired underhanded toward the plate, I just had to ask: “So what’s this all about?”

Stolen BasesMy stepfather didn’t hesitate, and this is just how he talks: “I love watching these gals play. They’re good.”

Still floored a little, I then remembered hearing him talk years ago about the recreational softball he played as a young man. Tuning in now, many years after his retirement, brought back happy memories. He truly admired what these young women were doing in a sport he enjoyed playing.

If I relayed this story to Emma Span, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of a baseball book, I don’t believe she’d take my stepfather’s words as a compliment. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Span joined a fairly recent parade of laments about the lack of opportunities for females who want to play baseball.

Decades after girls were allowed to compete in Little League, the numbers are still quite low. Span cited a statistic of fewer than 1,300 girls playing high school baseball nationally, as opposed to nearly 475,000 boys. Under Title IX provisions, girls can get a tryout on a boys team if there is no female equivalent sport, but apparently that isn’t happening all that often in baseball.

The long, wretched history of sexism against women in baseball has had quite a bit to do with ingraining the idea that females aren’t suited to play the sport. It’s not a contact sport like football, which can claim a Title IX tryout exemption for that reason. Females are excelling in much more physically demanding, and more widely offered team sports like basketball and soccer.

But with greater Title IX compliance over the last two decades, they’re also flocking to fast-pitch softball. And this is a troublesome thing for female baseball devotées like Span. Sadly, she recycles feminist theory about the women-in-baseball narrative that seems to blame softball for stalled progress in baseball.

Under the inflammatory — and nonsensical — headline, “Is Softball Sexist?,” Span also referenced a recent book about women in baseball that deserves more consideration. Span alleges that “girls face enormous pressure to switch to softball,” but provides few examples. She draws from University of Nevada-Reno professor Jennifer Ring, author of “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball.”

Ring is the mother of a baseball-playing daughter but she’s also a former women’s studies department head, and her prose oozes with indignation and just sheer whining, such as this:

“Softball was handed to American girls when American middle-class men stole baseball.”

She never mentions how popular softball has been for both genders, and for youths and adults, for decades, as my stepfather experienced. But Ring is convinced that girls “succumb” to softball even if they prefer baseball, without offering much beyond anecdotes. It’s all about sexism, and Span is following her lead. Most regrettably, Ring serves up this departure from common sense:

“Girls are capable of playing baseball with boys into and beyond adolescence, given sufficient cultural encouragement and a lifetime of athletic training like the boys get.”

As a girl who had a fierce throwing arm, and routinely outthrew the boys — until they hit puberty — I can tell you this is simply bullshit.

And bullshit is what has to be called on the mewling arguments that Ring, Span and company are spinning now. In 2009, the same year Ring’s book was published, Marilyn Cohen of St. Peter’s University (N.J.) published a similar tract, “No Girls in the Clubhouse: The Exclusion of Women from Baseball.” No Girls in the Clubhouse

But while Ring’s book is at least accessible to general readers, Cohen drowns anyone who bothers to open her book in academic feminist dogma (see my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX”), right from the start. Cohen, also a former women’s studies chairwoman, has titled the first chapter “Patriarchal Myths,” so you should know what to expect. Like her cohorts, she weaves a grim narrative of sexism, in which women have been “relegated to marginalized sports such as softball.”

Again, this hardly an obscure sport. Span seems chagrined that under Title IX,”equal access is often interpreted to mean not baseball, but softball. . . But the women’s version of baseball is not softball. It’s baseball.”

So how can 363,000 girls — the number of females playing prep softball in the latest National Federation of State High School Association participation survey — be so hopelessly brainwashed? Ditto for the thousands more playing college softball? Why don’t they just switch diamonds already?

Before Title IX was passed, girls and their parents were creating sports teams based on interest. I know, because I was a part of this, playing slow-pitch softball in my suburban Atlanta community’s youth sports association in the early 1970s. It was hardly the game that females play today, and I wasn’t very good at it, but it was the thrill of my youth.

