Misogyny and Other Occupational Hazards of Women Sportswriters


In a world that embraces the pervasive myth that women are not sports fans, one where “throwing like a girl” is lobbed as a critique, women who write about sports face immense challenges. While women sportswriters may not necessarily write about female athletes, they still face the bias—that has been disproven time and time again—that women aren’t sports fans. As the Women’s Sports Foundation found, there is “no research that shows boys are more interested in sports than girls.” It’s a “lack of opportunity” and “lack of peer group support” that leads to girls dropping out of sports at a much higher rate than boys. Same goes for women sportswriters. Institutional and gender biases propel the belief that women aren’t sports fans and therefore women can’t write about sports. But: this is all false (obviously). Of course women are sports fans! Obviously, they can write about sports! This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, yet here we are.

Enter Amy Bass and Karen Crouse, two authors whose sports books were released in 2018. Bass’s One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Team Together tells the story of the Maine state soccer championships alongside the story of Lewiston, Maine, a town that has seen a large influx of refugees from Somalia since the 1990s. Crouse’s Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence is about the amount of Winter Olympians this small town in Vermont has produced.

Women sportswriters face unique challenges. Not only do they face violent threats on social media, many readers doubt their ability to report on sports. Bass explained that “it’s assumed [women] can’t talk about [sports] as well as men because we don’t have the experience playing it. Which, you know, there’s very few sportswriters out there, men or women, who were athletes themselves. So that’s not generally a requirement for being a writer.” Imagine having to be skilled in what you were reporting on—journalists would never cover the Olympics, or any sporting event. In Bass’s essay “Women Who Write About Sports, and the Men Who Hate Them,” published in the AllRounder in March 2015, she writes, “women taking flack for opining on sports is part and parcel of how women have to live their lives every moment of every day. It is part of the same world in which women battle against domestic violence and sexual assault and the wage gap. It is part of the same machine that sees male politicians trying to legislate female bodies, corporations firing women for breastfeeding on the job, and male professors receiving better teaching evaluations than their female counterparts.” Essentially: women writing about sports face the same misogynistic world that the rest of us do.

Out of all genres, female sportswriters have it particularly bad. In the Women’s Media Center report on the status of women in media in 2017, they found that men receive 62 percent of byline and other credits in print, Internet, television, and wire news. In sports, that number jumps to 89 percent. As Safia Ahmad pointed out in “Sexism and Racism Continue to Dominate Sports Journalism,” “Female sports journalists remain the least represented in all types of journalism today.” No wonder it’s so difficult to find sports books written by women; so few female sports journalists are getting book deals because they barely exist.

Jessica Luther released her debut Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape in September 2016. In it, she exhaustively covers the issues of rape on college campuses and writes about the importance of “de-centering the athlete” in stories of sexual violence and athletes. Essentially: amplify the other voices, because, as she writes, “de-centering the athlete is not only more fair to women who report, it is more fair to the players, as it draws attention away from the individual and instead forces us to interrogate the system itself.” When I had the chance to speak with Luther, she explained “it’s not only an issue in sports, [but] we as a society tend to worry much more about the ruin of someone whose been reported than about the harm done to someone that’s reporting.” She went on to discuss a study the Women’s Media Center released in 2015 (“Writing Rape: How U.S. Media Cover Campus Rape and Sexual Assault”), where she tells me with regards to sports media, “when male sports reporters cover [a story], they mainly talk to men as sources. Whereas, women sports reporters who cover it, tend to 50/50 [their sources]. So, female sports reporters tend to have a wider set of sources they’re talking to.”

Luther, a prominent sportswriter, explained that because sports media is so dominantly male, when you think about the “sort of hoops you have to jump through as far as convincing a publisher you’re marketable” in order to get a book deal, many female sportswriters are “climbing uphill.” When pitching her book, Crouse tells me, “three publishing houses expressed interest—all three were represented by female editors. This is a sweeping generalization but I can’t help but wonder if the women ‘got’ the essence of my book in a way that sort of went over the heads of the men who just couldn’t see the value of a book about a town built on relationships. Maybe that keeps more women from being published, I don’t know. But I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had a female agent and a female book editor.”

Luther is the co-host of a feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down, with Shireen Ahmed, Amira Rose Davis, Brenda Elsey, and Lindsay Gibbs. On Burn It All Down, the hosts make a point of amplifying the voices of women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. As Luther explained to me, “we made a pact at the beginning that if we could find a woman or a non-binary person, then we would start with them.” And over 49 episodes, they’ve found those people. While Burn It All Down is not a book, it’s one step towards the badly needed diversification of the sports media landscape.

Needless to say, sports journalism is a deeply male-dominated field. Shockingly, however, both Bass and Crouse made it clear to me that they don’t really agree with the idea that there aren’t any sports books written by women. Bass pointed out that sports writing is not unique; most genres (with the exception of a few) are largely male-dominated. And, to compound the problem, “sports is not an outlier in terms of being an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.” Crouse concurred, pointing me towards a plethora of female journalists who have written sports books (Sally Jenkins, Liz Clarke, Joan Ryan, Christine Brennan, Liz Robbins, Selena Roberts, Ann Killion, Molly Knight, Mary Pilon, Kate Fagan, to name a few).

When I read Crouse’s Norwich and Bass’s One Goal, Luther’s concept of “de-centering the athlete” stuck with me. Bass explains that even though the story of the Lewiston Blue Devils—the high school soccer team made largely of refugees from Somalia who captured the state championship—has “everything you want in a classic great sports story,” what made it so powerful was that it’s not just a story about a great season of soccer. But the story of “refugees writ large.” Although the young athletes shine through on the page, Bass makes a point to constantly contextualize their story. Same goes for Crouse. As she wrote the stories of the Olympians who came out of this tiny Vermont town, her editor kept reminding her that no matter who she was writing about, “the main character of this book was Norwich,” and every story she told was through that context. De-centering the athlete makes for powerful stories on greater trends in sports.

De-centering the athlete to focus on the community shines in Alexis Okeowo’s story of a women’s basketball team in Somalia, an excerpt of her 2015 book A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Woman and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa. In the essay, she tells the story of Aisha, a young woman playing basketball in Mogadishu, Somalia, but transforms her story into a larger look at Somalia’s growing Islamic extremism and the institutional barriers keeping female athletes from succeeding. But, in expanding the focus of her essay, Okeowo doesn’t ignore Aisha; Aisha forms the emotional core of the narrative, and it’s her compelling sports story that gives readers an entry point for understanding the larger socio-political climate in Somalia.

Female sportswriters do exist. And they are leading the way to create space for female voices in sports journalism. When Crouse started working for the Savannah News-Press in 1986, she was the first woman in the sports department. She recalls, “The first time I went out to interview a high school football coach, he felt the need to explain to me that the quarterback is the person who lines up behind the center. It was the first time I realized there were people in this world who would not be supportive of my life path, who would question my legitimacy because of my gender, who thought I was overstepping my bounds for no reason other than my sex.” The New York Times hired Crouse in 2005, where she has worked since. Yet, she tells me, “to this day, even with three decades of experience, I can never assume that people will accept that I belong where I am or deserve to be doing what I do.”

To encourage more female sportswriters, who will eventually write books, Luther tells me, it needs to begin with hiring. Those in hiring roles at media companies “have to be way more conscientious of their own biases.” Crouse recalls, “A few years ago, I remember asking the then sports editor at Yahoo! why there were no women on his staff. He said that when making a hire, he consults with his staff, so it’s a collaborative effort. And I pointed out, if he consults with his staff and his staff is all-male, that’s pretty much the definition of an old boys’ network.”

In her acknowledgements of Norwich, Crouse writes, “this book was yoga for my soul, the writing equivalent of a forward bend after what amounts to the long and deep back bend that is my daily existence in the relentlessly male sports journalism world.” Both Bass’s One Goal and Crouse’s Norwich— and Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct, and many other sports stories published before 2018— are much needed entries into the genre of sports writing.

Image Credit: Flickr/catherinecronin.

Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

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Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.

The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.

The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
Yes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.

When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks  invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.

David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
Who knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.

Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).

The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)

The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?

Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.

The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
This is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.

But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.

Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
In the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.

The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.

Beyond a Boundary (1963)
C.L.R. James’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.

