Our list of good sport literature reads

March 20, 2011

As I wrap up editorial work on two books for my publishing house – Sport, Race, and Ethnicity: Narratives of Difference and Diversity, and Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game,  I’m realizing that I’ve had a wonderful experience editing these two works. The first, edited byDaryl Adair, features essays from a multitude of international scholars in the fields of sport history, sport management, sport and culture, sociology, communications, and then some—all on the topics of race, ethnicity, and aboriginality in sport. The second book is a collection of essays by scholar Braham Dabscheck on the varying underpinnings of baseball: labor relations, sentimentalism, ambassadorship, race, and culture.

From my standpoint as a reader only, I have to say that these two books are wonderful, and although “pegged” as sport pseudo-academia (I say this because of the entertaining value on top of the intellectual value), they shouldn’t be confined by the framework of sport. These books are for anyone with an interest in humanity. Sport serves only as the vehicle to deliver the stories.

Which brings me to my topic: Too often I see hungry readers, who have no vested interest in sports, bypassing sport literature. As an editor, writer, and journalist, I feel I must make a case for sport literature as a foundation for humanity. The best way to do this is to take a look at a solid reading list, hand-picked by scholars. Attached below is a recommended reading list by writers and scholars in the field—Dr. Steven Pope, Dr. Braham Dabscheck, and Dr. John Nauright (see bottom of article for biographies):

The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (1994), by Gerald Early. From the jacket: “The sport of prizefighting forms the intellectual core and central metaphor of this celebrated collection by one of our most daring writers. Early’s subjects, though, range far and wide—his insights and expertise illuminate subjects from multiculturalism, Black History Month, and baseball to racist memorabilia, Malcolm X, early jazz music, and the raising of daughters. Important and captivating, The Culture of Bruising, as William Gass has written, ‘provide[s] for the reader an almost continuous revelation.’”

Beyond a Boundary (1963), by C.L.R. James. John Nauright says, “In the book James recounts the history and legacy of colonialism in his native Trinidad and how that history impacted on his own life and on the development of the sport of cricket in the Caribbean. James, a leading Marxist influenced scholar, was influenced by his favorite novel, Vanity Fair and was a life long passionate follower of cricket, not a sport usually associated with the masses. In the West Indies, however, cricket did become a lingua franca that permeated all classes and races. Beyond a Boundary tells this story with passionate expression, keen cultural insight and a political edge that all merge to generate a compelling study of history, culture, politics and sport in the Caribbean.”

Crossing Boundaries: An International Anthology of Women’s Experiences in Sport (1999), edited by Susan Bandy and Anne S. Darden. From the jacket: “Crossing Boundaries is the first anthology of its kind—international in scope, cross-cultural in context, and uniquely female in content. The collection includes poetry, short stories, prose memoirs, dramas, and journalistic works by women from over twenty countries, including such celebrated contemporary authors as Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Wislawa Szymborska, and Joyce Carol Oates. The female voices that resonate through these works are often angular, raging, and knowing; at other times they are soft, melodic, peaceful, and yearning.

Baseball: The Early Years / Baseball: The Golden Age, by Harold Seymour, Oxford University Press, New York, 1960 / 1971. From Dabscheck: “Early work that demonstrated that sport was capable of research and writings norms associated with other areas of scholarship.”

Eight Men out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, by Eliot Asinof, Owl Book, New York, 1987 (first published 1963). From Dabscheck: “A classic study of one of the greatest scandals in the history of sport.”

Lapham’s Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 3, (Summer 2010). This edition is titled “Sport & Games.” From Lapham’s introduction: “One not need be American to know that sport is play and play is freedom. It’s not a secret kept from children in Tahiti or Brazil. Dogs romp, whales leap, penguins dance. That play is older than the kingdoms of the Euphrates and the Nile is a truth told by the Dutch scholar, Johan Hizinga, in Homo Ludents, his study of history that discovers in the ‘primeval soil of play’ the origin of ‘the great instinctive forces of civilized life,’ of myth and ritual, law and order, poetry and science. ‘Play,’ he said, ‘cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.’”

Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, by Adrian Burgos Jr., University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles and London, 2007. From Dabscheck: “A nuanced account of the changing role of Latinos in the national pastime and nuances and subtleties associated with race in the American experience.”

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball, by Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathan Cape, London, 2004. Dabscheck says, “One of the great thinkers of modern times demonstrates how logic and scientific method can be applied to unravelling various aspects of American baseball.”

Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, by John Helyar, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994. Dabscheck: “An account of the internal operations of an unstable cartel.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Sports writing, Gay Talese, and the human drama: a review

January 25, 2011

[Braham Dabscheck is an industrial relations scholar, sports writer and enthusiast, and author of the upcoming title, Reading Baseball: Books, Biographies, and the Business of the Game, to be published this summer, 2011, by FiT. He has written extensively on many aspects of sport, and he continues with that tradition today by offering a review of The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese, by Michael Rosenwald, 2010. Dabscheck is a man proper from Down Under, and out of respect for his Australian English, no edits have been made to his vernacular.]

Michael Rosenwald (ed.), The Silent Season of a Hero: The Sports Writing of Gay Talese, Walker & Company, New York, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8027-7753-9, pp. viii + 308, US $16.00, paper.

Gay Talese is a leading American writer and journalist. He is now into his seventh decade of writing. Besides his journalism and The Silent Season of a Herohe has published eleven other books. They range over such matters as the Italian immigrant experience, American sexuality, a mafia family, New York, bridge building, a behind the scenes peek of the New York Times, portraits of leading American characters, musings on writing and an edited work of short stories.

In the Introduction to The Silent Season of a Hero Talese points to a mesmerising sentence penned by Carson McCullen, in a piece entitled The Jockey that appeared in the New Yorker on 23 August 1941. It reads, “If he eats a lamb chop, you can see the shape of it in his stomach a hour later”. He read this in 1956 when he was 24 and found himself fascinated by the imagery of the sentence. He goes on to say that in his writing he sought to apply the skills of fiction writing to non fiction (p. 3). He modelled himself on Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw, the latter two writers with theNew Yorker.

Talese came to writing by chance. Lorin Angevine, a customer of his father, who was a tailor in Ocean City, New Jersey, asked Talese to contribute articles to his weekly, the Sentinel-Ledger on “High School Highlights”. He also wrote a column called “Sportopics”. He was unsuccessful in his quest to find a college in his region after graduating from high school. Another friend of his father contacted his alma mater, the University of Alabama, who agreed to enrol Talese in a journalism course. By his junior year he was writing sports stories for the Crimson-White. After graduating he landed a job as a copyboy with the New York Times in 1953.

Michael Rosenwald, a staff writer with the Washington Post has brought together some of the best examples of Talese’s sports writing. Rosenwald tells us that Talese was an outsider at school and rejected the approach that his journalism teachers, of who-what-when-where-why, tried to drill into him (pp.17-19). There are also indications that Talese had more than a few battles with editors over his approach to writing. Talese from a young age had worked out how he wanted to write and held steadfast to his views. The proof of his pudding is in its eating.

Talese’s sports writing is really unconcerned with who won or lost. He is more concerned with the playing out of the human drama, of those who find themselves caught up in the spider’s web that is sport. Talese is interested in the oddball, or what others might regard or tangential matters associated with sport. There are three issues which feature in The Silent Season of a Hero. First, there are those persons who operate apart from or outside the gaze of the mainstream of sport; whether they be a boxing referee, the time-keeper of boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, a boxing trainer, a former bare-knuckle boxer, a female golfing star, a female roller derby veteran, a horseshoe maker, a barbell exponent, a mouth guard making dentist or a baseball (off the field) sports agent. Second, he is fascinated by losers; of how they respond to loss and coming to grips with the pressure of unrealised expectations; whether it be Floyd Paterson after being shown up twice by Sonny Liston or the female Chinese soccer player Liu Ying, who missed her kick in the penalty shoot out in the 1999 Female World Cup, which was won by America. Third, the pathos of former stars, such as Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali who, in different ways, find themselves trapped in a glorious life lived long, long ago.

