02 September 2013

When Is Sport Not Political?

Should sports be the bread or the circus that entertains and diverts the masses? No definitive answer from Northeastern U. law prof Roger Abrams' Playing Tough but plenty of examples of both in the historic and philosophic chronicle of the flirtatious relationship of nationalism (or regionalism) and politics.

It might be more traditional to talk workers on Labor Day, but since it is also a traditional kickoff for voters beginning to pay attention to an upcoming election perhaps it is worth a listen as well to a discussion that moves from an ancient Greek who acted as a free agent Olympic athlete to how Adolf Hitler, who never won more than one-third the votes from his own population, but managed to win over a good bit of the world thanks to Olympics, to how hooligans in sports become militants in politics and war, to NBA star Earl "the Pearl" Monroe's take on how political talk was part of the bond of the last Knick team to claim a championship (40 years ago, if you happen to be counting).

Maybe bread and circuses shouldn't be the only answer?

29 August 2013

College Football Corrupt, Sun Shining

The sports-book world is all aflutter, thanks to  ESPN's Jeffrey Benedict and CBS's Armen Keyetian's The System, that college football is a corrupt and corrupting business that millions enjoy watching.

In addition to Johny Football's having to warm up for thirty extra minutes while his A&M teammates are pounding on Rice, this is the "big" story in the last days of a countdown to this year's college football season beginning this weekend. Heat, hype and, admittedly, hopelessness for those with brains turned only to the channel on a black/white TV tunted to a movie plotted around high principled "amateurs" fighting gentlemanly for old Alma Mater.

... and this is news? It's like reading ESPN has barrelfuls of money from people, many of whom never watch it, that it spends in the spirit of a drunken sailor (in charge of programming for shipmates who then pay him more money)  to gain greater and greater dominance of televised sports.

Sex scandals (well, at least flirting scandals where team "supporters" cast their college co-ed wiles in person and by social media toward certain high school recruits). Money scandals (from small handouts to high end gifts, trip and megabuck family support) to the redefinition of academics for "students" at the big money (and aspirational little money) schools. Apparently, football corrupts and absolute football devotion corrupts absolutely. Ho hum. Bring on the band and cheerleaders.

College football in Division I (and into Division II, as well) is all about not forcing the jocksniffing administrative and legislative folks (mostly, white, affluent, male power figures) too far outside pleasure domes,while entertaining the masses who -- to date anyway -- don't care which young men or women or "values" are sacrificed, as long as the destroyed are not put on display.

It's all there in the book, enjoyable in the downtime between the next "game of the week or year or century" between State's and U's pros.

18 August 2013

How to Make a Great Athlete? Tell a Great Story.

Maybe the most important thing about The Sports Gene is that it doesn't exist.

The book – the one promised with the title – about the prime biological basis common to great athletes is not what Sports Illustrated's David Epstein actually wrote and published. Not that inherent physicality isn't important to who the athlete becomes and how well he plays. Epstein discovers that in his own life. It's just that there isn't one gene.

The "opposite" is also not true. The title is not ironic in that he writes about how great athletes somehow correctly apply the often misunderstood meme of 10,000 hours of practice to greatness is also not true.

It turns out, pretty much as experience of generation upon generation teaches — some great athletes have great athletic children, many don't and non- or mid-level athletes produced great athletes — that everything matters, nature, nurture, luck and early specialization is a key, except when it isn't. What matters most – and what never makes it into the title or sub-title – is that while the sum of the person's existence plays a part in the development of a great athlete there may be nothing that matters more than the context by which his or her public frames the athlete's story. In something of a sports application of the old and famed zen koan: if a talent is outsized but nobody appreciates it is the athlete really that great?

In other words, appreciation makes the athlete; since we can't define or appreciate "the gene," it doesn't exist. The book, on the other hand, does.

03 August 2013

Love His Fitness Plan, Love Djokovic

Ability, acclaim and accomplishment do not necessarily equal widespread adoration. Like a politician sending out his bio as the first flagstone on a campaign trail, Novak Djokovic’s Serve to Win is being published on the eve of the US Open — the couple weeks when more than a few million Americans pay attention to tennis — and with an agenda (most likely) of racking up a few bucks and lots of new fans.