In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
It’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.

Some of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.

Ball Four (1970)
Let’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).

Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.

The Boys of Summer (1972)
At some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.

Kahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fences—has itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.

1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).

In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.

The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?

Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox.  Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?

A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Death of a Soviet Netminder

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Recently it was announced, almost as a hockey footnote, that Russian goalie Sergei Mylnikov had died at age 58, another of the Soviet stars of the 1970s and 1980s to meet with premature death.

The goalie had left the Soviet Union and appeared in ten forgettable games for a historically bad Quebec Nordiques during the 1989-90 season, never to tend an NHL crease again. He played some more back in the Soviet Union after that, and then in Sweden, his career coming to an end in the mid-1990s. I assume the news of his death was broadcast at all primarily because of Mylnikov’s role in the 1987 Canada Cup series, the drama of which remains peerless in hockey history. This was a best-on-best international tournament featuring many of the greatest hockey players ever to play, smack in the middle of their primes.

That Soviet squad may have been the second-best team in hockey history, after the Canadian team that just barely squeaked past them. The Soviets’s issue was largely in net, where they were unable to settle on a reliable goalie. You had the sense that Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, didn’t really trust Mylnikov, or like him that much. He was supposed to be an up-and-coming star, but clearly he had holes in his game. There must have been a ton of pressure on him, given the Soviet realities of the time, with the Communist party leaning so heavily on sports teams like this hockey squad, while so many Soviet players were thinking earnestly about the possibilities — and real chances — of life outside of the Soviet system.

I recall watching those three 1987 Canada Cup games as a boy, thinking they were the finest hockey matches I’d ever seen, a belief that deepened over time as I rewatched the games in adulthood.

Sometimes people you didn’t know, who weren’t blessed, maybe, or cursed, with unique talents or singular gifts, can have a real bearing on your life, perhaps in part due to being on the right stage at the same time — and perhaps due to a little something extra, as well. Mylnikov reentered my life five years ago, in the late spring of 2012. I was living, briefly, at what had been my house in Rockport, Massachusetts. My wife at the time was having an affair, as I’d learn four years later. She had put in motion an elaborate scheme to leave in the middle of the night, take the house, take my life, all without any explanation, leaving me to piece through the scraps and loose ends and lacuna of a mystery over the ensuing years. And, too, leaving me to work 130 hour weeks over those years, in an attempt to get my house back at some point, love it as I did, as I do.

But I was there by myself for about a month before the hell of the courts kicked in. I was a broken man, and not one who was able to fight. I could survive, but not fight. Maybe you’ve been there, or your version of there. What I did do, though, was write.

During those lonely days, in this place I knew I’d be leaving, just as I knew I’d be fighting to return, I filled up page after page with words. Words of short stories, words in a novel, words for magazines and newspapers. Not that I knew it then, but I was changing as a person and as an artist, and getting faster, with notions of productivity and creation redefined, while everything in my mind seemed to go in slower motion, even as so much came tome with greater rapidity.

I wrote myself not senseless, but almost lifeless, as in to the verge of what someone can ask of one’s self. At night I just drank, and then I’d try to pass out. Not from the alcohol, which wouldn’t dull my thoughts or my feelings, but to black out from reality for a couple hours.

The night terrors had set in by then, and it was unrealistic to think that I’d get more than two hours’ worth of sleep, but I’d only even come by those two hours because I’d pop in a DVD of one of the three games of that 1987 Canada Cup final.

I knew the plays by heart. Then there was the voice of play-by-play man Dan Kelly, which seemed to soothe me. I was also more interested than usual in how Mylnikov was discussed, as this young man of promise, who was under unbelievable pressure.

He felt, in my view, like a man marooned in some ways. His only chance to unmaroon himself, as it were, was to play up to the full range of his potential. No one else was going to assist him, no help was forthcoming, save what he could do for himself.

As you might know, all three games of that final series ended in 6-5 scores. They weren’t exactly goaltender battles, but if ever there were displays of great goaltending — from time to time — in high-scoring hockey games, this would be the brace of games you’d point to.

Sometimes I’d be jerked awake from some nightmare as I slept over the course of my nightly two hours, and I remember how I liked when these occasions overlapped with Mylnikov making some save on Gretzky or Lemieux. Never mind that his save percentage must have been like .886 or something like that during the series. He was hanging in there, battling. Making the best of a bad lot, that constant Team Canada attack. Sometimes you admire someone’s ability to endure more than someone else’s ability to dominate in more favorable circumstances.

Mylnikov didn’t even get the nod to play in all three games. He handled the first and the third. In essence, then, so far as the final outcomes went, he had a peak, and he had a trough. Evgeny Belosheikin was the goalie in the middle game. He battled alcoholism and killed himself in 1999. He was 33.

I want to say I don’t know why all of this got me thinking so much, but of course I do. As you walk that path between wanting to die and wanting to be okay again, your version of brothers and sisters, of those who belong to your particular fold, becomes those who would know — or who you thought might know — something of the pain you are in. It doesn’t really matter if they did or they didn’t — you look to them anyway. It is a form of what receptivity you have, until, and if, you become whole again. When Dan Kelly, he of the soothing voice, was on his death bed and his family wanted to check his receptivity, his son asked him who scored the OT winner of that first finals game, the lone one won by the Soviets, with Mynilkov experiencing what I imagine was the greatest joy of his career. “Semak,” Kelly said. Which, of course, was correct.

Image: Ice Hockey Wiki

What Is It About Baseball? W.P. Kinsella, José Fernández, and the Dust of the 2016 Season


What is it about baseball that leaves writers reaching for myth and allegory? The game is slow, meandering.  It takes its sweet time.  Very often, not a whole lot happens.  Indeed, the corporate types at the game’s controls keep scratching their heads for ways to speed things up, move things along: a pitch clock, a time-limit on trips to the mound, and on and on.  But they ignore the eternity at the heart of the game.  In theory, a baseball game could go on forever and ever.  A single at-bat, forever and ever.  Within the right angle of the foul lines, extending from home plate to the outfield fences and into the great wide open beyond, a batted ball can cut across the night sky and land just about anywhere, and if a fleet-footed outfielder is able to channel his inner gecko and scale the wall and chase down that ball to where it might fall softly into his outstretched glove, there is room for that outcome as well. Alas, the game is not bound by time, and hardly at all by space, and isn’t that the nut of it?  Isn’t that the sweet point of pause and possibility that keeps us coming back for more, and more, and then some?

The death last month of W.P. Kinsella, widely regarded as baseball’s novelist laureate, offers an opportunity to reflect on how we see our own reflections in the national pastime — with a tip of the ball cap to writers like Kinsella who continue to encourage us to consider the stories of the game as we consider the game itself.

What is it about baseball? The curious magic of Kinsella was that he found room in the wide open spaces of the game to consider that anything was possible — and, on the strength of that magic, to knit the past to the present, the present to the future.  In Shoeless Joe, he reaches back across the decades to revisit the aborted career of Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham, after stumbling across Graham’s unlikely one-game stat line in the Baseball Encyclopedia and placing it at the cross-hairs of meaning and moment in a wistful story about a son reconnecting with the memory of his father.  In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy,” he imagines an apparently endless game between the 1908 Chicago Cubs and a barnstorming team of amateurs, inviting readers to join him on a head-scratching, heart-pleasing journey that asks us to ponder baseball’s everlastingness.  In “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon”, he tells the story of a Chicago Cubs manager named Al Tiller, who believes the world will come to a cataclysmic end the moment his Cubbies win the pennant, which in the sure hands of Kinsella (and, his somewhat less certain fictional skipper) they seem inclined to do.

How is it that a game built on its very timelessness can offer such a chilling reminder of our own mortality?  When the baseball world mourned the sad, sudden death of the joyfully talented young Cuban pitcher José Fernández, barely a week after Kinsella’s passing, there was beneath the mourning a kind of shared sense that our own lives were slipping away from us.  Here was this abundantly gifted kid pitcher, snatched from a career destined for baseball immortality, with a back-story that seemed scripted by saccharine-fueled Hollywood scriptwriters: a Cuban defector who’d grown up dreaming of someday playing major league baseball; who’d only made it to American shores after three unsuccessful attempts; who’d been jailed by Cuban officials after each of those attempts; who’d rescued his own mother from the turbulence of the Atlantic Ocean during his fourth (ultimately, successful) crossing to America; who’d recovered from Tommy John surgery to become one of the game’s dominant pitchers; who’d played the game with such abandon and intention that even casual fans were drawn to him, lifted by him, cheered; who’d just announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple’s first child.  And yet, back-story or no, triumph or no, unborn baby or no, José Fernández was killed in an as yet unexplained (and, as ever, unfathomable) boating accident off Miami Beach at the age of 24.

