Midweek Books: Can a mad man rescue Man U?

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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A disastrous season at Manchester United saw David Moyes, Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand-picked successor, sacked last April after only 10 months on the job.

Even Ray Perkins had more time stepping in Bear Bryant’s shoes at Alabama. Ditto for Gene Bartow following John Wooden at UCLA. Coming in after a legend has never been easy, but at Old Trafford, what transpired in 2013-14 was as shocking as it was unusual.

Indeed, Moyes’ ouster was the stuff of the chaotic Brazilian domestic scene, with its constant, merry-go-round managerial spinning, not one of the world’s richest sports clubs boasting 13 titles in the lucrative English Premier League.

Van Gaal MeijerBut a seventh-place finish and the failure to qualify for any European competition for the first time in 24 years was more than humiliating at Old Trafford.

This was a thoroughly unacceptable state of affairs, and required the arrival of a strong, domineering personality to marshal what’s still considered a talent base capable of getting back on top.

Enter Louis van Gaal, whose appointment was announced before he took the Dutch to the World Cup. His quintessential moment of the summer was subbing out his starting goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, right before a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals. Back-up keeper Tim Krul, in his only action of the tournament, saved two Costa Rican spot kicks as The Netherlands reached the semifinals.

Van Gaal’s dull tactics backfired against Leo Messi in Argentina, but that’s Louis, as Dutch author Maarten Meijer explains in “Louis Van Gaal: The Biography,” which has been published in Europe and goes to press in the United States in November (the link is to the available e-book form).

What Man United fans can come to expect may be just as unpredictable as what van Gaal, 62, has demonstrated in his accomplished, if sometimes bizarre coaching career. On Saturday, his first game in charge of the Red Devils is the Premier League season opener against Swansea City.

He’s already named the volatile, but vital, Wayne Rooney as his captain, and has played brutal head games in pre-season camp with players who don’t perform. Van Gaal has coldly suggested to several others to get lost.

But van Gaal also is the architect of successful revivals at already-venerable European clubs, most notably Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Meijer reveals that van Gaal’s nickname is “The Iron Tulip,” and he does seem exceptionally stubborn even by Dutch standards. From an excerpt published in The Daily Mail in July:

“His first taste of the job he dreamed of as manager of his own country ended in failure with a Dutch squad that imploded and failed even to qualify for the World Cup in 2002.

“Even then, in his own mind, that failure was the fault of the players and not him. ‘Some of the players refused to accept my methods,’ he said. ‘I am who I am and I have my own ways. I’m not going to change and I have no desire to.’

“In 2009, when he started work at Bayern Munich and results took time to come, it was reported that he had been heard going round the dressing room insisting: ‘I am like God. I never get ill and I am always right.’ A few months later, Van Gaal put the record straight. ‘I am not God,’ he said. ‘If I were God I would win everything all the time.’

“At Old Trafford they will have to get used to that.”

Brian Phillips recently penned a rollicking piece for Grantland on van Gaal, noting how he’s stepping into a very different challenge than what he’s taken on before:

“The move to Manchester represents easily the biggest cultural dimension shift of van Gaal’s career, the first time he’s been at a club that wasn’t either Dutch, accustomed to near-continual managerial turnover, or both. Apart from a tendency to turn purple and bellow at 22-year-olds, there’s just nothing in his background that fits with the Alex Ferguson model of long-term dictatorial stability. Ferguson was a company man with a temper; van Gaal has a temper that lays waste to companies. Ferguson cared only about winning and knew how to subordinate all his rougher impulses to that priority. Van Gaal wants to win, but he also needs the credit. He’s being welcomed by United fans as a savior figure, which makes sense in the postapocalyptic crater left behind by David Moyes. But if things go wrong — well, there’s simply no precedent at Manchester United for the Louis van Gaal brand of wrongness. It’s so much wronger than what anyone knows to expect.”

A sour turn for a ‘quality’ sportswriting venture

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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Just as Sports Illustrated was rolling out its 60th anniversary fare last week, the doors abruptly closed on a young sportswriting venture that never got settled in the unforgiving digital media terrain.

