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 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 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

Summer Readings: Roger Angell and ‘An Angel or the Devil’

Richard Sandomir writes about Roger Angell of The New Yorker, the J.G. Taylor Spink honoree into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his writing. Now 93, Angell joins the company of Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Shirley Povich and Dick Young.

His baseball essays for the magazine in 1962. He had no previous experience covering the sport, and he never shared the experience of newspaper writers under daily deadlines:

“I didn’t have to write after a game. That was unforgivable.”

Angell CollectionMost of his 10 books are devoted to baseball, including the trilogy of “The Summer Game, Five Seasons and “Season Ticket” that were pulled together for “The Roger Angell Baseball Collection” published last year.

He doesn’t write magazine-length pieces any longer but pens shorter blog posts, including this one on the recently departed Don Zimmer.

Angell also talked to columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times explained the origins of his unlikely path to Cooperstown:

“I didn’t write about baseball because I was looking for the heart and soul of America. I don’t care if baseball is the national pastime or not. The thing about baseball is, it’s probably the hardest game to play. The greatest hitters are only succeeding a third of the time. If you take a great athlete who’s never played baseball and put him in the infield, he’s lost.”

“Baseball is linear — it’s like writing. In other sports, there’s a lot going on at the same time. You can’t quite take it all in.”

Earlier this year, Angell wrote his long life in the post, “This Old Man:”

“I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. ‘How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!’ they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy shit—he’s still vertical!’ ”

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As a federal judge is set to rule on O’Bannon v. NCAA — which could dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics — Steve Fainaru and Tom Farrey profile the lead plaintiffs’ attorney for ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

“Game changer” examines the sports-related legal career of Michael Hausfeld, a hard-driving Washington class-action litigator who’s burned bridges with his former law firm as well as some of his former clients, including professional football players.

Hausfeld admittedly knows nothing about sports, and revealed it during the O’Bannon trial this summer. But he was deeply influenced by reading former NCAA executive director Walter Byers’ 1997 mea culpa, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.” Unsportsmanlike Conduct

The Byers book, Fainaru and Farrey write:

” . . . asserts that, with his help, the NCAA erected a ‘nationwide money-laundering scheme’ that enriches conferences, schools, coaches and TV networks on the backs of unpaid athletes. Byers confessed that he helped invent the term ’student-athlete’ to shield the NCAA from having to pay the players.

“To Hausfeld, the book was ‘an amazing revelation’ that helped convince him he had a case. He found that other economists had reached the same conclusions about the NCAA. Two years after the publication of Byers’ book, a former Berkeley economics professor named Ernie Nadel was watching a bowl game when an announcer mentioned that Florida coach Steve Spurrier earned $2 million a year. Nadel approached one of his colleagues, Dan Rascher, and asked how it could be that the head football coach for a public university was making so much money.

” ‘Because he’s good at recruiting talent,’ Rascher said. ‘And you can’t pay the talent.’

” ‘This is legal?’ Nadel responded.

“That inquiry ultimately led to one of the first class-action antitrust cases against the NCAA. Rascher and fellow economist [Andy] Schwarz hoped the case would go to trial. But in 2008, attorneys accepted a $10 million settlement from the NCAA for ‘bona fide educational expenses’ to be distributed to some 12,000 athletes over a three-year period. The lawyers made almost as much money. The NCAA emerged unscathed. Schwarz and Rascher were furious. Hausfeld, who hired them as expert witnesses, gave their cause new life.

“All Hausfeld needed was a name to attach to the case.”

But previous sports clients offered a cautionary tale in dealing with Hausfeld, who represented former NFL players in a 2011 case. Six NFL star retirees sued, claiming the league illegally used their identities in NFL Films productions. Hausfeld worked a $50 million settlement (with another $8 million going to lawyers) that included no direct payment to players or insurance, which some players, including Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure, said was all they wanted.

Instead, he was among those thinking Hausfeld sold them out, and the bitter haggling between lawyer and players continued into 2012. Said DeLamielleure:

“I thought he was sent from God to help us. Then I realized he was the devil.”