As the baseball world wept, those of us in on the weeping hugged our children and grandchildren close, honored our parents and grandparents, and looked back with equal parts gladness and sadness at the hopes and dreams we’d carried in our own lives.  Some of us got out our old baseball gloves and tossed the ball around with our kids.  We looked at old baseball cards, scorecards.  We revisited Kinsella’s stories.  Because in the short life and tragic death of this young ballplayer there was the stuff of our own lives, our own tragic deaths, and in the moments of silence that filled our ball yards that day and the next there was a kind of safe haven within the boundaries of the game.

Baseball can do that, I guess.  It can remind you of everything that once mattered to you, everything that matters still.  It can brush the great promise of tomorrow against the agreeable sting of the past, and the sorrows of today.

Kinsella was not alone on the baseball bookshelf.  He’d fallen into line behind the great legacies of writers like Ring Lardner (You Know Me, Al), Bernard Malamud (The Natural), Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), even Don DeLillo (Underworld), who all seemed to understand the stirring, soaring confluence of miracle and wonder at the heart of the game.  But it was Kinsella’s ability to cast the game alongside a swirl of human emotion that will keep us reading his stories for generations, and when I learned of his death it felt to me like a light had gone out on the game itself.  I was not alone in this, of course, and yet I closed my eyes to the news and imagined how a generation of baseball fans — my generation — would manage to connect the game to generations to come.

Fernández, as well, was not alone.  He now shares space on the game’s memorial plaque with too, too many young ballplayers who left this world before their games were finished.  The turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, who plunged to his death in the cascading waters of Niagara Falls.  The Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash while on a relief mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua.  The great Yankee catcher and captain Thurman Munson, downed in his own plane, which he had bought and learned to fly so that he might spend more time more easily with his family.  The Cardinals ace Darryl Kile, who succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room before a game against the Cubs.

With the passing of Fernández, another bulb has been burned on the stanchions that light our game, while we are left to find our way just the same.

“Praise the name of baseball,” Kinsella wrote.  “The word will set captives free. The word will open the eyes of the blind.  The word will raise the dead.  Have you the word of baseball living inside you?  Has the word of baseball become part of you?  Do you live it, play it, digest it, forever?  Let an old man tell you to make the word of baseball your life.  Walk into the world and speak of baseball.  Let the word flow through you like water, so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.”

Who but Kinsella could help us find poetry and purpose in a centuries-old game that many people believe has outlived its relevance?  Who could implore us to go the distance and fulfill our destinies, great and small?  Without him, how will we elevate the long march of a baseball season onto the mystical plane where Kinsella asked us to slide along on our own fine film of dust and possibility?

Let’s be clear, there are baseball novels still to be written.  There are games still to be played.  Somewhere in this country, or in Cuba, or Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, there is an unborn child who will change the game of baseball — in ways we cannot yet imagine.  In the great white north of Kinsella’s Canada, there is a young writer sharpening his or her pen and looking to change how we see the game of baseball — in ways we can only imagine.

But it was Kinsella who tore the cowhide from the game and allowed us to peek at the very real lives it contained.  There was triumph there.  There was disappointment.  There was the thrill of fresh cut grass and the soft fall of lament when the skies opened up and rained down on us.  There were changes in plans.  Because, at bottom, the nature of the game is the nature of ourselves.  It is a living, breathing thing.  It bends and endures…and, it asks us to do the same.

And so, as we unwrap October and settle in for the 2016 World Series, let’s pause to feel the loss of one of the game’s favorite sons.  Allow yourself a sliver of a moment to chew on the very real possibility of a very real Armageddon, owing to the Cubbies’ fine, fine post-season run.  Savor the grace note moments to come in these October games.  You will sit glued to your screens (more than likely into the wee-hours), waiting for some sort of final accounting on the season just ended, looking ahead to the season to come, and to all the seasons to come.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Running in the Wake

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When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer. About half a decade later — a year ago now — I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours — i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake — and a GPS watch to track it all. And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing.

I was training to run my first marathon — 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race. Knock on wood. Trust your training. Never trust a fart. Etc. I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left. After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done. I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings.

Forget the aches and the pains and the miles. The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours.

A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading. Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms — too often the slightest bit off — make feet fall wrong. So: audiobooks. That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years. As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author. Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year.

I’ll spare you and myself the excuses — this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s. But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15…that’s real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life. And God bless it. Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.

So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning. I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training. One more long run and I‘d be done. All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon. But things had gone too well, and I wanted more. The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon. The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what. For the sake of your emotional well-being, just do that once. Save that unique joy for race day.

Like I said, I felt things had gone too well. So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them. What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake? If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right? Maybe easier.

It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet. Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin. And, frankly, good running weather too. Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat.

I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water. My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her. I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play.

The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles. The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years. As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely. Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I’m not quite sure why it mattered. For example:
“This is the flag of the Prooshi-                                                                   11
ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of        12
the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang       13
the flag of the Prooshious.?”
This is Derek’s sullen resignation.

But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and…

Not as bad as I thought. Somehow, easier? Easier even than a narrative book? I’ll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip. Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it. Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background. But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better. And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle.

Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music. Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth. I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man. But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping. Run on.

In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all. Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings.  Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics. Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book. Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers. On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation. I could not be expected to figure it out. And to be clear, I didn’t. No place for concordance here. No strings or scaffolding.

Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin. People had a lot of sex. People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk. At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors. I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages. Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not. I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes. Not even a judging glance.

And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary. First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake. And did I hear Dedalus? Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar. But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race. Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful. And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign. Hard not to flash on that.

Exactly halfway through, a pub. “Stop,” the sirens wail.

Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that. I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995. So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer. The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both — just align my reactions with yours, and read on). All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil. So deep in, but almost home. Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words.

And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started. With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away? But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real. So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and


done. and stop this Irish mumbling, phone. I want my brain back. Just a block or two to the door. My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon. And there was leftover pizza as well. And there, my door, my house. Home.

I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad. My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes.

And that was last year. I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast. My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through. They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year. As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend. I ran the first with a friend. I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake. My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years. And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off.

Image Credit: Pexels/Visually Us.

The Revolution Has Been Televised: On Big Sports and Big Money


Years ago, I wrote a book about the women’s professional tennis tour. In 1973, the year Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, access to players at most tournaments was easy; few agents or managers walled them off from the press. Coaches? Unheard of. Nutritionists? Please. The very best female tennis pros in the country earned thousands of dollars for winning ($25,000 for the U.S. Open), not millions. To save money, they overnighted at the homes of local enthusiasts.

Now, like other sports, tennis is a billion-dollar enterprise and players like Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova rank high on Forbes “Richest Athletes” list. The inflation is just as obvious in my other favorite sport, baseball. A recent Wall Street Journal article on New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, whose 2016 salary is $607,000, carried the headline “Baseball’s Underpaid All-Stars.” The average baseball salary this year is $4.4 million.

Mark McCormack, the agent and lawyer who made Arnold Palmer golf’s first millionaire, and Marvin Miller, the undaunted leader of the baseball players’ union, are among those generally credited as important nonplayers who helped turn sports into a business that benefited its “workers” as well as their employers. There are numerous others, though, and in his new book, Players, Journal reporter Matthew Futterman thoroughly investigates the financial revolution in pro sports. He describes how athletes like hurdler Edwin Moses, unheralded executives like the NFL’s Frank Vuono, and people like McCormack enabled players grab the power that once was in the hands of team owners and event promoters. The revolution, argues Futterman, has in many ways improved the sports that fans love to watch; well-played players who no longer need to work at other jobs in their free hours are better trained, better conditioned (and yes, better compensated). But has the revolution gone overboard?