Sports on Earth, launched in the summer of 2012, is a joint venture of MLB Advanced Media and Gannett. The latter pulled out of its partnership amid other major changes to the company announced last week. Nearly all of the Sports on Earth staff and freelancers were let go.

si 60thSports on Earth had some major league talent, a combination of established former print writers and younger online contributors. Chuck Culpepper (an acquaintance of mine), Michael Weinreb, Howard Megdal, Mike Tanier, Patrick Hruby, Matt Brown, Wendy Thurm and Aaron Gordon were some of the writers I enjoyed reading, and there are others.

Other names gracing the site have included the legendary Dave Kindred and Leigh Montville, as well as Shaun Powell, Tommy Tomlinson, Joe Posnanski, Gwen Knapp and Selena Roberts.

(Where I thought Sports on Earth fell short was in its coverage of women and sports, turning the reins over to writers who are more “pop feminist” ideologues than journalists.)

One of the few holdovers is Will Leitch, and it appears as though the reconstituted site may largely serve a baseball audience.

I’ve been bullish about ventures like this, amid a recent wave of “quality” sports web offerings, and the demise of Sports on Earth can be seen in part as the unfortunate result of a bottom-line business decision.

Some think SoE wasn’t sexist enough, and didn’t adapt to the mostly lowbrow persona of successful sports blogs on the Web.

Post-mortems here from Megdal and David Roth, another former contributor, and also a co-founder of The Classical, explain the complexities of the venture.

Matt Yoder of the Awful Announcing site also was a bit pessimistic, arguing that while the “whole online sports media industry isn’t quite going to hell in a sexy handbasket just yet,” the challenges are considerable. Grantland and SB Nation are backed by major corporate media entities, the former as an ESPN affinity site, the latter as a vertical.

It was Sports Illustrated that made its name on quality sportswriting, as much as the lush photography that has graced its pages. But that evolution took place over quite a few money-losing years.

The magazine did a nifty thing to commemorate the first issue, published on Aug. 16, 1954, and featuring Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves at the bat. Fans were asked to send in photos of themselves playing a sport, or wearing something symbolizing their favorite team.

The compilation of 1,596 photos made up the above “photomosaic” recreation of that first cover, and the marvelous SI alum Steve Rushin wrote the centerpiece story, featuring the ever-young, and apparently never-retiring, Vin Scully.

But SI has its challenges. Time Inc. is spinning off its print titles, including People magazine, and SI has lost some top-notch talent, most recently college football writer Stewart Mandel to Fox Sports. The legendary Gary Smith also has retired.

SI has been a bit late coming to the longform platform, but has gotten good response from the year-old MMQB standalone site featuring NFL writer Peter King.

As a longtime SI reader and fan, I’m pulling for it to hold its own, and thrive, in what’s becoming a ruthless sports media landscape.

The fate of the non-revenue NCAA athlete

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 don’t know much about law, economics, business, marketing, public relations, television rights and industrial organization.

I certainly don’t know many details of coaching and motivating athletes to compete at their peak, and the nutrition, weight training, sports psychology and other elements that go into maximizing athletic performance.

ed-obannon-uclaFor the last couple of decades, what I’ve been able to figure out is asking enough questions to put a few words together about the notable achievements of young, talented athletes, mostly at the college and Olympic levels.

I’ve gotten to know some of them, and their coaches, and the people who make their exploits possible. In the world of intercollegiate sports, I do believe that most of the adults I’ve met do work to serve the best interests of these young people. They still see themselves as educators, in spite of generous salaries in some cases, and want to see their younger charges learn lessons they can carry with them into adult life.

This sounds quaint and sentimental, I know, but my first thoughts about last week’s massive developments in the college sports world — the O’Bannon ruling and the NCAA granting more rules-making latitude to the “Power 5″ conferences — were about the young athletes I’ve covered, both male and female, now grown, and living successful lives.

Many of them played at big schools, in “non-revenue” sports funded by the largesse of football and men’s basketball that are at the crux of the O’Bannon case, and serve as the focal points of the NCAA’s autonomy decision and a push for union representation for football players at Northwestern University.

Are we at the dawn of the age of college athlete power? I hope so. Some are more skeptical, but they always were.

How all of these issues will play out is still uncertain. But the public appetite for more and more games appears to be insatiable. When the ESPN-backed SEC Network launches on Thursday, it will be available in at least 90 million homes. Even as a Southerner who’s long covered the SEC, I find this staggering.