The Silent Season of a Hero comprises 38 chapters. They range in length to little more than a page, pieces written for a newspaper, to longer pieces over 25 pages for magazines or other publications. Seventeen are devoted to boxing, four each to baseball and more general issues, three to golf, two to football and the rest are spread across a broad range of sports. One piece is pure whimsy where Talese gives full rein to his humour. He refers to a social anthropologist, a Dr. Ray Birdwhistell who devoted his life to studying athletes who perform “merely to provide Roman circuses for customers: (p. 200). Amongst other things, this chapter highlights the vulnerability of male athletes, who by stint of circumstances and the demands of monastic minded coaches are forced into all male environments, and “just never seemed to learn how to defend themselves against a marrying woman” (p. 188). The good Dr. also noted how those who can play baseball are subject to the revenge of those hopeless kids in sandlot games who were chosen last and forced to play right field who subsequently became sports writers or managers (p. 194). His more substantive point is that athletes who go to college should be given six year scholarships, so that those, the majority, who do not make it to the big time, can be given a real education to enable them to obtain a career and earn a decent living (p. 200).

The chapters included here range from pieces written by Talese as a school boy and then college reporter to his early professional writing where he established his reputation, through to his more mature years. His skill is in his combination of character and narrative. Talese is able to pull readers into the scene, drama and the various persons he is writing about. Especially with his portrayal of his “out of sight” characters I had the feeling that I could see them, knew how they walked, how they dressed, even what they ate for lunch. His most poignant pieces are those of the stars of yesterday: Joe Louis filling in time in his good natured way; Joe DiMaggio’s loneliness in not knowing what to do with the rest of his life; and the awkwardness of the meeting between Muhammad Ali’s meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1996, when “The Greatest” presented a photo of himself and Malcolm X taken on 1963. El Presidente had many skills, but one of them was not one unscripted small talk.

My favourite chapter is “The Loser” on Floyd Paterson, which was first published in 1964, as he seeks to come to terms with his second loss to Sonny Liston. Amongst other things the chapter demonstrates Paterson’s inability to stand up to school boys who are teasing his daughter. There is something in Talese that enables him to obtain the confidence of those who he finds interesting. Paterson opens up to him and explains how in boxing he found a way to escape the poverty of his family circumstances and his sense of inferiority and self loathing. Paterson told Talese

When you’re hungry, you’re not choosy, and so I chose the thing that was closest to me. That was boxing. One day I just wandered into a gymnasium and boxed a boy. And I beat him. Then I boxed another boy. I beat him too. Then I kept boxing. And winning. And I said, “Here, finally, is something I can do!” (pp. 162-3).

Michael Rosenwald tells us that Gay Talese wrote 37 articles on Floyd Paterson (p. 111). Why so many? While the circumstances of Paterson’s and Talese’s early years are radically different, they had in common the problem of finding something to do. They both turned to “the thing that was closest to” them. In Paterson’s case it was boxing, something which he found himself; for Talese it was the pen; something which his father’s acquaintances found for him. Being an outsider Talese was fascinated by and never lost his compassion for other outsiders and those who struggled against overwhelming odds; whether themselves, the fickle finger of fate or the negotiation of the long and sad descent into irrelevance. This is what gave Gay Talese his edge and propelled him to the centre stage of American writing and journalism.

© Braham Dabscheck

Faculty of Law

University of Melbourne

 


NFL’s 18-game season: 8 reasons to think twice about it

October 8, 2010

Hines Ward has a point. The veteran Steelers’ receiver believes that he might be the “last double-digit guy” to play in the NFL, meaning that once the season is extended to 18 games, most players are going to retire from football before they reach a decade of playing time. Ward, like other NFL athletes, usually has a difficult time finishing out the season—the wear and tear from frequent blocking, tackling, and running can take a mean toll throughout the year for any NFL athlete. ESPN.com mentioned that Ward’s shoulders ache badly with every pass reception, and his legs take heavy wear and tear on artificial turf surfaces, not to mention he gets tackled by some of the world’s biggest and fastest athletes.