Players might be the best book about the business of sports since Moneyball. Instead of investigating one sport through the lens of one team, Futterman looks at several major sports, focusing on key participants. He begins with McCormack, whose story has been told before but is still the spark that gave rise to the revolution. McCormack’s guiding principle was that “stars were the gasoline that made the engine of any sport go…They were a salable commodity that was being undervalued…” As a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and ’40s, he loved sports and even when “alone on his porch throwing a ball in the air all afternoon, he was always keeping score.” He became a lawyer and an excellent amateur golfer.

Arnold Palmer was a great golfer. But his earnings were tiny. His big paycheck came from an endorsement deal in 1954 with Wilson for $5,000, yet their clubs were not even premium products; Palmer crafted his own clubs in his home workshop. Moreover the company had the right to renew the deal each time it was about to expire. After convincing Palmer he could do better, McCormack became the golfer’s agent and finally extricated him from the Wilson deal, setting up instead Palmer’s own golf club company. “McCormack was playing a new game,” writes Futterman. “The object was liberation.” His plan to give Palmer control of his own name and marketplace worth would be the template for every other arrangement McCormack made.

McCormack moved on to tennis. After meeting the chairman of Wimbledon, he realized the most prestigious tournament in the world was not taking advantage of its image, and arranged to market the film rights to the tournament. Eventually came the windfall — a six year deal with NBC for Wimbledon TV for $5.2 million. It was, writes Futterman, a key element in his vision — to widen the popularity of his players, he needed to showcase them on a mass scale. TV would grow the prize money and thus the value of players’ names to sponsors. McCormack, like Hollywood czar Lew Wasserman, would control not just the stars but the venues. “Wimbledon doesn’t break a leg, sprain an ankle, fail a drug test or lose six-love, six-love,” he told others.

By the 1990s, McCormack’s influence was so pervasive that his company, International Management Company, or IMG, was referred to by nasty nicknames: “I Am Greedy,” “I Manage God.” By 2001 his management roster went well beyond sports — its list included Margaret Thatcher and the Nobel Prize Foundation.

Every sport had its own path to big money and professionalization. Before 1968, writes Futterman, the men who ran tennis “starved the sport.” Stars who went out on their own, like Rod Laver, barnstormed for peanuts on a pro tour while being barred from the top tournaments like Wimbledon, which was open only to amateurs. Although they were allowed to participate in the Grand Slams after 1968, the International Lawn Tennis Association raked in money while offering poor purses and no say to the players who made it great. This led the men, who had joined together in the Association of Tennis Professionals, to stage a boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon event. It severely hurt the career of American Stan Smith, the defending champion, who honored the boycott. Ultimately, the tennis lords caved, and Smith eventually got his measure of fame by having his name on a best-selling shoe.

The boycott was incredibly successful; it led to a boom as the sport was taken up by recreational players and pros reaped the rewards of wider exposure. The total prize money at the U.S. open was $160,000 in 1972. By 1983 it was $2 million. The growth meant the explosion in the care and nurturing of stars who hired coaches, physiotherapists, and nutritionists, and companies that produced new racquets made of space-age materials. By last year, the male and female U.S. Open winners alone earned over $3 million each.

Baseball, the professional sport most dominant in the first half of the 20th century, saw a similar upward dollar trajectory. Here, Futterman uses pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter to tell the story of free agency and the resulting monetary explosion. His career showed how an athlete from a poor farming family in North Carolina upended “the entire salary structure of sports,” showing every “athlete a better lesson in free-market economics than anyone could have gotten at Harvard Business School.” The lesson: “the person who gets paid the most sets the market for everyone else below him,” i.e. a rising tide lifts all boats. How big a lesson was this? In 1966, despite having its own union headed by Miller, baseball’s reserve clause that bound a player to one team meant that the average major league player’s salary was $14,000. Topps paid each exactly $125 to put them on a bubble-gum card.

I’m sorry Futterman did not mention the two-man holdout by the Dodgers’ great pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale before the 1966 season, when the two asked for a million dollars over three years and settled for about $130,000 for Koufax (in what became his final season) and $105,000 for Drysdale. It was a landmark in the struggle for free agency, which culminated in Hunter’s battle with the “perhaps the greediest and most penurious” ballclub owner, Charles O. Finley of the Oakland A’s.

Players details the almost unbelievable tale of how Finley’s stupid missteps allowed the owner to be declared in default of his contract with Hunter. (Among other things, Finley claimed it was awkward for him to get his estranged wife’s signature on a document.) The pitcher was declared a free agent, an open market bidding war began, and the Yankees signed Hunter to a multimillion dollar contract “worth roughly fifteen times more than the next highest player.” The rest is, well history, right up to Jacob deGrom’s measly $607,000 salary, which is so low because with only three years in the big leagues he is not yet eligible for free agency.

In football, Players dates the revolution not to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is often hailed for dragging the NFL into modern times, but to the league’s actions in 1978, when it adopted rules that made offenses more potent. The owners were persuaded by Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys that unless the game permitted higher scores, it would stagnate. Indeed, once rules limiting defenses in hampering receivers and offensive linemen, and once the “west coast offense” gave quarterbacks a chance to move the ball with lots of short, high percentage passes, it was, in Futterman’s words, “easier for players to thrill fans.”

The star system took hold. In 1990, the league created the Quarterbacks Club, to which the likes of Troy Aikman and Dan Marino lent their names to lucrative licensing arrangements. Where NFL players lost was that, previously, their union had handled the licensing. The new arrangement bled the union dry. Today, football generals get huge salaries but the privates get nonguaranteed contracts.

Players also demonstrates how the business revolution worked in licensing, with Nike manufacturing Michael Jordan sneakers that youngsters would literally kill for, and in developing their own cable networks. If there is a villain in the book, it is Lance Armstrong, who for Futterman represents the “win at all costs” mentality that has been foisted on fans by Nike and other greedy sponsors. This seems too simple. Armstrong’s desire to win came in the context of a sport that had long had a doping problem, even before there was millions of endorsement dollars at stake.

In the end, the author notes that despite the wall-to-wall TV coverage of sports, both viewership and youth participation in team sports has declined. “Money in sports isn’t on its own, a bad thing. But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing,” because it leads to stars who are more concerned with endorsements than with team victories, and to teams more concerned with TV revenue than individual players. Agree or not, it is a complex tale, compellingly told. Players is more fun than watching a major golf tournament and certainly easier than playing in one.

Baseball pitchers’ salaries have correspondingly risen precipitously, especially those of closers, who can make more than $100,000 per inning, as Jason Grilli did last year for the Atlanta Braves. When Sandy Koufax finally agreed to that low-ball contract back in 1966, he was not only baseball’s best pitcher but perhaps its most pain-wracked one. His left arm was crooked. It “ballooned to cartoonish sizes” in between starts and had to be drained. He had to swab a hellish chili-pepper hot “balm” on it to mask the pain. But that was before Tommy John submitted to surgery in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe. His torn ulnar collateral ligament in the arm was replaced by a tendon from his wrist. A year and a day later, John was able to retake a major league mound. Grilli, too, underwent this surgery, which led him to the payoffs with the Braves.

In a fitting complement to Players, sportswriter Jeff Passan peers into this surgery and its aftermath in The Arm, looking at how huge salaries for pitchers — the quarterbacks of baseball — have affected their quest for longevity. These salaries have also infected the attitude of kids who hope to emulate professional players. The book is principally an exhaustive look at the development of Tommy John surgery through two major league pitchers, one of whom has rebounded from two TJ procedures.

Passan suggests that the TJ phenomenon has gone way overboard. A recent study of five years’ worth of records showed that half the surgeries were performed on teenagers, an idea Passan regards as frightening. What’s more, there are only guesses when it comes to successful rehab and post-surgery plans. Should pitchers limit their innings? Slow their velocity? Alter their mechanics? No answer is definitive. As long as major league teams are willing to shell out $150-million over six years for a proven starter like the Cubs did for Jon Lester (plus $250,000 to ferry his wife and kids around in a charted jet), pitchers in search of millions will undergo the operation that Passan describes in grisly detail. What is amazing, as Passan tells us, is that despite major league teams operating “more than $600 million in the black” in 2014, they have spent next to nothing on injury-prevention research.

