Sunday, 4 June 2017
David Conn begins his exhaustive chronicle of FIFA's recent sordid affairs on an uncharacteristically bright note, spending the first chapter describing how he was enraptured by the 1974 World Cup as a 9 year-old. Every four years the World Cup comes around and mesmerizes and brings joy to fans across the globe and reaffirms that soccer is at its core a game designed to offer pleasure to players and spectators. 1974 marked a transitional year for the sport's global governing body, FIFA, as Brazilian business Joao Havelange won the presidency over Englishman Stanley Rous, who embraced a purer, less commercial approach to soccer. In The Fall in the House of FIFA, Conn gives an exhaustive account of FIFA's indiscretions over the last 40 years and describes how the organization strayed from its humble beginnings. Conn reported on much of FIFA's recent misdeeds, including corrupt bidding processes for the World Cups in Qatar and South Africa, misappropriations of development funds for domestic Football Associations, rigged presidential elections, and the like, for The Guardian and serves as an able guide through FIFA's bad behavior. Conn's book is an authoritative tome on FIFA corruption, though it occasionally gets a bit dry. I would put it front and center of the syllabus of any college course on the dark sides of Swiss-based international sporting organizations worth its salt, but it can become a grind for the more casual reader.
Given the massive sponsorships and television audiences attracted by global soccer today, it is remarkable how modest FIFA's origins were. Formed in 1904 in the backroom of the Union Francaise de Sports Athletiques building in Paris, FIFA started with only 7 members (with snooty England sitting out) and was designed for the express purpose of facilitating games between nations. Somewhat ironically, FIFA ruled that "no person should be allowed to arrange matches for personal profit." Over the years, FIFA would morph into a sporting and economic juggernaut, consisting of over 200 nations (as anyone who has ever been exposed to one iota of FIFA's self-congratulatory behavior already knows, the organization features more members than the United Nations). Conn tracks the evolution of the organization and the figures who shaped its trajectory. While Conn peppers in a few on-field accounts of various World Cups, much of the action in his book takes place in backrooms, hotel rooms, and offices, and he focuses mostly on off-field affairs.
The meat of Fall in the House of FIFA understandably centers around the organization's nadir that had its roots in its initial forays into mega-sponsorships with a deal with Coca Cola in the early 70s and eventually culminated in Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer, and other FIFA officials' downfalls over the last few years. Blatter took over from Havelange in 1998 running against a more reform-minded candidate, and winning the election under rumors of vote-buying. While Qatar's successful World Cup bid was the last straw for Blatter and is probably the misdeed most familiar to Americans likely still sore over losing hosting rights, Blatter's term was marred by a plethora of other problems, including funneling/bribing local FAs with humongous sums of money for grassroots soccer. Blatter did not act alone and there are substantial chapters devoted to other major players such as CONCACAF executives Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner and UEFA President Michel Platini. Conn is evenhanded with his writing, acknowledging the good that these officials did to promote the sport in their regions in spite of their less-magnanimous activities that earn the most of his attention. The book reads like an extended investigative newspaper article, meticulously researched with ample detail, though it can begin to feel like a slog if you are less interested in reading about political corruption. I wish there was more analysis into the psyches of these executives and what compelled them to take bribes and otherwise behave poorly, but in Conn's defense the vast majority of his subjects have clammed up and aren't willing to divulge much at all, basically leaving him stuck detailing the "what" over the "why." Conn does offer some analysis on what mechanisms helped facilitate FIFA's corruption, including the odd voting policies that often granted nations such as Montserrat (population 4,900) just as much voting clout as Germany.
The book ends on an especially strong note with an extended interview with Sepp Blatter. While Blatter was evasive and guarded when Conn reached out to the former FIFA head earlier in the book, he is far more open to the author in his later interview, reflecting on his tenure and final days as president. He's not the most regretful person in the world and still makes some effort to protect his character (though it's safe to say he's probably ruled out ever winning the Nobel Prize by now) but it's still a good read and was the highlight of the book for me.
Overall, your enjoyment of The Fall in the House of FIFA is going to depend on how interesting you are in the subject. If you are looking for a one-stop book that outlines the history of FIFA and an encyclopedic account of its recent corruption and the fall of Sepp Blatter, you'll probably love the book. If you are interested in soccer as a sport as well as an economic and sociological phenomenon but you aren't that keen on reading about FBI investigations and accounts of executives behaving badly, then I'd advise you to stay away. Having said that, The Fall in the House of FIFA deftly accomplishes what it set out to do and is an authoritative and informative account of FIFA's recent activity.