This was as Maria Pepe was challenging the Little League’s ban on girls, of which I was not aware. While there were times I wondered if this were a “lesser” version of baseball, I wasn’t that bothered by it. I could play, and discover the joys of sports, and that’s all that mattered.

Span tries to make the case that girls do have the physical ability to play baseball, and I don’t dispute that. But this isn’t the issue.

They have so many more sports options than ever before, and I don’t see all-female baseball teams proliferating like soccer and lacrosse. Even in women’s basketball, coaches are concerned they’re losing girls to those sports, as well as volleyball.

Not every sport has developed for both genders to compete in comparable numbers. Ask any male who wants to play field hockey and finds himself turned away based on gender, as I did in an interview with Brian Kleczek in the early 1990s.

Later in that decade, I got an earful from members of the U.S. Olympic men’s field hockey team, who got fewer resources from the female-dominated federation. It’s a sport that has even fewer male participants than baseball does women.

My first instinct was to laugh at them — c’mon guys, you’ve had it great for decades. But in their voices I heard the same pain that Kleczek felt, and that Pepe felt. It’s not about gender, but being allowed to play the game you love. This has happened to males and females, but that doesn’t generate the media attention.

Too many advocating for women’s sports don’t respect the individual choices females make about sports — which ones to play, and whether to play them at all. Here’s another slap at cheerleaders, from a former college cheerleader, who insists it’s not a sport. This is a nearly all-female sport that actually has a growing number of competitions.

Span and company are miffed that the revered national pastime remains an overwhelmingly male sport, and that “there is no reason but sexism to prevent them” from getting in the game.

But it’s not that simple, and in taking shots at a sport that has proven to be popular with many, many girls and young women, they come across as petty and boorish.

Sexuality, Pride and women’s basketball

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here are previous posts on “Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance,” and “Pop feminism hits the sports pages.”

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The latest development on the gays-in-sports front is a league-wide initiative by the Women’s National Basketball Association to market to the LGBT community. While this news wasn’t exactly earth-shattering — several WNBA teams undertook similar, more modest efforts years ago — what’s notable about the WNBA Pride campaign is how straight and gay players alike are stepping forward in a visible, unified way.

Some out WNBA players continue to appear in various Pride parades in their cities, most recently Layshia Clarendon of the Indiana Fever. Her coach, Lin Dunn, also has been outspoken on the topic, expanding the message of inclusion that’s coming from the 12-team league, its players, coaches and personnel.

InMySkinThis is a significant step, not just for the movement of gays in sports, but also as it relates to women’s basketball, which has had a difficult history with the issue.

There are those who are skeptical of the WNBA campaign, which is admittedly a business decision. Given the comings-out of Jason Collins and Michael Sam, male athletes in team sports, along with the the expansion of marriage equality how gay and lesbian consumers have long been the target of an array of marketing drives, this one might seem behind the curve.

That’s what Juliet Macur of The New York Times argued in taking a bit of a shot at the WNBA, mentioning fans of the Washington Mystics who demonstrated their Pride at games in the late 1990s, before the franchise, and the league, was ready for them.

In 2009 the managing partner for the Mystics explained that there wasn’t a “kiss cam” because it wasn’t appropriate for kids who may see two people of the same sex smooching.

Longtime WNBA writer Jayda Evans of The Seattle Times, an open lesbian, blasted the WNBA Pride initiative as disingenous and behind the times.

Two lesbian San Antonio fans recently told MeChelle Voepel of ESPN.com that they still don’t detect a true comfort level from the Stars franchise, in spite of WNBA Pride. Voepel also noted that last year, Stars player Sophia Young spoke out strongly against same-sex marriage, and that this was discussed with her teammates. They didn’t disclose how the conversation went.

But they are part of a wave of players who have had enough of the concealment that’s rampant in the college game. Most notable among them is former Baylor All-American and NCAA champion Brittney Griner, who came out weeks after her college career ended last year. Before she had been drafted by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, she posed for a profile piece in ESPN The Magazine with a snake coiled around her tattooed, 6-foot-8 body, and talked openly about being a closeted collegiate player.

