Sunday, 20 October 2013

Advance Book Review: Newton's Football by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez

Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence

The slate of football books released in a given year are usually rather predictable. You will have a fair share of memoirs from players and coaches associated with Super Bowl winners or national champions striking while the iron is hot, historical books playing off of the nostalgia for a particular team and/or era, and a few exposes decrying the big business of football and the physical and mental dangers associated with it. I have nothing against these books, and recently quite enjoyed Nate Jackson's memoir Slow Getting Up, but I still get excited when I find more distinctive books like Newton's Football.Written by a journalist and a former engineering professor at Yale, Newton's Football applies pop science to the gridiron with largely engaging results. It is a light and breezy read worth the attention of any inquisitive football fan.

While its title may suggest a physics-heavy approach, Newton's Football actually covers a very wide scope of the natural and social sciences (those solely interested in the physics of the game should seek out Timothy Gay's sometimes dry but generally enjoyable The Physics of Football). Topics range from what the uncanny valley can tell us about the game's violent nature, how prospect theory explains coaches' risk-averse natures, and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the effectiveness of the West Coast offense. Drawing illuminating connections between seemingly unintuitive concepts is a hallmark of many nonfiction books, but very few of these books to my knowledge deal exclusively with football. Newton's Football can best be described as Scorecasting with more of a natural sciences focus, and I think both books are some of the best sports works released in the past few years.

Despite running the scientific gamut, Newton's Football is actually very well-organized. It begins by analyzing the evolution of the rules of the game from the game's early roots when games were contested with a pig bladder to the A-11 offense. This might sound dry but the authors do an excellent job describing the strategic and health consequences of rule tweaks large and small. They also offer up the intriguing hypothesis that Paul Brown's invention of the facemask (originally intended to protect quarerback Otto Graham's much-maligned face) had the unintended consequence of making the game more dangerous by decreasing the costs of reckless play, similar to how seatbelts might actually increase driving injuries due to encouraging riskier automotive behavior. It proceeds to cover aspects of the current NFL and its players and concludes with a look into the future of the NFL and the safety issues threatening the viability of the sport. The book never drags and is consistently engrossing, whether it is describing why woodpeckers don't get concussions and the ridiculous explosion in 300 pound players starting in the eighties.

Academics writing for a general audience sometimes struggle at maintaining a balance between providing sufficient academic heft and keeping the reader from getting bogged down in unnecessary detail and abstruse concepts. Additionally, as evidenced by the flood of journal articles I had to slog through as an undergraduate, some academics aren't the best writers out there. Newton's Football avoids this pitfall by employing the writing talents of an academic and sportswriter. The prose is breezy and all scientific concepts are explained very clearly with excellent examples. The book also calls upon other experts to explain particular concepts and how they relate to football, allowing them to draw from a huge knowledge base. This is probably the only book containing interviews with former Bengals coach Sam Wyche and particle physicist and math homework godsend Stephen Wolfram within its pages. While they tread some familiar territory regarding subject matter, the scientific emphasis allows the reader to glean some insight from most sections. For example, I already knew about how Greg Cook's injury led to Bill Walsh creating the West Coast offense with the Bengals, but I did not know that the offense's binary-esque decision process led to Dwight Clark's perfect positioning during "The Catch" when Walsh coached the 49ers. While the book deals with some advanced football and scientific subjects, I wish they went more in-depth on particular sections, such as explaining Vince Lombardi's decision-payoff matrix and risk aversion of fourth down. These topics have been covered in more detail in other books and don't add as much to the discussion as other chapters in the book. But really that is the biggest thing I can knock the book on: I wish it was longer. Which is definitely one of the better problems a reader can have. 

In Sum
Newton's Football is a fun and breezy read that is easy to read but has some intellectual depth. It is a highly-enjoyable romp through the intersection of the natural sciences and football and is likely to change how you think about the game and may even teach you something about the behavior of prolate spheroids and the neurological benefits of practice reps. I wish the authors went into greater detail analyzing certain subjects, but the fact remains that this is one of the most entertaining football books I have read in a while and narrowly beats Slow to Get Up as my favorite football book released this year. If you didn't catch the Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence at the top of the review I would like to reiterate that I highly recommend this book to any football fan with intellectual curiosity about the sport.


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