7 / 10
Sunday, 14 May 2017
Some aspects of soccer, such as a brilliant run by Leo Messi or one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's ridiculous karate-kick goals, are intrinsically delightful and do not require any knowledge about the sport to enjoy. Others, like Portugal's stultifying style of play during the 2016 Euros, are intolerable to even the most ardent and sophisticated soccer fans. Most of the time, however, soccer operates between these two extremes, and like virtually every entertainment medium, a greater understanding of the nuances of the sport makes for a more rewarding viewing experience. Ruud Gullit's How to Watch Football sees the legendary player and current pundit attempt to impart some of his wisdom about hte game to the curious fan. It's a decent, albeit slightly disorganized and cliche-ridden read, and does leave the reader with a better understanding of the sport.
The book is organized a bit haphazardly, beginning with a not-entirely-necessary autobiography/memoir of Gullit's early years and playing days. It is at least mildly interesting fare, and the reader gets a feel for Gullit's ego and opinionated nature, on everything from PSV Eindhoven's kit design to the Netherlands' tactics in international tournaments. Gullit transitions from his personal reflections to the meat of the book: offering a reasonably comprehensive analysis of the major elements of soccer. There are sizable passages on topics like the most popular formations and tactics, the role of each position, and the playing styles prevalent in each major soccer nation. Gullit draws heavily from his playing and coaching days (though perhaps unsurprisingly he basically ignores his rocky managerial tenure in the MLS with the Los Angeles Galaxy), sharing heaps of anecdotes. Most of the time these are illuminating and help further support his concepts and assertions, though he can get grating when he constantly rails on Jose Mourinho and how much tougher players were back in his day (and don't get Gullit started on the amount of time contemporary youth spend on their cellular phones).
How to Watch Football attempts to fill a niche that is surprisingly underserved, at least in the US market, of an intermediate-level soccer viewing guide. In terms of how advanced the content is, I'd put it somewhere between Soccer for Dummies and Jonathan Wilson's outstanding Inverting the Pyramid (which is solely devoted to formations and tactics). On the whole, I did pick up some nice random tidbits about the intricacies of the sport like position play and the evolution of the Dutch talent development system, though it's too uneven overall to recommend too highly for the average reader. You will probably gain some insight about the game though, and it's worth checking out if you want to better understand and appreciate the game.
6.5 / 10
Monday, 27 March 2017
Release Date: April 4
Amazon / Goodreads
Amazon / Goodreads
Ballplayer, Chipper Jones' somewhat-generic entry in the "star athlete memoir" genre, will probably entertain Braves and/or Jones fans but doesn't offer a ton for the casual baseball fan who never performed a Tomahawk Chop. Jones had a long and illustrious career with its fair share of ups and downs, but Ballplayer is hurt by shallow writing and many tired athlete memoir tropes. It has a few positive moments and is overall an average read, but it's hard to strongly recommend the book to the general fan.
The book follows the tried-and-true player memoir format. Jones recounts his early years growing up as the son of a baseball coach in rural Florida and describes some impactful moments from his childhood. We learn that his switch-hitting was encouraged by his Mickey Mantle-idolizing father and how his regret about leaving his local high school for a snootier prep powerhouse in Jacksonville contributed to him staying with the Braves for his entire professional career. The bulk of the book concerns his tenure with the Braves, and gives a chronological overview of his professional career and his experiences on the field and in the clubhouse. Jones offers insight into the personalities of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox, and other Braves staff and also shares some run-ins with other players such as Barry Bonds (unsurprisingly a bit of a jerk to Jones). The broad synopses of each season drag a little bit as many of them blend together but there are a few amusing anecdotes, such as how Jones decided to go deer hunting on the day of his first-ever World Series game. The reader will also pick up some useful nuggets of baseball wisdom along the way, which is probably the best aspect of the book. Jones was a true student of the game (his future certainly lies in some kind of coaching or analyst role assuming he still wants to work) and he also has an astounding memory of his playing history. He shares tidbits such as how the major benefit of becoming a switch-hitter is preventing sliders going away from the batter and that hard-throwing pitchers with better "stuff" outperform more control-based hurlers in colder weather because batters are less warmed-up.
Ballplayer's biggest drawbacks center on Jones' limited writing abilities. On the prose front, Jones isn't particularly strong at describing things and my Kindle counted 6 separate instances of the phrase "shit-eating grin" (and I'm not entirely convinced it captured all of them). Jones simply isn't all that great at articulating his feelings and the writing in general often came off as clunky. Even when dealing with his off-field troubles (Jones got divorced twice and had an affair with a Hooters waitress in 1997 that resulted in a son) Jones' writing reads like a public apology statement. I'm not going to play armchair psychologist and try to understand whether he's truly remorseful or not, but I will play armchair book reviewer and say that these passages weren't interesting or insightful.