In “In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court,” published this spring, Griner writes about feeling the pain of her father’s rejection of her sexuality when she was in high school, then accommodating her college coach’s request not to reveal her sexuality. Kim Mulkey, according to Griner, had no problem with gay players, but having them out on a strict Baptist campus posed some problems:

“Big girl, I don’t care what you are. You can be black, white, blue, purple, whatever. As long as you come here and do what you need to do and hoop, I don’t care.”

As long as it was “behind closed doors.” Griner comes off a bit churlish denouncing Baylor’s anti-gay campus policies, saying she only learned about them from other gay students, with whom she met secretly. She never mentions if she considered transferring from the private institution because of this.

In her book, written with former ESPN The Magazine editor Sue Hovey, Griner also expressed contempt for the “paranoid” world of women’s college basketball, in which only one NCAA Division I coach — Sherri Murrell of Portland State — is an open lesbian.

Few players also come out while they are in college, and many endure what espnW columnist Kate Fagan experienced while playing basketball at Colorado more than a decade ago. In her memoir, “The Reappearing Act,” Fagan writes movingly (excerpt here) about coming to terms with her own sexuality while playing on a team with several “born again” Christians, including a roommate who could not accept her admission.


Unlike Baylor, Colorado is a public university, and one with a liberal student reputation. Fagan, who came from New York state to play for the nationally prominent Buffaloes, found a different environment within her own locker room.

Complicating her struggles was the fact that some of Fagan’s most zealously religious teammates were also “praying” that Ceal Barry, their closeted coach, would turn away from a “sinful” lifestyle.

Fagan — who wrote some of the Griner pieces for ESPN The Magazine and is Hovey’s domestic partner — recalls being rocked by a conversation with the mother of a Colorado high school recruit who said she didn’t “want my daughter coming to a school run by dykes.”

This is the still-untouchable third rail of women’s hoops, the most common reason cited for why lesbian coaches stay hidden: So they can persuade the parents of teenage girls to sign scholarship offers, and to prevent rival coaches from using the issue on the recruiting trail.

Fagan’s complex relationship with Barry reaches a climax near the end of the book, when she meets privately with her coach. After Barry explains why she operates the way she does, Fagan writes that she asked “Who gets to know all of you?” Barry replied:

” ‘You’ll find these people, and when you do, keep them close to you. . . . I tell only a select few. I tell only people I absolutely trust. That’s it. I’m too worried about the impact on my career.’ “

Fagan, who returned to Boulder for a book appearance in May that included Barry, now a senior associate athletics director at Colorado, recently told The Awl that “there really is a myth out there that women’s sports is some sort of lesbian paradise.” This week, she reiterated that despite gay-friendly initiatives — including a video from the NCAA champion UConn women’s hoops team — it’s hard to regard the sport as “an open and inclusive environment.”

I’m not a fan of Fagan’s journalism at espnW — she plays a heavy-handed gender-and-culture card that is all too familiar in the mainstream media — but to her credit she didn’t get into this in her book. Her painful, but hopeful personal story is an honest and bracing primer for anyone trying to understand what she, and many other athletes, have gone through, and still do.

It’s been only seven years since Rene Portland — a former coach at Colorado — was forced to resign at Penn State after a former player filed suit, claiming she was dismissed for being gay. Portland, who had a history of booting lesbians from her Lady Lions teams — see the excellent documentary, “Training Rules” — was long backed by Penn State officials and the late Joe Paterno, who hired her.

I’ve understood for years that many of the kids playing women’s hoops — and this is at the high school level — don’t care who’s gay, if they’re not. Some parents still do, and I don’t know how the college scene becomes more welcoming for coaches and players who want to be out. Fagan’s pessimism is understandable to a degree.

Perhaps the WNBA Pride campaign will eventually soften some of the hardened ground that exists in the college game. I hate to trot out the cliché that it might be only a matter of time for more openness to exist.

Criticisms of WNBA league management aside, I’d like to think that what we’re seeing from WNBA players is the emergence of a younger generation of female athletes who are taking some encouraging steps in a more inclusive time.