As for that underpaid Mets all-star Jacob deGrom, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, let’s hope he has a great, healthy season, so he can sign for closer to his rightful worth. He’ll be eligible for salary arbitration next year. Surely he looks forward to 2020; that’s when he becomes a true free agent. And if you happen to see him pitch in short sleeves, notice the long scar on the inside of his right arm; it looks a bit like the seam on a baseball.

Image Credit: Flickr/401(K) 2012

The $ick Lie of Mar¢h Madne$$

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It’s that time of year again, sports fans. Time to break out the pail and the stool and start milking that billion-dollar cash cow called the NCAA men’s basketball tournament but universally known by its brand name — March Madness — along with its ever-growing herd of clichés, including The Dance, the bubble, Selection Sunday, bracketology, the office pool, one and done, Cinderella, the First Four, the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, and finally, mercifully, sometime in early April, the Final Four.

Along the way, since every last game of the tournament is now televised, we’ll get our fill of shrieking coaches, 40-minute games that drag on for more than two hours, players paved with tattoos who hang on the rim and weep on cue and sometimes manage to remind us, despite the increasingly long odds, that college basketball can still be a thing of spontaneous, unpredictable, crazy beauty.

We’ll also get squads of robotic cheerleaders straight out of the uncanny valley, adorable mascots in furry costumes, close-ups of fans in body paint, fans waving giant human-head cutouts, fans acting like they’re being electrocuted whenever they sense the hot red eye of a TV camera — all of it chopped up by a seemingly endless parade of commercials urging us to buy this or that brand of car, cell phone, fast food, insurance, soft drink, sneaker, credit card, or beer. During the championship game, advertisers will pay $1.5 million for 30 seconds of air time.

How did this come to pass? How did a beautiful game played by unpaid teenagers get turned into an advertising bonanza for corporate America? The short answer is: big money. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports paid the National Collegiate Athletic Association $11.5 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament for the next 14 years. The slightly longer answer is that stroke of evil genius that made the big money possible: the TV timeout.

Today there is a stoppage of play at the first whistle after the 16-, 12-, 8- and 4-minute marks of each 20-minute half in every televised college basketball game. The games stop cold, pure and simple, so that advertisers can pitch their wares. These TV timeouts, along with the five regular timeouts awarded to each team, destroy the essence of a game that used to be all about momentum and flow. The only flow that matters today is the cash flow.

I thought the TV timeout was a relatively recent abomination, but I was surprised to discover that basketball purists have been railing against it for nearly half a century.

On March 12, 1967, The New York Times sports page carried this headline: Coaches at N.I.T. Disturbed by TV Time-Outs During Play. The story reported that the televised National Invitational Tournament game between Providence and Memphis State at Madison Square Garden was interrupted 10 times by timeouts — eight of them called by a CBS employee who sat courtside and signaled to the referees when to stop and resume play so the network could air commercials. Providence coach Joe Mullaney was furious that Memphis State’s rally was given an unfair boost by the CBS-dictated timeouts. “Also,” the article noted, “each time-out lasted 75 seconds instead of 60.” The long slide down the slippery slope into the money pit had begun. As the Times writer so deftly put it:

College basketball rules give each team the right to call five time-outs during a 40-minute game. A basic element of strategy is proper use of the time-outs: some must be husbanded to set up plays in the closing seconds of a close game, others may be used to provide rest at a crucial moment or break the momentum of the opposition.

The eight TV timeouts during NCAA tournament games now routinely drag on for three minutes, while the halftime break has been stretched from 15 to 22 minutes. As a result, the games are robbed of flow, they last too long, and there’s no premium on fielding a deep bench because the starters get regular breathers while corporate America gets to sell stuff and the NCAA gets rich. The big loser is the game of college basketball.

So when exactly did the term “March Madness” enter the glossary of American sports clichés? That depends on who’s answering the question. Eddie Einhorn, who died on Feb. 24 at 80, was a key engineer of college basketball’s transformation from regional winter diversion into global televised spectacle. His telecast of the 1962 NCAA title game between Cincinnati and Ohio State was not seen outside of Ohio. This was not satisfactory for Eddie Einhorn. In his book How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America, Einhorn pegs the birth of the malady to a game on Jan. 20, 1968. Played before a crowd of 52,000 in the Houston Astrodome, it was the first college basketball game televised nationally in prime time. With millions watching on TV, Elvin Hayes and his Houston teammates ended the 47-game winning streak of mighty UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smelling money, NBC began broadcasting the NCAA tournament the following year.

In his book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, Seth Davis argues that the pivotal moment was the championship game on March 26, 1979, between Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, and Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, a dream TV matchup between two charismatic stars that would generate the highest Nielsen rating of any basketball game ever played. “The game of basketball was about to change forever,” Davis writes in the strangely purplish yet bland style of the sportswriter. “The 1979 NCAA championship game helped catapult college basketball, and especially the NCAA tournament, into the national consciousness.”

That year’s NCAA tournament grossed more than $5 million in TV revenue. Today the take is more than $1 billion a year — 200 times as much. That kind of money can ruin just about anything, and the damage to college basketball goes far deeper than the insidious ways commerce has altered what happens on the court. Much darker is what happens behind the curtain, in the high-pressure world of recruiting “student-athletes,” of building a successful “program,” then staying on top. Elite coaches earn north of $6 million a year coaching unpaid players, and when the stakes are that high, sleaze is a virtual given.

This year, for instance, two of the game’s most revered coaches will be sitting out the NCAA tournament because of violations. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, the third highest-paid coach in the land, coach of national champions at Kentucky in 1996 and at Louisville in 2013, has been sidelined by the Louisville administration because one of his assistants paid sex workers and strippers to have sex with basketball recruits, players, and their fathers at dorm parties that ran for four years. Two of the sex workers were daughters of the madam who orchestrated the fun, Katina Powell, who wrote a damning book called Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen. Louisville basketball, it turns out, is truly a family affair. An investigation by the NCAA is continuing.

Southern Methodist University’s Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to the national championship in 1988, will also be watching the tournament at home this year. The NCAA banned SMU from postseason play and suspended Brown for nine games because one of his prize recruits, a McDonald’s All-American named Keith Frazier, had been admitted to the university even though he was academically unqualified, and then his grades were doctored to ensure his eligibility. When the scandal broke, Frazier left the team and transferred to North Texas.

“The tragedy,” Michael Powell wrote in The New York Times, “is that the adults in big-time high school and college basketball…exert far more energy trying to churn out victories than trying to provide an education. Young men like Frazier, who just three years ago was Brown’s top recruit, are collateral damage.”

This was not Larry Brown’s first brush with the NCAA sheriffs. Kansas was banned from postseason play in 1989 because Brown was caught on tape admitting to illegal cash payments, with assistants acting as bag men. At UCLA, Brown coached the team to the title game, only to have the tournament wins tossed out by the NCAA because Brown had fielded two players who were academically ineligible.

But repeat offenders like Larry Brown are aware that after the storm blows over, the money and the recruits will keep pouring in. Asked if the sanctions had damaged his recruiting efforts, Brown replied, “Not one bit. I think it’s only helping.”

There may be something even more insidious about March Madness than the money and the cynical treatment of “student-athletes” like Keith Frazier. Maybe the most insidious thing is the carefully nurtured lie that the tournament is a wide-open affair, an equal-opportunity nationwide free-for-all in which all 68 teams have a legitimate shot at the title. This is another piece of the bedrock American myth that says anyone can get rich, anyone can become president, even Cinderellas make it to the dance. Nonsense. There are 16 seeds in each of the four regions in the tournament, and the lowest seed ever to win it all was #8 Villanova in 1985, which is another way of saying that far fewer than half of the teams have a realistic chance of winning the title. Of course some players and coaches are thrilled just to get a chance to appear briefly on the big stage, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And every once in a long while there are pleasant surprises, such as when Steph Curry and his unheralded Davidson teammates, a #13 seed, made a scintillating run to the round of eight in 2008. But let’s not lose sight of the facts that schools that make the tournament earn $1.67 million even if they never win a game, and a run to the Final Four brings in the handsome sum of $8.3 million.