In recent years Jones has had some incendiary and foolish tweets, including suggesting the Sandy Hook school shootings were a conspiracy, making tasteless jokes about illegal immigrants, and challenging an army veteran who was angry about being snubbed for an autograph over 15 years ago to a fistfight in an extended and inane stream of threats and insults. That said, his tone isn't absurdly arrogant over the course of Ballplayer and his personality didn't bother me. Jones' peak performance coincided with my formative years and it was nice to relive some of the biggest moments of 90's baseball and read about some of the game's stars during the period, and I appreciated the times Jones shared some of his substantial wisdom about the game. Still, Ballplayer is a typical player memoir, and suffers from the same problems that plague most offerings in the genre. Braves fans will like it, but for the general fan it's just an average read.
Sunday, 19 March 2017
The "rules" and structure of this post are basically the same as when I wrote about the best hip-hop books: everything is loosely ordered by topic rather than rank, starred entries are especially recommended, and my personal 5 favorite books are included at the end. I stuck to non-fiction books only (which wasn't too hard, I found North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough to be pretty overrated, though to be fair neither aged particularly well. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was decent but isn't really a football book.), and there are no limits on author appearances. Every entry includes an Amazon link in case you want to learn more about the title, this site is a labor of love and they aren't affiliate links, it's just for the benefit of the reader.
The Classics: Books Your Dad Would Recommend (That He is Justified in Recommending)
There are a few books, generally older ones, that are held in high regard by football fans and considered "required reading" by any dad or grandfather worth his salt. Sometimes (see blurb about Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty), they are wrong, but here is where they are justified.
Paper Lion by George Plimpton*
For whatever reason, baseball has historically attracted the more literary types, which is why it is always an absolute treat when a writer of Plimpton's caliber decides to write about gridiron-related matters. In Paper Lion, Plimpton suits up for the Detroit Lions, joining them for training camp and participating in an intrasquad scrimmage. Curious, perceptive, and willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of journalism, Plimpton is an engaging guide through the Lions' 1963 training camp, and does an excellent job at demonstrating how a regular Joe would fare in the NFL of the early 60's (spoiler alert: not incredibly well) and giving a peek into training camp life. Plimpton also strikes up friendships with many Lions, showing the more personal sides of legends such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Dick LeBeau, and Alex Karras (who was actually suspended for the 1963 but features in the stories of many a Lions player in the book).
Plimpton wrote a follow-up of sorts to Paper Lion with Mad Ducks and Bears, which is mainly Lions linemen Alex Karras and and John Gordy reflecting back on their careers in the game. It's not worthy of inclusion on this best-of list, but there's worse ways to spend a few hours if you really enjoyed Paper Lion.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap*
Yes, another behind-the-scenes account of a Midwestern NFL team from the 60's. Kramer was a mainstay at guard for the Green Bay Packers (one of the pulling linemen for the team's fabled Power Sweep) and Instant Replay chronicles the Packers' 1967 season, in which they would win the NFL Championship in the famed Ice Bowl game (in which Kramer featured prominently in the final play) and thump the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Similar to Paper Lion, Kramer's book transports the reader back to the NFL of the 60's, which was a truly different time. It's obviously dated if you want to understand what current NFL-ers have to contend with but if you're interested in how the sport has evolved and how it was to play for Vince Lombardi you should pick this up.
About Three Bricks Shy... And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr.
Coming only a few years after Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Blount's classic book chronicling the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1973 season presents an intimate portrait of the team and its remarkably colorful players, warts and all. This was the period right before the team would achieve juggernaut status, and most of the core that would win 4 Super Bowls from 1975 through 1980 was in place, and the reader gets a look inside one of the best NFL teams ever. Blount is a witty observer of affairs and writes with a freewheeling, semi-rambling style with frequent injections of humor. He also had loads of great material to work with, from the sartorially-advanced Frenchy Fuqua (who wore shoes with goldfish in the heel) to the inaccurately-nicknamed Mean Joe Greene to the kinda crazy Ernie Holmes (who once shot at a police helicopter with a shotgun). Blount is able to ingratiate himself with most of the team and many Steelers open up to him, including a surprisingly blase description of several players' steroid regimens (it was truly a different time).
Anyone with an iota of perspective knows that there are more important things in life than football. Fans of the Permian Panthers in the economically-depressed town of Odessa, Texas in 1988 may have quibbled with this notion, however. Bissinger, then a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (if you're interested in urban policy check out his book on then-Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell) uprooted his family to Odessa to follow the Panthers' 1988 campaign and reveal what life is like in the football-mad regions of Texas (i.e. Texas). Part sociological study, part football book, Friday Night Lights excels at showcasing the team's huge impact on local morale and business and the experience of playing for a huge and elite Texas high school football squad on and off the field.