Some athletes in revenue-producing sports may be able to receive additional stipends and other compensation beyond the terms of their scholarships as a result of the O’Bannon ruling, and that’s been long overdue. The idea of unionization, still pending at Northwestern, also is intriguing. So are the implications of Title IX, even with all women’s sports clearly being in the non-revenue category. Major conference women’s basketball may get piggy-backed onto this, but it’s still too soon to tell.1375138516000-c01-EA-sports-18-1307291857_4_3

But what about the male tennis player, or female lacrosse player, or non-scholarship athlete of either gender you don’t see on Saturday afternoons on television? Those young people who want to compete in their sport for just a little while longer, before they take on the obligations of adult life? Those young people who feel blessed and privileged to be able to play, even if their likeness never appears in a video game or their name gets mentioned on nothing more than their school’s athletic department website?

I hate to sound like an NCAA zombie here, because I’m decidedly not. But what will become some of these athletes, those who aren’t going to be talked about as the O’Bannon case is being appealed?

There’s been much media consternation — understandably so — about football and male basketball players, many of them African-American and from impoverished backgrounds, who make their coaches and athletic departments millions while being relegated to “amateur” status. Their sports will continue to become professionalized, and there’s no going back.

I don’t have any answers and don’t know what to make of all that has happened in the last week. But I keep thinking about the young people I’ve seen go from high school to college to the pros (yes, usually in something other than sports) and hope that avenue isn’t going to be scaled back for them.

One of those athletes, Danielle Donehew, is the new executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. I wrote about her high school team winning Georgia state championships, then her playing career at Georgia Tech. I remember seeing her at the Women’s Final Four with her mother as a high schooler, determined to have a career in sports, and it’s cool to see how much she’s achieved already.

Donehew also is a former associate commissioner of the Big East and American Athletic Conference and steps into her new role as her sport, and the realm of college athletics, is undergoing a major transformation.

What I do know is that college athletes, present and former, must become an active part of what comes next. Amid last week’s news was a New York City forum held by the Big 12, mostly featuring athletic directors and journalists.

Of the 12-member lineup, however, only former Texas running back Selvin Young was what the NCAA likes to call a “student-athlete,” and he had to battle for speaking time with the likes of Ken Starr, Steve Patterson, Oliver Luck and Donna Lopiano.

Too many well-paid adults with a vested interest in the status quo thinking they know what’s best for unpaid athletes. This has got to stop.

Ed O’Bannon took a bold step when he challenged the NCAA, and I’m glad he’s remaining vocal. But that needs to be the beginning of a process that transforms college sports into a truly student-centered model, revenue-producing or not.

From the archives: The gap between sports and art

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m reposting and updating selected links from the archive.

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Sports art exhibits are not uncommon, but they’re not talked or written about all that much either. Despite some yeoman work trying to bridge this gap, sports historians and scholars like Allen Guttmann don’t have many like them following up on the contemporary scene.

His latest book, “Sports and American Art” was the subject of my October 2012 post, “Where sports, art and American history intersect.”

It’s a lush, rich book devoted mainly to painting — Guttmann ruled out photography for the sheer volume he’d have to go through otherwise. This focus was critical, as I noted, for this reason:

“Like the American artists of the 19th century who insisted on carving out a unique American identity for their work — Homer Winslow and Thomas Eakins in particular — so did the historians, ‘inventors’ and mythmakers of American sports during the same period of time.”

What about those sports artists of more recent times, those working in the age of photography and television? Guttmann’s book ends with work in the 1960s, and precludes a sports artist who’s getting more recent attention after his death.

Pads to PaletteErnie Barnes, who played in the American Football League in the early 1960s, died in 2009. This summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been showing a special exhibit of his work, “From Pads to Palette,” that continues through Oct. 19.

His art career was distinguished — he was the official artist for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics — but his work wasn’t limited to sports. Barnes was considered a mannerist painter, and applied the style to depict contemporary African-American life.