Although the proposal for adding two games includes taking away two games from the preseason, there can be no denying the vast differences in pre-season and regular season play when it comes to taking a toll on first-string, first-rate players like Ward.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a large proportion of league owners want the extended season, because, as Goodell says, it “would give fans more games worth watching and eliminate some that are next to meaningless.” Also, it must be noted, the fans aren’t so crazy about the preseason, either.

But let’s call this for what it is: Money. I can guarantee you Goodell isn’t supporting this because of the soft spot in his heart for the fans, and just as well the players certainly want to get paid the most they can get. As the NFL has become more commercialized and organized throughout the years, the seasons have increased in length—in the 1950s, schedules were 12 games long; in the 60s it grew to 14 games. With a longer stretch of 18 games, we’re likely to see a lot of extra money changing hands—through TV channel deals, advertisements, ticket sales, concessions—so far at the expense of the players. But should we care? They, after all, are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and they are playing to the wishes of the fan base. At least the players don’t seem to be hiding behind the pretense that they are only concerned about injuries and time on the road.

“I might get in trouble, I might get a call, but it’s all about money,” said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. “If you want guys to play 18 games, there is some ways guys are going to have to be compensated for that.” Clark also made a good observation when he said that the NFL is contradicting itself after levying new rules to protect players from concussions and injuries, yet is now pushing to put players into a new realm of injury threats.

Steelers’ Charlie Batch has the dubious distinction of being the team’s player representative, and he, according to ESPN, is opposed to expansion because of the risk of injury, something injury-prone Batch knows well. But even he, like others, admits the concept of a longer season in the 21st century will be a new beast. But what can we expect to change? What should we look for?

1. Injuries will rise: Yes, there might be an equal amount of games, but seriously folks, preseason football is like watching college lacrosse—mildly entertaining, but in the end nobody outside of the lacrosse community really cares. In the NFL pre-season we get to watch for new talent, unused quarterbacks, and third stringers trying to make the cut, but without the fun and fanfare of a good intercollegiate game. Lackluster performances by the first-tiered starters mar the action, and the heat is dialed way down, compared to the spine-shaking hits and daring passes into double tomahawk coverage that accompanies play later on in the season–when it counts.

2. The hidden talent dynamic will shift: According to technews.com, Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday,the Colts’ quarterback and center, believe an 18-game season could work severely against undrafted rookies that are trying to make the team. Indianapolis is one of the league’s best at discovering overlooked and hidden talent, and could very well suffer from the advantages of pre-season rookie jubilees. Untested and unproven players will have fewer opportunities to showcase their talents in real games, and will therefore miss out on valuable roster positions.

3. The roster size will expand: As players become injured, strained, and fatigued, someone will have to fill the gaps, so we should anticipate larger drafting pools and a deeper dip into the well of new talent.

4. Network TV wars: This depends on how the NFL sorts out the bye weeks. They might altogether lose the bye weeks (in order to ratchet out a more fluid, regular season schedule), and fuse a schedule that lands games on Thursdays and Saturdays, which might cause the divorce rate to skyrocket. Does this mean we’re going to have more regular games going to cable coverage? It’s already a nasty smack against the blue collar Joes and Janes that can’t afford to watch ESPN for some Monday Night Football action. It just ain’t American.

5. The NCAA might get angry: If games are pushed into Saturday, we’ll be watching two bloated, cumbersome, money-hogging juggernauts slapping each other upside the helmet for financial rights to the Saturday piece of football pie. Think about it. Texas/OU’s Red River Rivalry, or the Cowboy/Redskins game? Some fans will probably spontaneously explode, or fantasy football players won’t have enough time to scout players prior to their fantasy drafts.

6. Losing teams will hurt more financially: By the NFL’s statistics, 14 franchises didn’t make money or were in the red last year. Let’s imagine the Raider fans being asked to pick up a hike in revenue to cover the cost of two more games that nobody wants to attend. You tell them the news, because I’m not going to do it.