Friday Night Lights is enhanced by the elements of uncertainty and tension for the reader. The book isn't recounting a major NFL or college football team's campaign, and unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of west Texas high school football in 1988 you probably don't know how the Panthers' season is going to go. I won't spoil anything (though if you showed enough interest in the list to get this far you've probably already read Friday Night Lights) but it is quite exciting. The reader also becomes really connected and emotionally invested in these players from decades ago, and I found myself actively rooting for the team and reacting to the team's ups-and-downs like any self-respecting Odessa resident would (passionately).
Bissinger wrote a post-script of sorts with After Friday Night Lights which mainly focuses on how former Panthers star Boobie Miles has fared after the book's publication and coming to terms with reconciling his football dreams with the harshness of "depressed west Texas" reality. It's a very quick read (probably clocking in under an hour) but worthwhile if you want to see how Miles is faring today.
Books You Should Buy for Your Dad: Football History and Biography
There aren't a ton of selections here, as a good amount of football histories and biographies are team-specific and aren't compelling enough to recommend to the general football fan. Here are 2 notable exceptions.
America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge
Anyone reading one of the older selections from this list will realize that the NFL has evolved tremendously from its humble beginnings as a smattering of Midwestern teams in the 1920's to a money-minting (more on that later) economic powerhouse that has somehow managed to turn even the 20-hour conference call that is the NFL Draft into a flashy television spectacle. MacCambridge has penned the authoritative tome on the complete history of the league and its development over the years. The book is strongest when it covers the war between the NFL and AFL in the 60's, when the leagues bitterly fought for the attention and dollars of the American populace, occasionally through some kooky means. While I felt the chapters on more recent NFL developments were a little weaker, this is still the best history of the league by far.
When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
Maraniss is an Associate Editor at The Washington Post and perhaps best known for his hefty and meticulously-researched biography of Bill Clinton. In When Pride Still Mattered, he provides a richly-detailed biography of the legendary Packers' coach that showcases Lombardi's personality (including his religious devotion, stringent perfectionism, and openness to race and sexual orientation, among others) and his experiences coaching the Packers and Redskins. It's a long read but if you want to better understand Lombardi (he is one of the few football figures who really warrants such a comprehensive biographical treatment) and why the Super Bowl trophy is named after him you should give this a read.
X's, O's and Prose: The Strategy of Football
Starting an MBA program has provided me with a lot more exposure to people from other cultures, and thus, the opportunity to explain the basics of American football. These often-bungled attempts at education have reaffirmed that teaching the sport is hard (though not as hard as cricket, of course, which is completely impossible to grasp and I reject any contentions stating otherwise). The sport is remarkably complex, and I find it enriching to delve deeply into the tactical weeds to better understand why teams and coaches do the things they do. These next few books are for advanced football fans who are looking to deepen their knowledge of the X's and O's of the game.
The Games that Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski
Jaworski has been a mainstay on ESPN's excellent NFL Matchup series, breaking down game film and analyzing the strategies employed by NFL teams and excitedly narrating the continual playing and rewinding of a few seconds of a play. In The Games That Changed the Game, Jaworski traces some key strategic developments in the sport through deep-dives on seven transformative games. The selections aren't always Super Bowls or playoff games, but rather the best examples of each concept: the magnitude of the game is less important that the gameplans employed therein. The book covers strategies such as Sid Gillman's Vertical Stretch, Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz, and Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, which all have influenced current NFL schemes. Each concept gets its own chapter where Jaworski provides a bit of background and then gives an in-depth breakdown of what happened in each game. Everything is explained clearly and Jaworski will also frequently diagram plays and formations to help comprehension, and the book definitely improved my knowledge around the sport, as well as a greater sense of appreciation for some of its coaching trailblazers.
Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan
I'm not going to provide a laundry list of achievements and feats of nerdiness to establish my football knowledge bonafides, but I will mention I played high school football, made a 7-round mock draft in eighth grade, and have read enough football books to feel sorta qualified to write a long post about my favorites in the genre. Having said all that, Take Your Eye Off the Ball was the book that most improved my understanding of the game and taught me a huge amount about a sport I already knew pretty well. Kirwan began as an NFL scout and worked in a couple of NFL front offices in the 90's before moving to journalism, and he brings a wealth of insider experience on the game. Kirwan's goal with this book is to improve fans' viewing experience by providing tools to learn about the game at a higher level. Even if you balk at adopting his involved game-charting system while you watch games, there is a lot to take away from the book.
The book is structured similarly to something like "Football for Dummies," providing a comprehensive overview of virtually every aspect of the sport (the quarterback, the NFL draft, special teams, officiating, and so on) with the occasional "Ask Pat" where he riffs on some random point about the game. The basic format and topics covered isn't original, but Kirwan goes deeper into these subjects than any book I've read. Some of the material is probably going to be review for die-hard fans, but there should be enough novel material for virtually any reader to learn a good bit about the finer nuances of the game.