Simply put, in college basketball, as in the rest of American life, there are the haves and the have-nots, the blue-bloods and the also-rans. The rich will keep getting richer and everyone else will keep buying into the delusion that they can get rich too — even though the deck is rigorously stacked against them. As Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio put it, “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves.” As if. Elite programs have the leverage — the prestige, the facilities, the money, the fans, and, yes, the TV exposure — that guarantees they will continue to attract the top talent. Meanwhile, March Madness will continue to feed the fantasy among American kids that they’re destined for a big-time college team and its natural payoff, a high-paying berth in the NBA. Many of those young dreamers will wind up like Keith Frazier, collateral damage who bought into the myth of the cash cow and found out the hard way that big money and college sports are a toxic mix.

So be it. Time to crack open a beer, turn on the tube, and let the games begin. Sure, I’ll watch the final minutes of a few games this year because I’ve been playing basketball as long as I’ve been walking upright and I think the game is one of mankind’s few truly beautiful creations. In the bursts of action between the endless commercial breaks, I’ll get reminded, once again, that many of the kids who play the game today are insanely talented. Too bad they’re being so shamelessly exploited.

Image Credit: Flickr/Håkan Dahlström.

Hanging ‘Em Up: On Reading About (and Not Watching) Sports

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In the past year or so, I’ve read the following books about boxing: Nick Tosches’s The Devil and Sonny Liston, a stylized history of the troubled former champion; Norman Mailer’s document of the 1975 Muhammad Ali/George Foreman battle, The Fight; Mark Kriegel’s The Good Son, a biography of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini; and Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson’s maddening but compelling autobiography. I’ve supplemented those with a heavy dose of magazine articles, including Sports Illustrated profiles of Deontay Wilder, Gennady Golovkin, Don King, and Al Haymon, pieces in New York and The New Yorker about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fiasco, and classics by Gay Talese and W.C. Heinz.

All of this would suggest that I’m a boxing fan, one of those old-timey cigar-chewers eager to overlook the sport’s myriad problems and mainstream insignificance in order to enjoy its brutal purity. But despite boxing’s outsize presence in my reading, I’m not particularly interested in it. I’ve watched perhaps an hour’s worth of the sport in the past 12 months, mostly in a flipping-channels sort of way. As it turns out, I’m not a boxing fan; I’m a fan of reading about it.

This has happened to me with other sports, to varying degrees. I read about baseball far more than I watch it; at one point this summer, I forewent live Mets games in favor of The Bad Guys Won, Jeff Pearlman’s account of the team’s debauched ’86 World Series run. I recently read Scott Raab’s pre-Cavs-return evisceration of LeBron James, The Whore of Akron, but I’ve watched about 15 minutes of James’s actual career. Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers, a deep inside look at the 2011 New York Jets, is coming up fast in my queue. I haven’t watched a Jets game since Boomer Esiason was the team’s quarterback.

This sort of effete, keeping-my-gloves-on distance is somewhat disconcerting to me. As a child, I read about sports just as I do now; among the first books I read cover-to-cover were Outrageous!, Charles Barkley’s autobiography (in which he famously claimed to have been misquoted,) and Say Hey!, the autobiography of Willie Mays. The difference — aside from my having outgrown exclamation-pointed, ghostwritten autobiographies — was that my interest in such books was an outgrowth of my overall sports fanaticism; it was an equal branch on the tree. I read about Barkley because I played basketball after school and watched NBA games on weekends. Despite a few obvious differences — I was a skinny, contact-shy 11-year-old from suburban New Jersey; he was a 250-pound wrecking ball from central Alabama — my desire to read his book was more physical than intellectual. I loved what he did on the court, I wished that I could play like him, and I saw Outrageous! as a chance to spend some time with the man. It was all of a piece.

Twenty-odd years later, only the reading remains. I recently read Pistol, Kriegel’s excellent biography of doomed basketball legend Pete Maravich, for the opposite reason that I once read Outrageous! I had never seen a second of a Maravich game, had never sought out his grainy YouTube clips. I was attracted to his story, his fashionably damned character arc: father-crafted kid prodigy, collegiate megastar, oft-injured pro, reclusive retiree, early heart attack victim. Take away the droopy socks and the LSU jersey and he could have been a figure in a Richard Yates novel. I once used to read sports books because I admired their subjects; now, it seems, I read them because I admire their narrative — the more harrowing the better.

So why read these books at all? Why not stick with Yates — or, for that matter, any novelist or nonfiction writer — if all I’m after is the story? I think the answer, as is increasingly the case, lies in my mortality. I’ll be 37 in a couple of weeks — not old, of course, but getting slightly grayer, growing indisputably creakier — with a hazy sense of the end of things, way off down the road. I shouldn’t arrive there any time soon (at least I hope I don’t), but, like a faraway city on the bottom of a roadside mileage sign, its distance is no excuse to ignore the fact of it.

As a chronically exhausted, train-commuting, kitchen-cleaning husband and father, I have neither the time, energy, nor desire to sit on the couch for two hours and watch a Grizzlies-Raptors game. Life might not be too short for such things, but it’s not as long as it used to be. Sports books have become my replacement for those hours on the couch. They take the most interesting aspects of a sport — for instance, baseball’s longest game, immortalized in Dan Barry’s wonderful Bottom of the 33rd — and let the irrelevancies fall away, like Civil War accounts that skip over the minor battles. The books allow me to experience the games without having to experience all the games.

As children, we watch those games to vicariously experience triumph and defeat, and in the process learn that we will experience both — usually more of the latter — throughout the course of our lives. When I was 12, the Giants won Super Bowl XXV on Scott Norwood’s errant field goal, and as I screamed with joy, I couldn’t help but think about the weight on the kicker’s shoulders. ABC’s cameras caught him as he shuffled off the field, blankly miserable, and the image stopped my whooping and made me want to cry. Football, as strange as it seems, was offering a lesson in empathy.

I absorbed plenty of such lessons through years of watching sports, and many more from playing them. But I’m pushing 40, and I’ve pretty much learned all I’m going to learn about empathy, say, or perseverance, from men in uniforms. And although I still love to see a well-turned double play, a darting touchdown run, or a well-thrown jab, I’d just as soon wait a few years — when the best moments and contests have been ranked and distilled — and read about them. I’ll lie down on the couch with the new book, relaxing after another tiring day. My lifelong love for sports will feel undiminished. The TV, hanging on the wall in the corner of the room, will be off.

Image Credit: Flickr/Generation Bass.

Shaggy Grass, Seaside Golf, and French Theory: A Review of Cabot Links

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From the 18th tee of the almost universally renowned Cabot Links on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a golfer faces a sensory overload of views, along with a rather brutal, 475-yard, mostly-uphill, usually dead-into-the-wind par four. To the right, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, itself a feature visible from each and every hole on the course, churns. Ahead, there are minefields of deep bunkers framed by ragged edges. In the near distance, the down-on-their-luck houses of Inverness spread across the horizon, peppered with a few new massive vacation house construction projects. In the further distance, a high mountain tumbles into the sea. Within all this, a golfer cannot immediately determine a target line for the tee shot. This is a blind beginning, over a rise to rolling fairway.

But, lo!, the twin spires of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Parish resolve the problem, gleaming white target lines that, indeed, are precisely where a player should aim. That’s good design, both because the steeples offer a visual clue on how to play the hole and because steeples as visual clue are so, well, linksy. We’ve all heard such things on television while watching the British Open, how players have to aim at this hotel or that shed or that yonder knob. Over time, towns built up around the old links across the pond, and along the way players figured out which landmarks could serve as golfing cairns across the horizon. So too, it seems, with Cabot, and the crafty player feels good about picking that sightline and piping a drive into the blindness, then ecstatic when the trust is rewarded with a drive that catches the tumbles of the fairway properly to set up the best shot into the home green.

Yet, here, I find myself making the non-standard choice of invoking French social theorist Jean Baudrillard in what counts, nominally, as a golf course review. In brief, Baudrillard argues that we live in a world that has slipped far away from its moorings in experience and, instead, “substitutes signs of the real for the real,” a situation he describes as a world full of “simulacra” and experiences that are effectively “simulations” of reality. Las Vegas is a good example, where visitors “experience” thunder showers in an indoor version of Spain and can shop fake Parisian boulevards without leaving a casino.