Sexuality, domestic violence and the sports media herd

Last week, Tony Dungy’s comments about Michael Sam and Roger Goodell’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice revealed quite a bit about an American sports media that continues to ditch journalistic rigor about issues involving gender, sexuality and domestic violence.

(I posted recently about pop feminism invading the sports pages, and that was evident last week.)

Typical of the reflexive fare about Dungy/Rice is this Scott Simon interview on NPR Saturday with Bloomberg sports columnist Kavitha Davidson, who wrote on both topics. Utterly hacktastic.

Only a handful of pieces attempted to cut through the black-and-white pontificating, and they were either ignored or slammed. But they are worth linking to, and I hope you’ll keep an open mind and read them:

• John Walters of Newsweek called the Dungy story a “nontroversy:”

“It should and has been noted that Dungy has come out against same-sex marriage in the past, but Dungy never said that he wouldn’t select Sam because he’s gay. If anything, Dungy said that Sam just isn’t a valuable enough commodity to justify the media circus that will surround him, a.k.a., the Tim Tebow Corollary.

“The 58-year-old former coach made the mistake of being candid.”

(A disclaimer: In April I was a guest of Walters on The Grotto, his Notre Dame sports podcast, but we’ve occasionally done some sparring on Twitter on other issues.)

Here’s a bit of a Twitter exchange including a suggestion from a sportswriter for The Chicago Tribune:

Send ‘em to the moon! Not exactly the ideal way to ask for tolerance.

Later in the week, Gregg Doyel of echoed Walters, writing that the distraction wasn’t Sam or his sexuality, but the media feeding frenzy for a seventh-round draft pick.

While I think his handlers are doing a poor job and the media is treating his arrival as Lindbergh landing in Paris, I hope Sam makes it in the NFL. I also disagree with Dungy on gay issues. But none of that is the point.

• Journalists were quick to blast Goodell (here’s a sampling of reaction) for all kinds of alleged hypocrisy in sitting Rice for the first two games of the regular season only.

Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated was virtually alone in saying that despite his own reservations, the commissioner still made the right call:

“Ray Rice was not convicted. His case never even went to trial. He pleaded not guilty to a single count of third-degree aggravated assault and entered a diversionary pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders.

“This kind of fact tends to get lost in the modern media climate, especially on Twitter. We draw a line in the sand, jump to one side as quickly as possible, and scream that people on the other side are morons. The instinct is to say ‘HE BEAT UP A WOMAN AND ONLY GOT SUSPENDED TWO GAMES’ and feel proud of ourselves. If anybody tries to dispute the point, or bring some nuance to the discussion, or (gasp!) understand both sides of the argument, that person gets shot down. In this case, that person is easily branded as supporting a domestic abuser.”


“We have a justice system for a reason. It is not perfect, but it’s what we have. It is very possible that prosecutors thought Rice was guilty but did not think they could get a jury to convict him. . . . Nonetheless, this was the outcome of Rice’s journey through the justice system.

“Now: If you were Roger Goodell, what would you do? Can you really suspend Rice for half a season or more based on what you think probably happened?”

It’s an argument lost on too many of Rosenberg’s peers, who don’t venture beyond tales of endless male perfidy/female victimology. The difficulties of investigating and prosecuting domestic violence and rape are ignored, if acknowledged at all. Kangaroo-court actions are demanded to “send a message” about male jocks who hurt women.

This was as rare a point made in the sports media as Rosenberg’s:

Some sportswriters were quick to applaud Texas football coach Charlie Strong last week for booting players charged with sexual assault. Their guilt or innocence hasn’t been established, but Strong — wait for it now — “sent a clear message.”That’s all that matters.

Yes, Strong took a “bold” step. The facts of the pending cases be damned.

Sports journalists like to demonstrate how enlightened they are on social issues. But many are remiss in deeply exploring unanswered questions that need serious critical attention from them. Such as:

What happens when a famous pro football player is shot to death in his sleep by a woman?


Five years ago this month, this happened to Steve McNair in a murder-suicide, but the anniversary was barely noticed in the media. When you Google his name, right below his Wikipedia entry is an ESPN The Magazine profile of his 20-year old assassin (by a female writer) that is borderline sympathetic.

Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs got no such treatment after he killed his pregnant girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself in front of his coach and general manager. A parade of media diatribes about (male) athletes and domestic violence included this noxious crap from Dave Zirin, who implicated the team and the NFL.

You know, blaming the “culture” as well as the institution of professional football, instead of an individual.

Jason Whitlock barely waited for “Air” McNair to be cold in the ground before ripping him for being a bad father because of his extramarital affairs. At least this ugliness got a proper humane pushback.

What happens when female athletes commit acts of domestic violence?

More crickets.

Last year ex-WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw pleaded guilty to a felony — firing a gun inside her former girlfriend’s SUV after breaking the windows.

Not only did she get a general pass from the press, the Tennessee Lady Vols great also received this redemptive media indulgence mentioning her crime only in passing, and very deep in the story.

Former pro tennis star Jennifer Capriati cut a deal with Florida authorities earlier this year to drop stalking and battery charges in exchange for community service and anger management courses for her confrontation with an ex-boyfriend. No media fulminations were to be found.

Earlier this month marked the end of a blog devoted to the Duke lacrosse controversy. Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland was inspired by what he saw as “an indefensible betrayal by professors of their own school’s students.” But Johnson also was a rare watchdog of the media excesses of the case, notably The New York Times.

As I wrote last month, it’s as if the media has learned nothing from the Duke story. Instead, personal emotions are substituted for the presumption of innocence and journalistic diligence of complicated issues.

For when it comes to assessing the full picture of domestic violence — it is hardly the one-sided story that is often portrayed — an otherwise self-righteous American sports media is decidedly incurious.

The cultural roots of race and baseball

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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On the surface, I’ve got absolutely nothing in common with Michael Tillery: He’s an African-American from the urban Northeast, heavily seeped in hip-hop and rap and the New York Yankees.

I’m white and hopelessly suburban in the Sun Belt, raised on a racially-mixed Top 40 playlist that in more recent years has morphed into a blend of Sinatra and Mozart. Dead. White. Males. I loathe pinstripes and while I’ve been a big fan of jazz and rhythm and blues, I’ve only tuned into rap accidentally.

But through the magical serendipity of social media, we’ve struck up a cordial association online that I value strongly. He’s had me on his podcast on Rapstation Radio a couple of times, and I do appreciate that.

During All-Star Game festivities last week, he Tweeted out a link to a 2012 post from his blog, The Starting Five, that boosted my admiration for his work even more. In “There is no joy in Blackville: Baseball and Blues,” Tillery high in his post wrote this paragraph:

“The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary ‘Baseball’ said that ‘when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.’ “

Negro League BaseballBingo, not just to Early for his keen observation, but to Tillery for employing it as a prelude to his riff on baseball and race. The occasion of his post was the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball and the dearth of African-Americans currently in the game.

And it is an exemplary examination of the topic, laced with insight from two other noted African-American writers, Amiri Baraka and Ralph Wiley. Like the blues, Tillery writes, baseball developed separately for black Americans. When Robinson crossed the color line, the cultural gap was enormous, and in baseball it has never fully closed. The sport has suffered as a result:

“But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game. Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone? As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway. Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s. That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.

“You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people. It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.

“The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians. This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage. But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered. They returned it back to its roots with bebop. This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.”

(Here’s more on how the cultural institution — and business — of black baseball struggled post-Robinson in a 2004 Q and A with Neil Lanctot, author of “Negro League Baseball.”)

While the majors quickly claimed the cream of the crop of the Negro Leagues, those in charge of the big leagues, according to Tillery:

” . . . never adopted the stance or attitude of the players. In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for ‘dignity’ for the purpose of not disturbing white folk. The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.

Baseball’s integration took place before the height of the Civil Rights movement. During the 1960s, with race consciousness high, African-American athletes found new outlets like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association more amenable for cultural expression.

Blacks remain the solid majority of players in the NFL and NBA, which prevailed over the upstarts but, as Tillery notes, also “inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated.”


Robert Ruck, author of the 2012 book “Raceball,” echoes some of these observations and is hopeful that “the Caribbean will avoid the fate endured by baseball in the black community, which lost control of its own sporting life.”

But unlike so many of the media hand-wringers about baseball, Tillery reaches a different conclusion:

“Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow — it’s just that America has sped up.”