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne
This book doesn't fit as well into the category as the other 2 books. While Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense does feature prominently, and Gwynne adeptly devotes some pages to explaining the offense and how it transformed the modern passing game and led to today's pass-happy offenses, The Perfect Pass is more than an instructive tome. The heart of the book is the dual-narrative of coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and the peripatetic paths they followed up and down the ranks of college football. Mumme bounced from high schools and NCAA minnows such as Iowa Wesleyan to developing 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch as head coach at Kentucky, with Leach eventually landing the head coaching gig at Texas Tech and leading some absurdly-proficient passing attacks based on "Air Raid" fundamentals. A lot of the book is about being a coach on the lower rungs of college football and the tremendous chasm between effort put in and actual take-home pay (the mind boggles at how any small-school college football assistant in the 80's and 90's stayed married). Mumme, a stubborn genius who has seemingly bounced around everywhere, and Leach, a well-read law school grad who can converse extensively on anything from pirates to World War II battles, are both fascinating characters and it is enjoyable to track their personal and professional development as well as the evolution of their offensive approach.
Fly on the Chalkboard: The Best "A Season With _____" Books
There existed a time when journalists offered some degree of protection for athletes when it came to off-field activities and indiscretions and their writing was strictly limited to what happened during the game. In the 60's, a new generation of journalists pejoratively dubbed "chipmunks" by the sportswriting establishment began to peel back the curtain and leverage their access to provide a rounder portrait of players and teams and offer more intimate reporting on franchises' inner-workings. The release of Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1971 both further advanced this "all-access" approach as well as illustrated its economic potential, selling like crazy. Teams across all sports began to broaden their access to reporters, allowing for a plethora of "fly-on-the-wall" books. Many of these aren't particularly good and are merely beat writers cashing in on a successful season by recycling some columns. These selections don't fall into that trap and are actually quality reads.
Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden*
Although Bowden is probably best-known for Black Hawk Down, which was eventually adapted into a movie, he spent many years at The Philadelphia Inquirer and was on the Eagles beat for the 1992 season. Bringing the Heat is more than a tired retelling of a reasonably-successful-but-not-spectacular season of a professional football team told by a beat writer. Rather, it is an in-depth look at the Eagles' players, coaches, and ownership and a raw and honest examination of playing in the NFL. The on-field descriptions are vivid, intense, and exciting but Bringing the Heat makes this list for the quality of its richly-detailed profiles. The book is more about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles than their season. This was a team chock-full of personalities, including the fiery Buddy Ryan at head coach, the egotistical Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and Reggie White leading the defense. Defensive lineman Jerome Brown died before the 1992 season, and Bowden does a phenomenal job writing about how the team reacted to Brown's death and its impact on the team.
Bowden was not a football expert coming into the book, which is actually a positive for Bringing the Heat. He brings an objective, outsider's perspective to the team and the book is refreshingly free of the trite metaphors and cliches spouted by many sportswriters. It also doesn't hew to the set formula of these kind of books, emphasizing the characters over the plot if you will, but this makes for a refreshing take on a rather tired concept of football book.
Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff*
This is the best example of the traditional "fly-on-the-wall" genre, and probably my favorite football book released over the last 5 years. It has all the necessary components: a skilled writer, a compelling team filled with personalities (the Rex Ryan-led New York Jets), and gripping on-the-field activities, including a pretty spectacular collapse to end the season. Dawidoff spent most of his time with the Jets' coaching staff, and is able to get seemingly every member of the staff to open up to him. The amount of access Dawidoff had to the team, sitting in on meetings and clocking in almost as much as the actual coaching staff, really enriches the book and separates it from the many similar "A Season With..." books out there. Collision Low Crossers truly captures what it is like to work on an NFL coaching staff and the tremendous emotional and time investments staff make in their careers.
You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets About Pro Football's Most Outrageous Team by Rob Huizenga
This is a tough one to classify, but I'll stick it here because creating a "Memoirs by Football Doctors for the Raiders" category seems somewhat limiting. Huizenga has apparently now made a nice career for himself as a doctor on The Biggest Loser, but in the 80's he served as the team physician for the Raiders. He found that there was widespread drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse among the players and that the franchise wasn't the most organized establishment in the world. You're Okay is basically a memoir/expose of Huizenga's experiences working for the Raiders from draft preparation to treating players during games. It is a breezy read clearly geared towards the general sports fan, with medical terminology kept to minimum. The book is peppered with ridiculous anecdotes (including further insight into the unorthodox way Al Davis ran things and a particularly graphic description of Matt Millen's questionable parenting skills), but it's not a hatchet job. Yes, Huizenga has some gripes with his past-employer and how the league deals with injuries, but his beefs seem justified and in some cases prescient. You're Okay, shines a light on a vital yet underappreciated element of an NFL team and gets bonus points for being one of the more original picks on this list.