A devoted tennis player who works incredibly hard at his craft,  but can’t seem to understand why that doesn't translate to worship outside his native country, Djokovic (and his father) seem frustrated that he is not (so far) reaping the goodwill expended to most recent tennis No. 1s Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. So, to win over adherents, why not tell a very sanitized version of one’s life story: maybe if people understood they would appreciate more. And it’s relatively easy money since it seems unlikely the intelligent, but relatively unschooled Serb spent much time actually typing his tale.

Djokovic’s book, built around the theme of a  14-day turn-around-your-life fitness plan and how he went glutenless as a prelude to champion status, includes the sympathetic story of life as Serbia was bombed for its government’s refusal to end the middle Europa crisis it initiated in the 90s. It also offers hints as to how hard the world Tennis No 1 works to discipline his life and maintain his standing. The book, created in the service of fighting the paradigm that fervent partisanship is, alas, not the same as widespread devotion, is something of a practice session. Lessons learned will, no doubt, be applied when the real game begins with his actual autobiography ... whenever that comes out.

28 July 2013

Ruppert Slides Home, Ahe Standing in Left Field

With the induction ceremony taking place this afternoon, is it the right or wrong time to ask "if a baseball Hall of Fame plaque can be newly fashioned for Jacob Ruppert then, based on Edward Achorn's The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, why not Christian Frederick Wilhelm von der Ahe?

Ahe did the entire American dream cycle. He arrived as a German immigrant, shuffled through a few jobs until working his way up to grocery store owner. And then saloon keeper with political connections. Next step: baseball team owner who figured out that if he charged less at the gate and let people have fun they would be more likely to purchase more of his beer and hot dogs (that, maybe, he introduced to the stands). There were various lady friends not his wife, legal troubles, "the bottom," "the comeback," the fancy funeral, and, now, the mostly forgotten guy remembered as someone who rescued American baseball and may be as important as anyone in establishing it as the country's alleged shared pastime.

Will it all be enough to get him his own posthumous plaque on some future Sunday in July? Depends on Achorn, who, having proven himself something of a writing force, inspiring legislative action and citizen action as a Providence Journal political commentator, will for the time being be measured by how far he can carry Ahe, a guy who may not have actually known much about the game, but proved Sunday after Sunday that he knew how to sell it.

20 July 2013

Baseball Born (?) in Land of Loonies

America's national pastime is Canadian. The creation story — the one used to "prove" the game was not at all related to Britain's rounders — actually revolves around Beachville, Ont., not Cooperstown, N.Y.

That's the thesis of Chip Martin, reporter on city hall and other political games for the London (Ontario) Free Press, poses in his new book, Baseball's Creation Myth. Ne'er-do-wells named Ford and Graves who, based on circumstantial evidence cross paths in Denver, share a Beachville baseball story, which then jumps tracks to become part of the sales pitch of ballplayer turned sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding as tries to sell more bats, balls and gloves as part of making the Clark family of Singer Sewing even richer through the building of  the Baseball Hall of Fame in Civil War general Abner Doubleday's old stomping ground — all a silly story in and of itself.

He told the The Toronto Sun he was hoping to build a bit more respect for baseball in the land of hockey ... and that he was a bit irked that the Ken Burns baseball documentary had given short shrift to the Canadian connection. Changing baseball to Canada's national pastime seems an unlikely happenstance, but, anyway, here's hoping ...