This is the kind of cultural writing about sports — regardless of whether it involves race — that’s so badly missing in our mainstream media. While not dismissing some of the concerns about black youths and baseball, Tillery essentially blows away the arguments of sportswriters who don’t plumb what he calls “deeper root explanations.”

Sometimes it’s clear-eyed, unsentimental writers with the proper reverence for history and authentic culture who are best able to understand what committees and Cassandras scratching the surface simply cannot.

Sports History Files: Germany’s stylish soccer renaissance

While I’m taking a summer break from the blog, I’m posting recent links about sports history, books, culture and the arts that I haven’t mentioned here before. If you have any suggestions on great sports reads you’d like to bring to my attention, contact me at Enjoy!

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German soccer is cool. No, really.

While Die Mannschaft is no stranger to World Cup success — spacing out four titles every other decade since 1954 — the stylish Germans who hoisted the Jules Rimet Trophy in Rio last week have replaced Spain as the “it” boys of the game.

Tor!How long that status lasts may depend on more than the continued success of a fluid, fast-paced style, the result of an overhaul of the country’s youth development structure that’s been written about amply over the last few years.

Germany’s regard also figures to ride on how star players handle their success.

German journalist Raphael Honigstein is among the many chroniclers, having penned this piece for Sports Illustrated during the 2010 World Cup. The young stars that coach Joachim Löw has brought together over the last four years are the products of that revamped system, shepherded along the way by 1990 World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. coach.

Just before Germany met Argentina in the final at the Maracanã, another article by Honigstein on previous German soccer dynasties was published in EightByEight, one of the new American soccer glossies that’s tapping into greater domestic spectator interest in the sport.

In recalling the legacy of Germany’s 1974 World Cup champions who triumphed over Johan Cruyff and The Netherlands in Munich, Honigstein, in “How Germany Got Its Game On” offers a reminder that winners aren’t always well-loved.

This German team — technically, it was West Germany — truly didn’t endear itself to its own citizenry. Despite having the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller, the West Germans didn’t play an appealing style of soccer. Losing to East Germany in the group stage in the only international match ever between the divided nations also didn’t help.

The letdown was permanent, as Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger wrote in “Tor!: The Story of German Football:”

“There already was a sour taste to the 1974 triumph. These men weren’t like the players of 1954, 1966, 1970 or even 1972. They were men who had got the business done after first severely disappointing both the country and their benign coach. As Cruyff and his teammates walked dejectedly off the pitch, it was suddenly no longer clear who the good guys were. Fittingly, all laughter and merriment died out that same evening. It was the beginning of the decline.”

Honigstein picks up the story there, through the perspective of gritty defender Paul Breitner, who both personally and politically was a revolutionary character in his country’s sporting history. Honigstein chronicles Breitner’s troubled relationship with the national team through the 1982 World Cup that ended for West Germany with keeper Toni Schumacher’s borderline criminal challenge on French striker Patrick Battison.

While Breitner’s persona captured the rebelliousness of the first post-war German generation, “football and its image were changing. Professionalism and tactical realpolitik became more important, and so did money.”

Breitner was among those cashing in, and eventually his “cynicism infected the whole side” as the national team prepared for Spain ‘82:

“The horrors of Breitner’s rabble of a team, the shame of 1982, became entrenched in a stereotype, the prism through which all subsequent West German and German teams were seen abroad. They became the Panzers, arrogant, methodical, and functional soldiers—even when they weren’t. Afro Breitner, the free-spirited attacking fullback, was forgotten; clean- shaven Breitner, torn between advocating a lack of discipline off the pitch and maximum discipline on it, took his place in the collective memory. The best you could say about his Germans was that they never gave up. Breitner’s ‘Kohl football,’ or at least the perception of it, outlived Kohl’s reign, effectively lasting until 2006. Then Jürgen Klinsmann changed everything.”

Honigstein continues through a unified Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006, which unleashed an unusual expression of national pride among young people that carries on today.

With gestures from current players like Mesut Özil — who’s donating his World Cup check so Brazilian children can get operations — Die Mannschaft of the present time have pulled off the novel feat winning over fans around the world both on and off the field.