7. What about the (not so little) linemen?: Getting personal, Sean Bubin, a friend and former NFL lineman, spoke to me about the dregs of being on the line. Bubin was drafted in 2004 by the Jaguars, and he played for the Lions and Vikings before spending time abroad with the Hamburg Sea Devils for NFL Europe—he retired at the ripe old age of 26. “I seized up—I couldn’t bend my limbs anymore,” said Bubin. “It happens to a lot of us.” Medical News Today cites that the average NFL career length in 2008 was 4.6 years, and only 7% of players made it past Hines Ward’s magic double-digit number of 10 seasons in the league. We may say we’re paying NFL players a boatload of money, but when you waste your body away in four or five years, that money better be worth it. According to the Boston Globe, Bubin only made $360,000 in his final, one-year contract with the New England Patriots.

8. DUI incidents will rise: Okay, so I made this one up, but it sounded good. And I’ll probably be right.


“No Goal” Jabulani – is it all in the ball?

June 17, 2010

Although players will forever complain about new game balls, the Jabulani has been at the epicenter of this year's ultra-low scoring World Cup.

Without a doubt, the first round of World Cup soccer has been rather light in the goal-scoring department. According to the BBC, compared to other World Cup events at this stage of play, it has been 80 years since there have been so few goals. Although conditions have been a bit soggy during the South African winter, players and managers are raising a fuss over the new ball, the Jabulani.

Every World Cup, new game balls are designed, utilizing the latest advances in technology. The problem is, however, that this year’s ball might be over stabilized, causing the ball to keep it’s “lift.” However, according to the ball manufacturer, Adidas, the Jabulani is equipped with “air grooves” that “allow the ball to be handled more accurately than ever before.” Additionally, the ball underwent extensive testing in Loughborough University in England, the Adidas football laboratory in Scheinfeld, Germany, and in wind tunnels. Also involved in the testing were Adidas partners AC Milan, FC Bayern Munchen, the Orlando Pirates, and Ajax Cape Town, who all made suggestions for improvement during testing.

Pictured is a breakaway photo illustration of the paneling design of the Jabulani.

So why are players suddenly complaining now?

First, in case you haven’t been following the World Cup, it seems that every hard shot taken from 30 meters out seems to fly over the posts. As if to culminate this statement, an announcer for the Nigeria v. Greece match said, “Oh dear, it seems that you just can’t shoot this ball from far out or it will hang in the air every time,” referring to Uche’s sail-away shot that looked more like a rugby kick. Also, I’ve seen on at least two occasions where the announcer has claimed that an oddly flying shot was a result of a deflection off of another player, then retracted the statement after an instant replay.

Looking at scoring highlights, it certainly seems that a vast majority of the goals are scored close in: Argentina appears to be doing better with headed goals and deflected shots. USA scored a fluke off of a handling error from England’s goalkeeper. Switzerland upset super-favored Spain with a bungling, tumbling goal. Greece upset Nigeria with a goalie’s mishandled, low-angle shot (and ultimately most likely because of a red card, but that’s another story). It also appears that high crosses—passes from one side of the field to the other—seem to sail past their target on many instances, forcing the wings to sprint down their prey.

But can the ball really be to blame? After all, if the ball is out of control, wouldn’t that force the goalies to cope with harder shots to deflect? Adidas also claims that the Jabulani is made for “stability in all weather situations.” If this is true, then we shouldn’t put too much blame on the modestly wet and cool conditions.

Also mentioned by BBC blogger David Bond is the oft-repeated complaint that the European soccer season is too long. As if to accentuate this point, I should point out the successes of Asia’s teams—Japan and South Korea won their openers, and North Korea put up a much better fight than expected—showcasing the much different season that Asian teams face.

Also mentioned in a passing statement by Argentina’s coach Maradona was a passing missive against the hybrid turf in South Africa’s stadiums (which doesn’t really explain why the ball flies so far in the air).

But whatever the reasoning may be, there is no disputing that it’s difficult to pinpoint any other consistent factor that has been responsible for such a low number in goals from some of the world’s best long distance strikers.