My friend Clarence Gaines, Jr. penned a nice blog post in 2010, not long after Barnes’ death, that sums up what he learned about a man whom he hadn’t known before but who blended the best of both of his worlds to craft a bold voice and sensibility:

“This view of life comes from a very powerful place, Barnes’ life experiences. Do you see the humanity in your fellow man/woman? We’re all unique and have something special to offer, if given the chance and the opportunity. Barnes’ words and paintings cause me to reflect on my own attitudes to the people that I interact with. See the beauty and potentiality in each human being!”

What other sports-and-art treasures are out there flying under the radar? What can they reveal to us as powerfully as Barnes did? This gap between existence and discoveries doesn’t have to be as large as it is.

From the archives: The lure of Southern football

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m reposting and updating selected links from the archive.

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When Florida State defeated Auburn in the last BCS title game in January, it ended a seven-year run for the SEC in winning national championship games.

But the trophy still remains in the South, whose hallowed college football ground is becoming very expensive.

Paul Finebaum BookAs I wrote in “A few riffs on the culture of Southern football” in November 2012, the appetite for college football, and the SEC in particular, appears to be insatiable, as evidenced by growing TV contracts:

“While those beasts grow ever larger, and must constantly be fed to a possibly unsustainable degree, this is about more than commercialism and the desire to win. The Southern complex of wanting to be better than those damn Yankees at something doesn’t fully explain it, either, although it does contain the seeds of this cultural fervor.”

A week from today, on Aug. 14, ESPN will launch the SEC Network, which figures to make your cable bill go up whether you live in Birmingham, Detroit, Seattle or Boston. The deal is a 20-year marriage that will significantly alter the financial equation for an already lucrative conference — although we don’t know how much right now.

(Clay Travis has worked up some numbers that even he finds astonishing, FWIW, but I think this may be an overestimate. Others worry about ethical issues for ESPN, which is airing the entire College Football Playoff.)

The rich are not only growing richer, they’re also pricing themselves into a different planetary system. One of the few non-SEC entities that can hang financially is Texas, which if SEC radio host Paul Finebaum is to be believed, offered some astonishing cash to lure Nick Saban away from Alabama.

In his book “My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football,” which was released this week, Finebaum set the figure at $100 million.

Saban didn’t take the money — he signed a $6.9 million annual extension in December — and Texas hired Charlie Strong away from Louisville.

But it’s suspense like this that makes the SEC prime gridiron soap opera fare.

And now that ESPN is corralling so much more of the SEC enterprise — it hired Finebaum and assigned its own Gene Wojciechowski to help him write the book — the Worldwide Leader has a programming interest that’s second only to the NFL. The SEC is much richer, but less autonomous.

My post two years ago was more about the culture of college football in the South, and how that culture endures regardless of the money being thrown around. How the SEC handles that cultural legacy from here might be as carefully noted as the on-the-field and financial success that’s sure to continue to come its way.

From the archives: A half-century of SI swimsuits

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m reposting and updating selected links from the archive.

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The usual furor over the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue didn’t materialize much this winter. That was surprising, given the 50th anniversary of the highly popular edition, and the  cover shot featuring topless (with backs turned toward the cameras) models Chrissy Teigen, Lily Aldridge, and Nina Agdal.

And the website leaves little to the imagination as well.

SI Swimsuits at 50Where was the feminist outrage? Or, as I wrote in February of last year, the harrumphing of middle-aged male sportswriters who wonder why this continues well after the passage of Title IX? C’mon fellas, lighten up:

“To suggest that women’s continued progress in sports must necessitate the eradication of supposedly sexist portrayals of women in general is as unlikely as it is absurd.

“There’s a troubling notion at work here that women’s political, educational and legal gains, including Title IX and sports, are being undermined by photos of supermodels in fishnet bikini tops.

“Those who follow this line of thought are serving up a set of false choices.”

And they disrespect the choices of women who choose to pose. Some are even athletes. One of them, Alex Morgan of the U.S. women’s soccer team, was even scolded by a male sportswriter for doing the same a few years ago.

Now, there’s hardly a whimper — this Chicago dad is an exception — and Morgan was joined by former Notre Dame and current WNBA hoopster Skylar Diggins.

Who’s being paternal now?

The younger generation of female athlete isn’t as hung up on gender and sexuality as those who can’t get beyond the word “objectification.”