The Business of Football
Jay Berwanger, a football star from the University of Chicago and the winner of the first Heisman Trophy, was also the first player selected in the inaugural NFL draft in 1936. Berwanger ultimately opted for a career in sportswriting, which at the time was more remunerative. 80 years later, payscales for both occupations have changed dramatically. I can't recommend any good books on why writers currently earn peanuts, but here are some of my favorite works on the big business of football.
The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict
Penned by an investigative reporter, The System is a revealing look at big-time college football. Some of these findings will likely be old hat to fans of the game, (coaching politics, facilities arms races, questionable recruiting practices), but Benedict offers a remarkable level of depth and detail and at least some of The System should surprise most readers. He is also able to get some key figures to open up to him and speak frankly about current issues facing the game. The book provides an excellent overview of the current media-institutional-NCAA complex and some of its less savory practices.
The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America by Gregg Easterbrook
Easterbrook has written the outstanding Tuesday Morning Quarterback column since 2001 (it is coming back in 2017 after a temporary hiatus in 2016) where he riffs on gridiron affairs as well as an eclectic bunch of other topics that are only sometimes football-related. King of Sports is a bit of a downer in that it highlights many of the negative impacts football is having on society: public funding for stadiums, concussions, and the poor treatment of retired NFL-ers, among others. These chapters are all thoughtfully-written and Easterbrook makes some compelling points, and Easterbrook is evenhanded with his analysis. Easterbrook also spends a year with the Virginia Tech Hokies football team and holds the school up as an example of an institution doing things the right way. While Benedict's The System also looked at the problems football creates, Easterbrook outlines many similar issues but also prescribes potential solutions. Easterbrook is a real fan of the sport interested and invested in its future success, and hopefully the ideas posed in The King of Sports get into the hands and heads of major decision-makers in the sport.
SOC 350: The Sociology of Football
If I was to teach a class about the culture of football and its supporters here is what I'd include on my syllabus.
Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania by Warren St. John*
Remember that sensible statement I made earlier about football not being the most important thing in the world? I think Alabama Crimson Tide fans are another group that might disagree with that idea. In Rammer Jammer, St. John, an Alabama native who was then a reporter for The New York Times, returns to his home state to follow the Crimson Tide for a season as a fan. St. John joins the throng of Alabama supporters who travel via RV to all of the team's football games. Rammer Jammer is basically an anthropological study of the especially passionate Alabama fans and aims to discover how a college football team can engender such strong emotions from grown adults. St. John is able to write with a sense of detachment but also compassion and empathy for his subjects and he clearly respects them. Consistently thoughtful and occasionally hilarious, Rammer Jammer is my favorite examination of why and how football teams can generate such passion among its fans.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis*
The Blind Side showcases 2 of Lewis' biggest strengths as a writer: his ability to adeptly juggle multiple threads in a coherent and cohesive way and shine a spotlight on truly fascinating people and ideas. You're probably already somewhat familiar with Michael Oher's story at this point, but if you've never read The Blind Side you should seek it out. In addition to covering Oher's byzantine and legitimately unbelievable path to the NFL, Lewis touches upon the evolution of the offensive line in the NFL, the nature of big-school football recruiting, and the life of a student-athlete at a major school. Moneyball had a much larger impact, but I think The Blind Side is Lewis' best effort based solely on the reading experience (the recently-released Undoing Project is also up there).
Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez
Based on the title you may think that Newton's Football exclusively deals with the physics of football (there actually is already a book about that, and it's an okay read but can be a bit dry in parts), but it actually draws from principles from a wide range of the natural and social sciences. There are passages explaining how Prospect Theory accounts for coaches' risk-averse natures and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the West Coast Offense. St. John is a journalist and Ramirez is a "science evangelist" with a Ph.D. from Stanford, and everything from why woodpeckers don't get concussions to the game theory of playcalling is described cogently and in layman-friendly terms. This is another questionable fit categorically but it does draw heavily from the social sciences and I don't think it's the end of the world if my theoretical sociology students get some grounding in the harder sciences that will make them (just slightly) more employable after graduation.
Trashy Player/Coach Memoirs
What kind of low-rent, disreputable blogging establishment do you think I'm running here? These books have no business appearing anywhere on this list. That said, Rex Ryan's book, despite being poorly-written and irrationally pro-Mark Sanchez, it actually kinda entertaining.