Furthermore, the current fashion of newly-built golf courses adopting the aesthetics of the ancient indicates a shift in the sort of simulation golfers prefer. For a long time, the immaculate green perfection of Augusta National held sway as the model, tight mowing and crisp lines and pristine sand and expensive maintenance conceived as the best and only way to manage a course. Now, with the 15-year success of Bandon Dunes in coastal Oregon, and the accolades of newly opened, fuzzy-bunkered Streamsong in the U.S. golf epicenter of Florida, and the ragged design cues of 2015 major tournament venues Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, it’s clear that golf has entered into some kind of links renaissance. The idea, at heart, is to craft courses that feel old, that somehow “honor the game” in what sorts of shots they demand and images they produce.

At the final tee of Cabot, the links “feel” derives from the cleverness of the course architect — Rod Whitman — who must have seen St Peter’s on a visit to the site and realized how he could route a hole to make use of the steeples as guides. The sightline isn’t organic, then, in the manner of an old links, even if it functions in exactly the same way and, certainly, offers for the player the same sensation, a thrill of discovery, of resourcefulness, of connections to the ways things used to be done. This isn’t to say that the experience of that drive is bad, just that it is deeply constructed.

And in the same way, the full experience of playing Cabot relies on a steady stream of breathless accolades, as well as an equally voluminous (if quiet — this is Canada, after all) self-generated argument about its own existence as the only authentic links course in North America, save a course or two at even more far-flung Bandon. Golfers make long trips to Cabot and Bandon and others because of this supposed authenticity, where even the remoteness is part of the deal, a rugged journey that suggests the high quality of the experience about to be had. It doesn’t hurt that the long journey stays within the confines of the ocean and eliminates the need to abandon Anglo North American cultural norms.

Cutting to the first chase: Cabot Links is a joy and a marvel to play, certainly an authentic links if authenticity can be determined based on a golf course’s openness and/or requirement of an imaginative ground game, or by its location close to the whipping wind and salty air of a nearby sea, or by tufts of tall fescue securing dunes and hiding wayward golf balls, or deep pot bunkers that appear as snarling menaces ready to suck up every shot, or even by the local presence of lilting Irish or Scottish accents.

Of these aspects, the last one is perhaps both the most surprising and the most real. All through Atlantic Canada, but particularly along Cape Breton, the tonalities and rhythms of English carry the timbre and meter of the old island from whence many came, a few hundred years back. Even road signs on Cape Breton frequently carry the Gaelic beneath the English, a mark of the heritage of the residents and a hint that, in places, folks still speak it, just as the presence of French on other sides indicates the determined clinging-on of Acadians that, excepting New Brunswick (Canada’s Only Bi-Lingual Province!), form a small but vocal language minority.

But the other aspects determining the linksiness of Cabot are best considered through the lens of Jean Baudrillard, even though French critical theory checks in awfully low on the list of conversational topics one is likely to encounter while golfing. Indeed Cabot, and its growing presence in the former coastal coal mining town of Inverness, seems like an awfully apt case study in simulation. I don’t mean this as criticism, really, since I thoroughly enjoyed playing the course. Certainly the design of it has been remarkably well-executed, and the economic engine of the Cabot Resort — expanding with the official opening of a new course next year, Cabot Cliffs, and that already includes a high-end hotel, and arty condos, and several eateries that offer both jobs and dining opportunities for locals — is real and welcome in a remarkably gorgeous swath of North America that, like most of the whole of Atlantic Canada, has unfairly suffered both economic collapse and the ignominy of serving as the butt of regional jokes not far different than those that plague my own home turf of Appalachia.

Let’s put it this way: Cabot Links is as authentic as a contemporary links course can be, which is to say not at all, even though it totally is. If I want to be a purest here, a role I’m taking on as the linchpin of this review, I can cut the argument down to the simple root of history. You can’t just build a links course with a backhoe and an artful design, since the template of links courses lie within the haphazard centuries-long evolution of St. Andrews or, if you want to really be a purest, some unknown, windblown, overgrown, still-yet-to-be-found-by-the-tourists weed track in the middle of nowhere Scotland. Such courses aren’t so much built as gradually weathered from the rudiments of the landscape. A sheep huddling from the wind here. A shepherd whacking a rock with a stick there. Stout and whiskey and knickers and tams and hickory shafts and all that.

None of these things can be claimed by Cabot, since the course itself was ripped out and built up around and over the remains of a played-out coal mine just a few years ago (opening, as it did, in 2012). Cabot was conceived with the notion of building a links, which more or less violates the mystic sense of a place simply being a links. Nonetheless, the Cabot pro-shop is filled with expensive paraphernalia that harkens back to an imagined magical sense of antique linksiness: a thousand dollar leather golf bag hand-hewn in Oregon, tartan plaid putter covers, tartan plaid baby booties, and so forth. As much as this simulacra was built to sell the idea of a links course as a destination, so too is the pro shop filled with wares that sell the faux-residue of woodsmoke and peat.

Appearance matters more than anything, since with the true nature of Baudrillardian simulation substance has been replaced by symbol. The course itself presents itself as pleasing, and cleverly-designed, and rough hewn and — here we are again — authentic. Take the tee markers. They’re a curious choice of raw 2×4 chunks, beveled at the edge and wood burned with the Cabot logo. Hole markers, also, are engraved and painted into chunks of wood. And since the Gulf of St. Lawrence is right there next to it all, blowing mist and snow and wind and sun and all sorts of rapidly shifting meteorological messiness, all of this wood is battered and grayed and splintered and just so authentically old.

This is it in a nutshell, these tee markers made cheaply but cleverly, a brilliant little visual cue that encourages the golfer walking the links to accept this experience as old, not new, regardless of its actual age. Alongside that, the tee markers offer almost enough guidance to make a newbie comfortable with his or her choices on where the next hole happens to be, but leave enough mystery intact to further cultivate the illusion of aged quirkiness, of an organically-developed, ancient course routing that must be discovered. A player gets the sense that the locals know the way around and that you, as a visitor to this hallowed ground, must learn the aged wisdom of the locale.

The pleasure of playing Cabot lies in the way a golfer discovers and navigates the many ways it simulates/is the playing of a links. The cups are discs of metal that cling like tiny, ancient bells when a ball falls in, and the flagsticks click in firmly, to keep them from being dislodged by the wind. The turf around the bunkers is ragged and unkept, but purposefully so. There are fairy circles of mushrooms in the fairways, and brownness in the grasses, and texture to the fescue greens, which still putt well and clear, even in late autumn when I played, following a horrible summer of Atlantic Canada putting greens, so many of which had been wrecked by the massive snows of the preceding winter. My own home course on nearby Prince Edward Island had more than a few greens that, frankly, sucked the entire summer. And by “sucked” I mean had large swaths of grassless mud. There’s even a little public boardwalk among the dunes, passing right beside Cabot, so you can wave and say hello to non-golfers out walking the dog. As the dude in the pro-shop told me before the round, one of the markers of a true links is that it interacts with the town, and the path makes sure that it does. Another check on the list of things that make Cabot Links authentic.

The walking path is charming, as is more or less everything about Cabot Links, from the magnificent ruffles of the golf course, tousled like a crusty old codger who you can’t help love, to the saccharine practice of stenciling golf-writer quotes on each of the hotel doors. Ours was attributed to P.G. Wodehouse: “The only way of really finding out a man’s character is to play golf with him.” Even the bathroom had charming art, in the form of a framed map of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, in French, from before the French had been tossed out, when Nova Scotia wasn’t Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island was Ile St Jean.

Here it is, then, the rushing return of Baudrillard, his frenchy theory bringing me out of that frenchy map and into the ways that the charms of Cabot are also the absence of anything. The map on the bathroom wall, for example, is a fabricated fancy now. None of the places on it exist, inasmuch as we only consider things as existing when we accept their stable reality. Simply, Ile St Jean is Prince Edward Island, and what’s labeled on the map as “Labrador” is now the Bras d’Or Lakes of Cape Breton Island, and the stencils on the doors are quotes extracted from their context to become inspiration decoration, and the tousling of Cabot is blessedly intentional, done by nature and machine but certainly neither natural nor incidental. Cabot is because someone wanted it to be, not because it evolved its way into being, as with the old courses of yore.

