What I’ve Been Reading (Football)
As I indicated in my most recent post on football-related books, I am still struggling to find a desire to spend the energy I previously spent on reviewing books to reviewing books. Thus, while I have continued to read books on football-related subjects, I have not had enough of an interest in any single book to give it a proper review. Thus, like the last post, this post will summarize the books I have read and not reviewed.
1. Tom Callahan’s Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas is an example of my problem with reading football books lately. It’s a perfectly fine biography of the great Colts quarterback, professionally done, and as I expressed in my review of the similar, though probably slightly better America’s Quarterback, it left me non-plussed. Read the book if you want a Unitas biography, but I have no particular recommendation (or anti-recommendation) beyond that.
2. I had higher expectations for The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. First, most of the stories in the book are familiar to college football fans, especially those who pay attention to things that happen off the field. Much of the Mike Leach content, in particular, seemed to come straight out of Swing Your Sword. Second, it is very conceptually weak. Benedict and Keteyian gives us a number of chapters on aspects of college football, but never bother to tie those chapters together (beyond those on the same subject, like the couple on Leach), and reach no conclusions about their specific problems. Take, for instance, tutoring. Two particular problems arise here. First, the issue of tutors doing work for athletes. There’s a serious line-drawing problem here that can theoretically be solved with close oversight and strict enforcement of rules. Second, the issue of sexual/romantic relationships arising between tutors and athletes, a more complicated subject than I want to try to fully address in this post but one that needs to be treated with more subtlety and sophistication than I felt Benedict and Keteyian did. On the whole, this felt like a somewhat scandal-focused newsmagazine program in book form, which did not in my view make for a satisfying reading experience.
3. I loved Three and Out, but John U. Bacon’s latest, Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football I did not find as engaging. For the book, he followed the 2012 seasons of four teams-the Michigan squad he was so familiar with from his previous work, plus Northwestern, Ohio State, and Penn State. The Penn State information was the most interesting to me, simply because I hadn’t followed how exactly the 2012 season went down. From that, I got a lot of respect for Bill O’Brien in how he handled a pretty bad situation, including how he listened to his players. Importantly for me, Bacon recognizes the degree to which college football fandom is an affiliational exercise, an interesting conflict with Michigan AD Dave Brandon’s branding work, an exercise I was familiar with from reading MGoBlog. Ultimately, that’s the question-how much monetization can college football stand without becoming “just” cheaper, worse football? Tied up with this question is the Big Ten’s (arguably deeply self-conceited) idea of maintaining the traditional junction of top-flight education and top-flight athletics in the NCAA’s most prominent sport, an exercise they do not seem to be succeeding at right now outside of Columbus.
4. To interrupt a drumbeat of downer reviews, in comes David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by a clear margin the best sports book I’ve read this year. Epstein takes a sensitive subject, one that could easily have been handled badly, and handles it very, very, very well. He explains complicated research clearly, and as far as I can tell, is precisely as confident as he should be yet not more so. That’s something I try hard to stick to in my own personal work, and the current media environment seems to reward careering to extremes. Kudos to Epstein for a job very well done.
5. Congratulations, Gregg Easterbrook. The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America is the most exasperating football-related book I’ve read since Death to the BCS. Were I in a different mental space, I might have spent several thousand works explaining why, but I will simply note (a) Easterbook would benefit from a reading of The Sports Gene, if he has not already done so (of course, he could not have done so before writing King), (b) the Virginia Tech/Frank Beamer part of the book reminded me unpleasantly of Next Man Up, and (c) reading King should be enough to convince anybody that Easterbrook’s TMQ columns (which I stopped reading a long time ago) are sincere rather than an elaborate piece of performance art. It’s really too bad, as I believe Easterbrook raises some valid concerns for valid reasons yet wrote a book I don’t recommend to anybody.
6. I believe that head injuries are very likely the most serious issue about the future of football. I believe that the NFL’s antediluvian attitude toward head injuries is a major reason we haven’t made further progress in understanding football and concussions. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru are fine investigative reporters who’ve done their research. So why didn’t I like League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth more? A couple reasons for my nonplussage. First, as the subtitle indicates, this book is about the NFL and concussions, while I believe the NFL is actually the place where the concussion harm argument is weakest. The fewest people participate, especially for long periods of time, and they’re very well compensated (at least now). It’s in college and particularly high school where more players are putting themselves at risk, for little or no compensation, and further, the sub-concussive hits as much as the actual concussions that scare me. I can’t find the article link right now, but what really scared me for football’s future as the article on North Carolina putting accelerometers on helmets and finding terribly violent head blows in what was considered a routine practice. Second, the basics of the story were already familiar to me from this 2009 magazine piece. League of Denial supplies more detail and supplements the story with what happens since then, but the basic form of what happened was familiar to me. Third, this is in some ways a history piece. The NFL c. 2013 acknowledges concussions and cares about them a lot more than the NFL c. 2003. League of Denial is more about the NFL c. 2003, and I don’t think it advances the conversation around the NFL c. 2013 in a particularly helpful way for how best to move forward, beyond the “be cautious of the NFL, because they have a vested interest,” which I consider obvious to everyone over the age of 12 and anyone at all perspicacious enough to be interested in the issue under that mark. I should note I have not seen the associated PBS television special; it sits on my DVR and I will probably get to it eventually, but I try to leave my TV off when I’m not watching games during football season.
7. The most valuable part of Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, Nicholas Dawidoff’s book on being embedded with the New York Jets (mostly the defense) for the 2011 season is you get a taste for what you know is out there, but you too rarely hear-the unexpurgated analysis of the NFL by NFL insiders. You can tell Dawidoff is a New Yorker writer. It’s professionally done, and if he has the right word for a certain thing, he’ll use it even if it’s not a common word; for some readers, that’s a minus. For me, it’s mostly a plus-English has many words, and there’s generally one with a more precise meaning, so use it, but just don’t overdo it to show off your fancy vocabulary. Yet, I ultimately never found Collision a fascinating or otherwise compelling read. Why so, I can’t quite say, but I recall the insights and portraiture of perhaps the best book on an NFL team-season, Bringing the Heat, as being sharper and more penetrating. It’s not a bad book by any means, but I can’t recommend it with the same strength I thought I would be able to.
Combined non-football quarterly recap and best of 2013 post coming later today.