Pop feminism hits the sports pages

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from Monday’s 42nd Title IX anniversary, with an emphasis on continuing cultural issues relating to gender and sports. Here’s yesterday’s introductory post, “Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance.”

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When the truth about the Duke lacrosse scandal finally was revealed, the libertarian columnist Cathy Young was hopeful that a dreary chapter in the history of rape-crisis feminism had been closed.

In a piece for reason.com, Young — an acquaintance who has been recounting the excesses of establishment feminism for many years — was cautiously optimistic in her conclusion:

“The exoneration of the accused may prove to be a turning point in social attitudes toward false accusations of rape. It may also be a major defeat for a certain kind of feminist politics.”

Until Proven InnocentThat was in the spring of 2007, nearly a year after the three lacrosse players charged were essentially declared guilty in news media accounts — most notoriously of all by The New York Times — and shortly before the prosecutor was disbarred.

As I wrote Monday, allegations of sexual violence involving athletes became easy fodder for sports feminists in the 1990s, and many of the same resentments resurfaced in the Duke lacrosse case.

Surely the feminist and media mobs had learned their lessons about making accusations before the facts were in. A history professor who blogged prodigiously on the scandalous prosecution and news coverage delved even further in the the first of several books written about the case. So did the former Duke coach who was fired during the height of the controversy, and who later won a settlement with the university after suing for wrongful termination.

But in more recent years, the blatantly outrageous events surrounding that case have largely been forgotten. Young’s best hopes may have fully withered away two years ago, when rape allegations against two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, made national headlines in even more viral fashion.

Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, but this is the first time I heard the phrase “rape culture.” The thing is, I kept hearing it, over and over, and keep hearing it all the time, even in mainstream media outlets, as if it were an accepted fact of American life.

As it turns out, the Duke lacrosse case wasn’t the end of an especially illiberal phase of feminism. It was the beginning of a toxic new wave referred to by critics as “pop feminism.” But instead of legacy media churning out a dubious narrative, a young generation of feminist bloggers is eagerly taking the lead. Its Not About the Truth

The mainstream press is sheepishly following along, with very little scrutiny about what the hell “rape culture” is, exactly. Or if it even exists. Definition in a nutsell: Our entire society and its most powerful institutions — law enforcement and media especially — routinely conspire to allow women to be assaulted, and their assailants to get away with it. Women never lie about this, and those who are accused should not be afforded the presumption of innocence.

Even after the full Duke story unfolded, feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte was unrepentant as she groused about media coverage of the hoax:

“I had to listen to how the poor dear players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and fucked her against her will—not rape, of course, because the charges have been thrown out. Can’t a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair.”

That outburst later cost Marcotte her job as a blogger for the John Edwards presidential campaign, but it set the tone for her pop feminist acolytes, and lately they’ve taken to grinding their axe about sports.

It was hard to defend the athletes involved in the disgusting Steubenville case, and the coaches and townspeople who apparently tried to shield them from prosecution. But in labeling this “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment” even before the young men were tried, convicted and sentenced as juveniles, self-styled feminists acted as if the Duke case had never taken place.

Jezebel Revisits SteubenvilleSports and politics blogger Dave Zirin heatedly equated “football culture” with “rape culture,” raising an old sports feminist canard from the ’90s. And more of the same from a male blogger on forbes.com.

Ariel Levy of The New Yorker, while not denying “rape culture,” did question the effect of the online vigilantes, quoting the Steubenville prosecutor who said her job was made more difficult as a result. Even a writer for Jezebel — the pop feminist website that’s part of the Gawker media empire — returned to the town and sympathized with citizens who felt impugned by the coverage.

But by then, the “rape culture” mobs had moved on to another sports-related case, allegations against a high school football player in Maryville, Mo. After the charges were dropped, the outrage began. The mother for the victim claimed they had to leave town because of pressure not to press her case, and said her daughter had attempted suicide.

The protests are understandable to a point, and the allegations are appalling, as suspicions about rape cases involving athletes touched on long-held complaints of jock privilege. Jeff MacGregor of ESPN.com was especially harsh, hitting all the right tunes as he sang loudly from the pop feminist hymnal:

“Blaming the victim, unsubtle slut-shaming masquerading as advice, is as American as apple pie. So this was a very big week for told-you-so paternalism and boilerplate schoolmarms. Ladies, stay away from jazz and liquor!