The critics have a new target, it seems: Barbie in a swimsuit for SI. And she’s “unapologetic” about it.

How’s that for aggressive marketing?

Given the dollhouse that contemporary American feminism has constructed around itself, it’s a fitting venue for another futile fight.

From the archives: The Web and longform sports

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m reposting and updating selected links from the archive.

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When I posted “The Web’s longform longform sports evolution continues” in September 2012, I had no idea how much better in-depth stories would become on a growing array of sites, both new and more traditional.

But despite the expanding world of sports media criticism, far too much of this flies under the radar. It’s all about TV, with the critics breathlessly scribbling and podcasting and “hopping on” a sports talk show somewhere to talk about the latest college football contract or personality conflict at ESPN, etc. It’s maddening and boring, and sadly unrelenting. Recent stories about Ray Rice and Michael Sam sent the herd into overdrive, and this is just the way it is. There is no seeming end.

There wasn’t much of a peep last week when Dave Anderson and “League of Denial” co-authors — the latter reporting on NFL concussions, a hot sports topic — were honored by the PEN American Center.

BASW 2013Yet I still stand by my concluding paragraph that there’s a growing appetite for something better and more intelligent:

“After so many discouraging years of the so-called ‘race to the bottom’ mentality prevailing in the wild expansion of sports sites, there’s an emerging realization that chasing page views and appealing to the lowest common denominator just aren’t enough.”

Again, you can’t tell from the key sports media influencers, who talk a good game about all the great sportswriting out there but mention it only in passing, if at all.

Only when a grievous mistake is made — as Grantland’s hotly criticized piece about the transgender creator of a golf putter attests — is there a serious look at how the sausage is being made. It’s more about journalistic issues, and sometimes this still gets buried under the avalanche of TV musings.

How are these newish ventures — Grantland, Sports on Earth, SB Nation Longform, etc., faring financially? Are they making their corporate owners happy? Are some skating on thin ice? Are they resonating with their readers? Building new audiences? Attracting premium advertisers? Paying writers enough to keep making it stronger editorially?

With newspapers continuing to gut their staffs and the newsholes that once housed so much quality work, is there a strong reason to believe these entities can replace what’s being lost?

The leading sports media writers rarely ask these questions. When they do, they’re quite revealing.

Web longform is gradually blending into such volumes as the Best American Sportswriting collection, which for the moment is still dominated by dead tree prose.

I’m not knocking print — certainly not as a print refugee. But I’m more and more bullish about what’s emerging online, and the advertising world is taking notice.

You wonder when the rest of the sports media world will follow suit.

From the archives: Baseball and the Romantics

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m reposting and updating selected links from the archive.

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With another Baseball Hall of Fame Class having been inducted into Cooperstown, I thought I’d dig into the XCs vault and link to a post from January 2013, “Baseball’s Dwindling Romantics,” about Hall of Fame voting and steroids.

The new development coming out of the most recent festivities is that the Baseball Writers Association of America has reduced the time for newly-retired candidates to remain on the eligible list from 15 to 10 years. The HOF and writers explicitly deny the move was made given the long list of eligibles from the so-called steroids era.

But the new rule means that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have only eight years remaining to reach the 75 percent threshold of a plurality of votes from sportswriters, instead of 13. Both have received fewer than 40 percent in each of their first two years of eligibility, and their second-year percentage dropped slightly. The Romantics are still deeply entrenched among establishment writers, and clearly have the upper hand here.

Blood SportAlso new is the publication of”Blood Sport,” which details Major League Baseball’s investigation of the Biogenesis lab. The book was written by Tom Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts of the Miami New Times, which broke a good deal of the story that eventually led to the current season-long suspension of Alex Rodriguez.

Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post writes in a review that “there is a tangible sense of steroids fatigue among baseball observers.” The most useful material in “Blood Sport,” he says, doesn’t come along until there are 100 pages left.

There’s a clear understanding among non-Romantics, especially a new wave of baseball writers skeptical of absolutist pontificating, about the role and history of steroids in a sport that was the last to bring down the hammer. As I wrote last January:

“The black-and-white persistence of the Romantics is fading away, but not because of any perceived moral relativism by a younger generation of writers or players who may shrug their shoulders at ‘juicing.’ There is a heavy dose of realism and probity that is entering the discussion, a strong counter to those who wish to oversimplify.”