Female Student-Athletes and Sporting Violence

March 25, 2010

Elizabeth Lambert was suspended indefinitely after her aggression on the soccer field vs BYU

Last year, Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount sucker punched Boise State’s Byron Hout at the end of a hotly contested football game after Hout mouthed off. This month, Baylor’s Brittney Griner decked Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle after a Lone Star shoving spree during a women’s basketball game. The events were remarkably similar: a college athlete overreacted with a swinging fist during a tense game. The only difference is that Griner’s actions seem to accent a growing trend of violence and aggression in women’s athletics; something that the public eye is finding both a novelty and a blight.   

A recent New York Times story highlighted some of the more recent high-profile events attributed to over-aggressive female college and high school athletes: New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert slammed her BYU opponent to the ground by the ponytail; women’s basketball rivals Georgetown and Louisville threw some pre-game punches; and a Providence, R.I., high school girls’ soccer game erupted in fights on the field and in the stands.  

Whether or not women are becoming more violent during sporting events, the real question is “why?” 

Dr. Jack Watson, chair of the Department of Sports Sciences and an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University, said that in order to get a better understanding of why women athletes may be trending towards violence, we should take into account the very nature of women’s athletics today compared to a generation ago. 

“We’re putting more pressure on women’s sports,” said Watson. “It used to be about merely having a coach, but now there is a lot of competition and we’re putting more money into coaching, and coaches need to win.” 

West Virginia University professor of sport and exercise psychology and psychologist for the school’s athletic department, Dr. Ed Etzel remarked that student-athletes, regardless of sex, are influenced by role models and media outlets.

Watson echoed the sentiment: “It’s all a form of societal learning.”

In the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, the following excerpt appeared in the article “Aggression and Violence in Sport,” which was published in 2003: 

[A] recent article in Referee Magazine . . . presents the view that poor sportsmanship at the professional level has led to similar problems among high school athletes. Mike Pereira, Director of Officiating for the National Football League (of American Football; NFL) is quoted as saying, “The pros and college sports have a huge impact on the play of the game at lower levels.” 

One could argue that college sports are on a “lower level” just as much as high school sports; both collegiate and high school athletes, male and female, have access to the same media outlets that broadcasts MLB brawls and WNBA scuffles. And both male and female student-athletes seem to respond similarly, if recent events are any indication of what is to be commonplace. 

“If [students] see a particular modeling of behavior in the media by peers and others in professional sports, they begin to change what they see as acceptable behavior,” said Etzel.

As students adopt new attitudes toward what is acceptable sportsmanship behavior during competition and training, they carry those attitudes with them as they become new parents. While this is old hat for men, the territory may be new for most women.

“We’re now seeing children born to moms and dads that were post-Title IX kids,” said Watson. “We’re into the second generation of females now.” 

Because of the inroads laid by Title IX and the work of countless women, female student-athletes now have unprecedented access to sports—and increasing competition—when it comes to sporting activities, and they are working as hard as their male counterparts. Watson observed that women are spending as much time in the gym as men, but their determination extends well beyond training. “Women are just as competitive as men on the court,” he said. 

Brittney Grimes was handed a two-game suspension for her punch that broke Barncastle’s nose. LeGarrette Blount was punished by a season-ending suspension, but was reinstated late in the season. The Oregonian reported that Blount’s incident dropped his NFL stock, and he went from “probably a second round draft pick to pretty much undraftable.” 

Although Grimes’s and Blount’s punishments were drastically different, repercussions and penalties for violent and aggressive behavior vary greatly. Lambert, for example, was suspended for the season after her hair-yanking fiasco. But how should athletic organizations find common ground when punishing violence and aggression?

“I have a radical idea,” said Etzel, “Perhaps we should consider these behaviors as crimes as they would likely be seen off the court and on the street?”

** 

Dr. Ed Etzel is the editor of Counseling and Psychological Services for College Student-Athletes and is coauthoring a chapter in a forthcoming handbook on sport and exercise psychology with Dr. Jack Watson; these books and the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at www.fitinfotech.com.