“But the problem with rape culture isn’t alcohol.

“The problem with rape culture is rape.”

MacGregor concluded that “only the truth will save us,” but he was impatient for what a special investigation might have yielded and perhaps forgot that truth was the first casualty in the Duke saga.

The revelations of year-old rape allegations against Florida State’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, also were curiously timed, as the Seminoles prepared to play Auburn for the BCS national championship in January. Triggered by the lack of formal charges, the mobs demanded to know why the university, and Tallahassee police, didn’t fully investigate. NYT Jameis Winston Probe

A special prosecutor who declined to bring up charges presented his findings to the public in abysmal fashion, fueling further anger. As FSU was winning its crown, The New York Times was conducting a lengthy probe that revealed plenty of problems in how the Tallahassee PD went about its business. But unlike the Duke case, the newspaper stepped back and didn’t let the narrative control the story.

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But the pop feminist imprint on media coverage of sexual assault and athletes is here to stay. Sports on Earth has given sports and culture blogger Jessica Luther free reign to lecture the media on how to cover these stories, as she quotes only fellow travelers as “experts.” For The Atlantic, she was allowed to claim that “the NCAA endangers women” for not cracking down on sexism in college sports.

Julie Caro, a sports blogger and rape victim, earned uncritical acclaim for posting on Deadspin how she believed Winston’s accuser. DiCaro — one of Luther’s “experts” — is also an attorney, but gave the distinct impression in her post that mere belief ought to trump matters of law.

Also on Sports on Earth this week, with Wimbledon underway, the media were admonished about “How to talk about women’s tennis.” In one of the more idiotic things I’ve ever read, a feminist blogger on The Guardian’s Comment is Free page wondered if it’s anti-feminist to watch the World Cup because of soccer sexism in Britain.

This is egregious stuff, channeled out over mainstream outlets that have turned over “coverage” of serious topics to rank ideologues. Title IX, once synonymous with sports, is now being used to pressure colleges and universities to vigorously address charges of sexual violence. Concerns that due process is being ignored to satisfy those who believe we live in an unremitting “rape culture” generate little attention.

Unless they’re high-profile conservatives taken out of context, as George Will found out.

The sports media realm seems hardly interested in taking a mulligan here, just eight short years after the Duke case for which few in the press have offered even a tiny mea culpa.

Title IX, sports and the culture of grievance

This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from today’s Title IX anniversary, ongoing matters related to investigations of sexual assault on college campuses, the O’Bannon v. NCAA trial and continuing cultural issues relating to women and sports, including sexuality and exclusion from such sports as baseball.

These posts build on my 2011 blog series “Women’s Sports Without Illusions,” and my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX: The Cultural Laments of Women’s Sports,” which is available on Amazon.

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The-Stronger-Women-Get-the-More-Men-Love-Football-9780151813933The images of a white Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson around Los Angeles were still fresh in my mind when I picked up a book that would dramatically alter my understanding of the women’s sports movement.

The timing of the former NFL star’s arrest for the murder of his wife and a male friend and the publication of “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football” in the summer of 1994 couldn’t have been better for the blending of grievous cultural issues and the drive for women’s progress in sports.

The book, subtitled “Sexism and the American Culture of Sports,” was written by Mariah Burton Nelson, who played basketball at Stanford in the early 1970s and had written two previous books on women in sports that were well-received.

This one should have earned more scrutiny. But the Simpson saga, and other tales of alleged male athletic perfidy against women, were all over the news in the early 1990s. At at time in which landmark sports-related Title IX cases were just around the corner — most notably Cohen v. Brown — the culture of sports, especially as it related to gender and sexuality, was coming in for scathing rebuke from feminists.

From the outset, Nelson channeled notorious 1980s feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon with fierce polemical prose, launching a broadside against the sports mainstream as not just excluding women, but also being a lethal enemy of all female human beings:

“Women seem to intuit that football and other manly sports hurt women. There’s something about the way certain games are played and the way they’re worshiped that’s injurious to women’s mental and physical health.”