The A-Rod suspension may have pleased the Romantics. But the actions of Bud Selig’s henchmen and the commissioner himself, in rendering a purely arbitrary punishment, should be more worrisome than anything ballplayers ever injected into their blood streams.

Especially when the now-retiring Selig sat on his hands for years, fully aware of what was transpiring in his domain.

PEN/ESPN honors Anderson; BASW 2014 lineup announced

When hearing the news this week that he had been awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, Dave Anderson said, ”I’d put that right on the same level as the Pulitzer Prize.”

Anderson, a columnist for The New York Times and a Golf Digest contributor, did win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1981. Indeed, Anderson, whose Times column began in 1971, is one of three sports columnists to earn that distinction (Red Smith, Jim Murray).

Sports of Our TimesIt’s an honor that has historically overlooked the world of sports. The last true sports-related Pulitzer winner went George Dohrmann, then of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, in 2000 for his coverage of academic fraud in the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program.

To address what might be called the Toy Department Syndrome, PEN/ESPN awards were begun in 2011, and recipients are also awarded a $5,000 cash prize.

PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing goes to ESPN.com investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada for their book “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” (Dohrmann, now of Sports Illustrated, was this category’s initial winner.)

Anderson joins Roger Angell (honored last week at the Baseball Hall of Fame), Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford as Lifetime Achievement recipients. In explaining its choice, the PEN/ESPN jury of Kostya Kennedy, David Rosenthal and John Schulian praised Anderson for “quiet dignity and a true craftsman’s regard for the language” in a more than half-century career:

“You didn’t read him for bombast or half-cocked opinion. You read him because, quite simply, he knew whereof he wrote. . . . His integrity never wavered, his grace never disappeared on deadline, and his readers never got cheated. That’s the way pros operate, and Dave Anderson was the ultimate pro.”

In an interview with the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism, Anderson bemoaned some of the changes in the business:

“The big difference today is the writing. Too many sports columnists today are actors. They have to be on radio and television, so something has to suffer. Back then, the writing was what counted. Sports columnists were special and that doesn’t exist anymore. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me was, ‘you taught me to read.’ Sports is a different world now.”

Anderson formally retired from the Times in 2007 but continues to write an occasional “Sports of the Times” column. He is the author of 21 books, some of them collections of his newspaper and magazine work.

Here’s “The Food on a Table at the Execution,” published Nov. 22, 1980, part of the collection of Anderson columns submitted for Pulitzer consideration. It’s about George Steinbrenner and how Dick Howser came to be an ex-Yankees manager. The Boss had his version of the story; Anderson uncovers the shading:

“Dick has decided. That would be the premise of George Steinbrenner’s explanation. Dick has decided. Ostensibly he suddenly decided to go into real estate development in Tallahassee, Fla., and be the supervisor of Yankee scouts in the Southeast after having been the manager for the Yankee team that won 103 games last season, after having been in baseball virtually all his life as a major league infielder, major league coach, college coach and major league manager of baseball’s most famous franchise.

“But baseball’s most famous franchise also has baseball’s most demanding owner. When the Yankees were swept in three games by the Kansas City Royals in the American League championship series, George Steinbrenner steamed. And now Dick Howser is in real estate and is a Yankee scouting supervisor.” league-of-denial

“League of Denial” was a source of controversy just as the book by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada — who are brothers — was being published last fall. It formed the basis of a PBS Frontline program of the same name (you can watch it here), and the authors were extensively interviewed for the program. But right before the October air date, ESPN, their employer, controversially withdrew its name and logo from the project, most likely under pressure from the NFL, which has been heavily criticized for its handling of concussions and brain trauma.

Richard Sandomir noted in The New York Times that “while ESPN could strike its name from ‘League of Denial,’ it could not make the brothers disappear.”

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BASW 2014 coverThe contributors to the 2014 edition of Best American Sports Writing were announced Friday on editor Glenn Stout’s website, with publication set for Oct. 7. The choices were made by guest editor Christopher MacDougall, author of the acclaimed “Born to Run,” about the barefoot distance runners of the Tarahumara native tribe of Mexico.