05 July 2013

Of Cricketeers and Typists

Unlike the adage about teaching, regarding sports the usual thought is that those who can play (well) do and those who don’t play as well as they think they do write about it. Which brings us to a celebration of cricket writers,  The Authors XI

The team of cricket writers play their games within the shadow of literary history — some British greats including P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie skipped together between wickets in the pre-war (as in The Great One, WWI) years. Planned as much as anything in the spirit of a literary stunt, the hobbyist cricketeers schedule an abbreviated season of matches with a mix of what might make for literary inspiration and who is available to play. Their stated goal is to capture the glory of the game. However, as every player they ever written about knows, what they are really after is to recapture for themselves that moment in their lives when they “just knew” they could play the game as well as anyone ever had.
Do the Authors XI compete? Well it’s fair to say that novelists Nicholas Hogg, Alex Preston, Mirza Waheed and Kamila Shmasie (the only woman) and Anthony McGowan journalist Ed Smith, historians Tom and James Holland, Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens and teammates capture the spirit of their predecessors and pay their due homage to the game in their invididual essyas, ruminating far afield of their odd ovals on various, engaging tangents.. But they don’t match up against the greats of the game and it certainly remains to be seen whether this eleven can achieve the body of written work of their typing heroes.

23 June 2013

Moving Sparkleponies from Minnesota to LA

It is obnoxious to write/read any generalization such as, "for a football player, Chris Kluwe made a very smart business decision." It happens to be true that ChrisWarcraft is a football player, but his smart business decision was as an author.

His just-published collection of quick-typed ephemera, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, flows from the brouhaha he created last year with a letter supporting the rights of men and women to marry intragenderly. So, he got the book deal, which was an important career stepping stone as his stats were trending down and punters do live even closer to the edge than other footballers. In additional good news, career-wise, he is moving from the relatively small market of book buyers surrounding the Minnesota Vikings to Los Angeles and a passionate nationwide following for the Raiders (LA in name, Oakland always in heart). He's now closer to more fans, more television opportunities, more book buyers, more everything-a-popwriter needs.

It's all a great move for a clever guy at the age where he has gotten a bit ambivalent about his first career and its excesses. As he said to NPR:
Put me out of business. ... I'm very good at what I do. I'm very good at playing football, and I will continue being very good at playing football until society decides that football is not something they're going to reward members for way over what they should be rewarded for, and at that point, I'll go find something else to do.
As a writer he may not yet have the tough of Ernest Hemingway ... or even the much more radical pigskinner Dave Meggyesy (author of Out of Their League), but he does know his way around some colorful and attention grabbing language. In short, for a punter he makes a helluva scribbler, and vice versa.


13 June 2013

No It Didn't. Sorry.

Now this is just silly. Unless every fight has done so, then it is impossible to accept as George Willis suggests with the subtitle to his new book, The Bite Fight, that the Tyson-Holyfield pugilism performance changed the sport forever.

There is no getting around that Iron Mike taking two nips from the ear flaps of Real Deal Holyfield was a low point for the sport. It might also be fairly argued that the burlesque of 28 July 1977 in Las Vegas changed forever the legacy of two great heavyweights. But the sport? Changed forever? Even the most cursory review belies that claim.

Which doesn't mean it wasn't a fascinating fight within its context. The characters, the events the mysteries, the soap opera aftermath, all events for a good story. Still, sport- or world-changing? Hardly.

01 June 2013

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me Your New

Fourteen years after the memoir of how he rose and fell and will rise again, the once-incredible Met Dwight Gooden, publishes Doc. Changes include a different co-author and slightly different perspective from the earlier Heat.

He also left out some stories, like the cocaine/vodka shot "party" he had in some sketchy Long Island addict hospice that got him so angry at himself that he skipped the Broadway victory parade celebrating the mets 1986 World Series win. And at the time he was not as openly effusive in his praise for Yankees Boss, George Steinbrenner, who was playing an angel in his life. (Gooden was respectful and thankful, but not as sharing of this side of the oft-venal owner.) What has also changed are the times. American media has now reached a point where a woman — NPR's Melissa Block —  can do a relatively hard-hitting interview with a one-time idol without roiling all baseball fandom.

Someone working on a Ph.D. in comparative sports literature (is there possibly such a ridiculous pursuit, even in academia?) could probably take a compare, contrast and context approach to Doc and Heat to see how different co-authors work much of the same material; how the "freedom" from being "in the game" changes the narrative;  and what a difference 14 years can do to change an audience. Might even make for an interesting book?

Ah, what was and could have been ...