My 5 Favorite Football Books
1. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden
2. Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff
3. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
4. Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
5. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John
Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Release Date: April 1, 2017
Sports are seen by many people as escape from the real-world and any social and political issues that might exist therein. And while a day at the ballpark can be an immersive experience, the game is shaped by (and occasionally shapes) societal forces. Perhaps no decade demonstrates the particular connection between baseball and American history better than the 1960's, which was a transformational time for both sectors. In One Nation Under Baseball, John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro present a readable and insightful look at this intersection.
The notion that "sports are divorced from politics" is a bit unbelievable in this day and age (and the same largely held true 60 years ago). Rather than beat down on this strawman, Florio and Shapiro chronicle the political and cultural forces that shaped baseball during the 60's, taking the connection as a given and looking instead at how these forces impacted the game. One Nation Under Baseball touches on the major subjects of the period, including integration and civil rights, the elimination of the reserve clause and embiggening of the player's union, and the Vietnam War and the rise of the counter-culture. Each movement is placed in its proper historical context, though sometimes I felt the authors went into too much detail describing some basic information about events such as the March on Washington and suburbanization of America. The reader is likely already pretty familiar with those events and the authors didn't tread upon any new territory. The book does shine in linking baseball to these shifts, such as Hank Aaron's account of listening to restaurant workers smashing the dinnerware he just had eaten on because none of the restaurant's patrons wanted to eat off the plate of a black person.
The book reads like a documentary film (which isn't surprising given that co-author Shapiro has worked on a handful of them), frequently relying on extended passages of quotes from interviews as well as primary source materials. Everything on baseball is well-researched and the book is greatly enriched by drawing from these sources.
One Nation Under Baseball especially shines when discussing the evolution of baseball media. The 1960's marked a transitional time for newspaper writers. Impacted tremendously by the rise of television and an extended newspaper strike in New York, a new generation of writers called "chipmunks" realized that they needed to shift their approach. Now that fans could figure out who won through watching the news, these new scribes (including George Vecsey of The New York Times and Larry Merchant of The Philadelphia Daily News) focused instead on more long-form articles that provided details on the players' personalities and offered deeper analysis. Also benefiting from primarily writing for afternoon papers with later deadlines, these writers really leveraged their access to players and managers and presented a unique perspective that other mediums couldn't match at the time. The decade also saw the first real efforts of some players to pull back the curtain of big-league life and expose the life of a player, warts and all (but especially the warts) to the general public. This reached a fever pitch(er) with the publication of Jim Bouton's diary of his 1969 season, Ball Four, with its tales of beaver-hunting, drinking, and other sordid affairs (at least to his early-70's audience that hadn't yet been desensitized to athletic indiscretions through exposure to countless incriminating athletic Instagram selfies). The old-guard sportswriters of Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon adhered to a code that generally protected players from such scrutiny, and the 1960's marked the start of a movement of player exposure that would only get more and more intimate (see previous parenthetical statement about incriminating Instagram selfies) as time went on.
Overall, One Nation Under Baseball was a quality read that is worth seeking out for anyone fitting into the Venn diagram intersection of being interested in baseball and history. This is the second baseball-related book I've read from University of Nebraska Press this year and both were considerably entertaining and light reads. Definitely seek this out if the premise sounds intriguing to you.
7 / 10
Friday, 17 February 2017
Release Date: March 1, 2017
The increased democratization of publishing and the rise of long-tail, niche content have likely lowered the bar for what constitutes a team/season worth memorializing in a book. Thankfully, the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, a ragtag assemblage of castoffs from other teams that went from last place to first and the World Series, make for good reading. William Kashatus' new book on the subject, Macho Row, is a light and enjoyable volume on one of the quirkier MLB teams of recent memory.
Macho Row is structured like most "single-season-retrospective" books, with a particular focus on the colorful characters employed by the Phillies in 1993. Kashatus devotes a good bit of his attention on the denizens "Macho Row," an especially-raucous section of the clubhouse where stars Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Pete Incavlia, and Dave Hollins resided. The book delves into the backstories of each member and these extended profiles were the highlight of the book for me. Dykstra, who was bursting at the seams with equal parts passion, hubris, and recklessness and the deceptively-clever Kruk were particularly compelling to read about. Kashatus got to interview many major players for the book and these interviews helped further enrich the sketches of each player. Macho Row doesn't actually get to the start of the season until about a third through the book, with extended passages on about half of Macho Row as well as some background on the Phillies and how their fortunes took a pretty severe dip after winning the World Series in 1980 and the NL East in 1983.