The authors include some of the lions of literary sports journalism: Charles Pierce, Jonathan Mahler, Chris Jones, Ben McGrath and Don Van Natta Jr., as well as younger contributors Eli Saslow, Amanda Hess and Jay Caspian Kang.

Among MacDougall’s other selections is an article I noted in my post last year on the PEN/ESPN Awards by Jeremy Markovich. “Elegy of a Race Car Driver,” published at SB Nation Longform, details the demise of NASCAR legend Dick Trickle and it is a worthy inclusion.

Stout, who has been the BASW series editor since the book began publication in the early 1990s, also is the editor of the excellent SB Nation Longform, which published another 2014 selection, “20 Minutes at Rucker Park,” by Flinder Boyd. It’s about a street basketball player’s quest to compete at New York City’s famed hoops playground.

In his post today, Stout noted that he “blindly” sends 75 submitted stories to the guest editor each year, from files that are “not identified by either author or source.” The guest editor, he says, can choose other stories for the volume. Stout’s disclaimer in full is here, near the bottom of the link.

Midweek Books: The odyssey of golf in China

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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Golf was outlawed in China until 1984.

Now there are believed to be several million players, and hundreds of new courses have opened in recent years. These figures are growing, despite land reform efforts that prompted an official ban on the construction of new courses.

This is the paradox examined by Dan Washburn in “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Game,” which was published earlier this month.

Washburn, an American writer who lived in China for a decade and is the online managing editor at the Asia Society (author’s website), weaves a story about so much more than golf. It is a reflection of a Chinese culture embracing more Western pursuits, habits and traditions, and the anomalies this poses in a society still ruled by Communist authorities.

Once denounced by Mao Zedong as a “sport for millionaires,” golf is being taken up in China by the beneficiaries of the nation’s post-Maoist capitalist economy, both the wealthy and upwardly mobile alike.

The Forbidden GameWashburn profiles some of these individuals, including Zhou Xunshu, who went from rural field worker to golf course security guard to aspiring golf professional. His is a fledging existence, since a Chinese PGA tour began only this year. But as this ESPN.com excerpt reveals, Zhou is nonplussed about it roughing it, given his peasant upbringing:

“Sponsorship or no, almost all the golfers on the tournament circuit needed a second job to survive. They also had to be conscious of every yuan they spent.

“For the season opener of the 2007 China Tour in Nanjing, Zhou had traveled to the tournament via a two-and-a-half-day train ride. Had he traveled by plane, he wouldn’t have been able to bring his own caddie, a luxury for most Chinese golfers, who usually use a young female caddie assigned to them by the course.

“He also never stayed at the official tournament hotel. He rarely ate his meals at the clubhouse restaurant; too expensive.

” ‘This place is very cheap, right?’ he would say after dinner in a town or village outside the golf course grounds. ‘Four of us can eat for the same amount one person would pay at the clubhouse.’

“Zhou was not the only one. In the days leading up to tournaments, a separate competition would inevitably break out among the players — who could find the cheapest hotel? Word would spread around the practice green that one golfer found a room somewhere for 30 yuan a night, including hot water, and dozens of other golfers may try to follow him to the same place that evening.

“It was not uncommon for Zhou to change hotels one or two times in the lead-up to an event. Wasn’t this distracting?

” ‘It’s no problem,’ he always said. ‘I only have one bag. I just put it on my back and go.’

Washburn writes that the new course moratorium in place since 2004 is ignored by local authorities who continue to allow their development. From an excerpt on Slate:

“The risks associated with opening a golf course in China, though seemingly minimal in recent years, are no secret. And while official land designations in rural areas often change on the whims of those in power, it was obvious villagers were farming on a portion of the land that is now a golf course. In fact, the company paid close to $1.2 million in fines for illegal land use between 2006 and 2008. But after each fine, sources say, the local government urged them to carry on with construction. The fines were viewed as a cost of doing business.”

And this is at the heart of Washburn’s examination of a sport exemplifying a society with so many subterranean contradictions and corruption. As Edward Chancellor concludes in a review for The Wall Street Journal:

“In short, this is a tale of modern China.”

More reviews here from The Financial Times, Caixin Online, and The Economist.

Washburn is interviewed by Marketplace and Golf.com.