That’s one hell of a claim to make, but Nelson goes on like this, for 250 more pages, repeatedly trashing football, sports talk radio, lagging enforcement of Title IX, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and other frequent targets of women’s sports activists.

Where Nelson takes a dark, insidious turn is in her attempt to connect these matters with issues like sexual assault involving athletes and an absolutist deconstruction of traditional masculinity, labeling most expressions of male behavior — especially in sports — at the very least as borderline criminal. This is her most scurrilous charge:

“Maybe the question is not why so many sportsmen rape, but why more of them don’t?”

I can’t recall ever being angrier reading anything in all of my life. I was tempted to follow the lead of the great writer and critic Dorothy Parker (no relation, alas), who wrote in an unfavorable review of a book that it “should not be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.”

Twenty years later, I still find this an offensive, slanderous piece against the entire male gender. Nelson is vile and crude in her blanket condemnation of men and popular sports, and in her relentless efforts to portray women as helpless victims of male athletic violence and sexism.

The question I had then, and that still resonates now, is how any of this helps the women’s sports movement. In bashing men (something Billie Jean King has never done, in all of these 40-plus years), Nelson made women appear to be the antithesis of what Title IX was yielding — strong, confident women benefitting from athletic competition and educational opportunities.

Just as women were truly beginning to excel on the playing fields, courts and pools of America, sports feminists supposedly working on their behalf were undermining those achievements with a litany of whiny, caustic complaints taken far too seriously by the establishment press (of which I was a part at the time).

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But Nelson was mimicking feminists in the larger society, and she succeeded. There were few critical reviews of her screed (an exception was the book critic at my former newspaper). I proposed an opposing essay in a national sports publication, but an editor I had become acquainted with there backed off at the suggestion. Mainstream feminism had jumped the tracks, as far as I was concerned, by turning away from equity issues and obsessing over cultural grievances that did not relate to the lives of most women. The Morning After

Now, many of the same issues are resurfacing, and they also are being uncritically amplified in the media. Two decades after the “Take Back the Night” date rape hysteria, college administrators are coming under siege for how they handle claims of sexual assault. In 1993, Katie Roiphe expressed her disenchantment with rape-crisis feminism in her book “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus.”

She was excoriated for this, of course, just as skeptics of the current mantra of “rape culture” are being pilloried today. Roiphe did not mention anything about sports and sexual violence, but there’s plenty of that happening currently. Where Title IX for years had been synonymous with sports, it’s now being used as a bludgeon by the Obama Administration to prompt changes in how colleges and universities investigate sexual assault. There are concerns that schools are being pressured to ditch due process and the presumption of innocence.

Dozens of universities are being probed, including Florida State University, specifically over rape charges involving Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Piled on top of rape charges involving high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo., those who traffick in sports and cultural grievance have plenty of ammunition for claims that are taken almost at face value.

(More on that tomorrow.)

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Yet the issue of Title IX and sports is facing something of a crossroads on this, the 42nd anniversary of its enactment. Few college cases are generating much attention for the moment, although critics of the law’s current enforcement provisions (myself included) continue to speak out on the illogic of proportionality.

There’s plenty of activity involving high school sports, including the possible regulation of privately funded booster clubs, as activists seek to extend federal gender equity reporting obligations to the prep scene.

In a courtroom in Oakland, Calif., a federal judge continues hearing arguments in the case of O’Bannon v. NCAA that could radically alter the college sports landscape. The NCAA has invoked Title IX as a reason why college athletes in revenue sports shouldn’t be paid, but that claim was invalidated before the trial began. There’s a wide range of opinion on whether Title IX should apply (pro and con) since there is no legal precedent.

The case law that stems from the O’Bannon case, and other efforts to break up the NCAA’s long-held insistence on “amateurism,” could very well help shape the future of college sports for women.

Yet the culture vultures dominate the discourse, such as there is any discussion at all about the real status of women in sports. Nelson’s book helped shape a dubious narrative that persists today.