There are a few more biographical digressions peppered in the rest of the book but once the account of the season starts the book can get a bit monotonous. Kashatus seems to give brief summaries of each series over the season with a few basic statistics and noting the top performers. While most readers likely do not remember the game-by-game fate of the Phillies in 1993 it still doesn't make for the most gripping prose and occasionally feels like reading a massive volume of Associated Press game recaps (a frequent gripe I have with this type of book in general). This is further exacerbated by the fact that the Phils were largely cruising through their 1993 campaign, beginning every month of the season in first place. Besides a September slump that briefly injected a bit of suspense into the NL East title race, there wasn't a ton of drama. The fact that a rag-tag team of castoffs that finished in last place the previous year won their division the following season was remarkable, but the way they did so was rather humdrum (which makes their dominance even more remarkable, but not always the most captivating reading material when recounted). Kashatus' occasional asides on baseball's "code" also aren't going to be tremendously illuminating for a reader who is a big enough baseball fan to pick up a book about the Phillies' 1993 campaign. Furthermore, such an emphasis doesn't make a ton of sense given that several major Phillies such as Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra blatantly broke key components of the code during the season and over the course of their careers.
Those issues aside, the overall reading experience is a pleasant one and I'm ultimately glad I read Macho Row. Kashatus, a historian and college professor who has previously written books on American and baseball history, writes well and does an excellent job linking the trends of the 1993 season with what came before it and what followed, such as how the Phillies served as the inspiration for Billy Beane's Moneyball philosophy. Macho Row is a good read that will help pass the time until Opening Day. I don't think it quite has the "crossover" appeal to be worth being read by non-Phillies fans as if you're a big baseball fan you probably already are familiar with these players' basic backgrounds and careers but Phillies fans should get a lot out of it and enjoy revisiting one of the team's better seasons with some additional insight and interviews from the squad.
6.5 / 10
Thursday, 22 December 2016
If you're the kind of person who demonstrates an iota of interest in The Best American Magazine Writing 2016, this year has probably been a bit rough for you. A lot of famous people you probably liked died, a sovereignty left an occasionally bumbling but ultimately good-intentioned continental trading bloc that you want to stay together, and the American presidential election likely didn't turn out the way you preferred. I'd definitely understand if you wanted nothing more to do with the seventeenth year of the second millennium and any magazine articles written during the period. Thankfully, the series adheres to the "we're just going to inflate the year by 1" Madden-style naming system that confuses grandmas everywhere and these pieces were all published in the relatively halcyon days of 2015. Despite this, the collection tackles some heady and depressing subjects. There are articles about rape, ebola, immigrants getting treated like garbage, devastating earthquakes, and the book can feel unceasingly bleak when it strings together a series of these in a row. Now these are all important topics worthy of plenty of ink and attention, but I feel like they could have been ordered in a way that was a little less wrenching for the reader in the book, and some didn't really seem to do much to advance the discourse on their issues. As is generally the case with these collections, there are a few strong essays surrounded by less captivating fare, but ultimately the standout essays are just enough to justify the price of admission.
The book compiles the best magazine articles written in 2015 as decided by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It is organized by category and includes the top single-topic, feature, and reporting articles as well as the best essays and commentaries. This structure can make the feature and reporting section a bit of an emotionally-draining slog and it would have been nice to intersperse some of the other articles with a smidgen more levity in between them. The major highlight for me were Kathryn Schulz's The Really Big One from The New Yorker which lucidly explains the prospect of an absolutely devastating earthquake hitting the western United States and is a shining example of describing distilling complex scientific and geological concepts into digestible prose that even a harebrained book-reviewing MBA student can understand. I also absolutely loved Barrett Brown's correspondences from prison for The Intercept. Brown is apparently a government transparency rabble-rouser who is down with Wikileaks and was sentenced to 5 years in prison for threatening an FBI officer and some other offenses associated with an FBI investigation into an email leak. The articles riff on a wide variety of topics, from reviewing Jonathan Franzen's Purity to proudly retelling instances of him raising rabble in prison. Brown is wickedly clever and writes with absurd levels of snark and contempt for his current position, while also fully aware of how ridiculous it is that he is surrounded by hardened criminals praying in jury-rigged shrines so that they could be blessed with being served potato wedges for lunch rather than potato chips. I could see some readers finding Brown to be grating, but I really enjoyed the 3 articles by him included in the book. Finding out about articles like these are why I always try to pick up these volumes each year.
There were a few articles that didn't really capture my interest at all and seemed to drag on for a while. Most notable was Paul Ford's What is Code, which did a decent job at arguing why code is important but a far worse at being entertaining and readable. A few of the other articles, such as Meaghan Winter's reporting on abortion clinics touched upon important subjects but didn't convey much new information to anyone reasonably knowledgeable on the topic. Still, the overall reading experience was pleasant and I give the selection panel credit for culling from so many different sources, from Cosmopolitan and Vice to The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. I recommend you pick this up if you've enjoyed the past volumes or are just a fan of longform journalism in general.
6 / 10