I think, then, of the town of Inverness, and particularly to our morning trip for breakfast, to a coffee shop in the middle of the short main drag. It was suspiciously nice, lots of cash spent on decor and furniture, modern with a hint of age. Later, we learned that the shop is owned by Cabot also, the arms of the resort reaching down the street to lay claim to more space. Or, rather, to create more space: golfers needed a coffee shop, so the resort built one. Part of me finds that terrifying, a certain kind of golfish Disneyification, a town shaped to appear like an ideal seaside village perfect for a bucolic vacation. Yet, on the other hand, as with the golf course itself, the coffee shop offers a job or two for locals, and a place for locals to have a coffee and a pastry and a warm place to chat.

Similarly, but without any breath of concealment, the resort runs a “public house” on the main drag, though it’s connected to the hotels by staircases and common design themes. It’s a known fabrication, but the beer on tap includes local Cape Breton brewery Big Spruce (worth a visit in its own right, to sip flights while looking across Bras D’Or; it’s about an hour from Cabot and 10 minutes from Bell Bay). There was also plenty of authenticity in the baby-faced giant working the bar on the night we visited. He spoke with the right kind of Cape Breton-lilted quietude to let you know that, should anyone get rowdy, he’d take you out back and break you in half. That’s charm, too, something I’d expect to find in Ireland or Scotland, or throughout the Maritimes for that matter, a region of North America resplendent in charm, friendliness, and men ready and willing to kick your ass if the need arises.

So this is the pastiche of the simulation: Cabot and all that comes with it is built equally on the expectations golfers bring to the word “links” and the realities of its locale. What I like best, then, are the ways that authenticity cannot help but assert itself among the artful contrivances of the place. That’s not gorse on the sand dunes, for example, but instead is the vernacular foliage, wild rose (itself technically an invasive) and marram grass and sea oats and shrubs native to the place. The locals aren’t putting on those accents. The lobster boats in the marina beyond the picturesque green of #6 aren’t just for show. Inverness exists with its history, and at least so far hasn’t been cleaned up to pretend that it’s a tidy prosperous place, even if the apparent inevitability of the golf course has been carefully detailed by planning committees and financiers.

As far as authenticity goes, despite the efforts of the Cabot PR machine and the love sprinkled upon the course by the big golf magazines, a properly insufferable postmodernist has to, in the end, refuse its existence. Yes, Cabot lets you pretend you’re on a true links. But you aren’t. It was just built to seem that way, just as more or less every links course anywhere must be considered as some combination of real and fake. Indeed, even venerable St. Andrews is regularly torn up and renovated with heavy equipment to fit its style to the modern game, so perhaps the question of authenticity isn’t one that needs to be considered, nor the steady claims of achieving it worth making. Whether Cabot is or isn’t a links doesn’t have any effect on the pure pleasure you’ll find when you chip an 8-iron from 100 yards away, then watch your ball tumble and trundle up and around the shaped humps of Cabot Links, the best simulacra of a links golf course you’ll find on the East Coast of Canada, perhaps anywhere.

And Then We Pick: On Ed Caesar’s ‘Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’


For the epigraph to his brisk, entertaining book on professional marathon running, Ed Caesar chooses a passage from Julius Caesar (no relation): “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” Brutus’s speech sets the mood well enough, though considering what transpired at the recent Berlin Marathon, Caesar might have also looked for a quote from the same play’s punning cobbler, a “mender of bad soles.”

About 10 miles into that September Berlin race, the insoles of Eliud Kipchoge’s running flats began to slip out the back and flop around. It looked as if two neon appendages had sprouted out of his calves — perhaps some revolutionary technology designed by Nike to reduce wind drag? Despite this freak occurrence, Kipchoge won the race in a time of two hours and four minutes flat, just one minute or so slower than the world record (2:02:57) and a mere four minutes from breaking the two-hour mark. Surely the latter is within reach barring a similar wardrobe malfunction?

Not exactly. The two-hour marathon, 26.2 miles run at 4:35-per-mile pace, won’t be accomplished anytime soon, which Caesar, a journalist, acknowledges implicitly in the title: Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon. Elsewhere he calls the land beyond the two-hour barrier “the Narnia of Distance Running.” Seconds don’t come cheap in elite racing, and the two-hour marathon, at least when Caesar was writing his book, was still 218 seconds away:

What’s 218 seconds? It’s a pop song; a long commercial break; the time it takes to soft-boil a small egg. In marathon terms, however, those 218 seconds are a lifetime.

To produce a solid, let alone world-record, performance, everything has to go exactly right. The best marathoners usually compete only twice a year at a handful of fast, flat marathons (Berlin, London, Dubai). If a runner has an off day, if it’s too hot, cold, windy, rainy, if the pacers, who are world-class runners themselves, don’t hit their assigned splits, or if, say, a shoe disintegrates, then the attempt has to wait another six months.

Fear not, though; our best scientists are on the case. The Sub2hrProject in Newcastle, England, has been “launched…to ‘identify and nurture’ a runner who could break two hours within the next five years.” Mike Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology, calculated in a 1991 paper that “given ideal conditions, and the ideal runner,” a 1:57:58 marathon was possible. (And that’s without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.) Joyner based his prediction on physiological factors, while David Martin and Holly Ortlund used the historical correlation between the 10,000-meter and marathon world records to predict that the first sub-two-hour marathon would occur between 2029 and 2032. I can’t imagine the pressure that the world’s best marathoner will feel in 2032: If not for personal glory, break two hours to defend the honor of predictive statisticians everywhere!

I agree that the time will eventually fall, if only because, as with the 1950s pursuit of the four-minute mile, fate has conspired to align an arbitrary distance with a tempting target: just imagine having a “1” in front of your marathon time. If this logic sounds faulty, so be it, for even in such a hyper-regimented sport, there is an element of the irrational in distance running. As Caesar writes in one of his uncharacteristically overwrought moments: “Human beings are more than hearts and lungs and legs, and the quest for virgin territory more than a battle of swift feet.”

Caesar devotes a chapter to the always colorful history of the marathon (always more fun reading about than running). He starts with the hemerodromos (i.e., running messenger) Pheidippides’s fatal journey from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C., the best “creation myth in sports,” up through 17th-century England, where Samuel Pepys chronicled “endurance races taking place between the servants of the rich” around Hyde Park, an OSHA violation if there ever was one. For the 25-mile race run at the first modern Olympics in 1896, a Greek financial backer offered his daughter’s hand in marriage “for any local man to cross the finish line in first place.” (A Greek, Spyridon Louis, did eventually win, but he opted for “free meals and haircuts for life” instead of the daughter.) The first man to cross the line of the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis hitched a ride from miles 9 to 20; a forbear of Rosie Ruiz, who in 1980 would hop on the T and emerge to “win” the Boston Marathon. The actual winner in St. Louis, Thomas Hicks, downed on course a “cocktail of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine,” an early version of the nauseating energy drinks widely available today.

The modern marathon distance — twenty-six miles, three hundred and eighty-five yards — was established at the 1908 Olympic Marathon so that the royal family would be optimally positioned to watch the start at Windsor Castle and the finish from their royal box in White City Stadium. They were treated to quite a race between an Italian pastry maker, Dorando Pietri, the American Johnny Hayes, who trained on the cinder track on the roof of Bloomingdale’s, and a South African named Charles Heffernon, who was leading with two miles to go before he cramped up after drinking a glass of champagne. (Brandy and strychnine is one thing, but champagne is just unprofessional.) Pietri took over the lead, then collapsed during the final lap in the stadium and was disqualified for being dragged across the finish line. A tough blow for the Italians, who would have to wait until 2004 in Athens to win an Olympic marathon; there Stefano Baldini prevailed after the leader, Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima, was tackled by a defrocked priest with four miles to go. Sometimes the sport seems governed by Murphy’s Law.

Caesar also gets us up to speed on the current state of the marathon: “Since 2002…not only had two minutes fallen from the world record, but the distance appeared to have changed genre” from a “pure endurance event” to a “speed-endurance event.” Apart from this shift, the model whereby an elite runner spends the first part of his career on the track before moving to the marathon seems to be evolving. Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian champion, did just that, dominating at the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances before becoming the first man to break 2:04 in the marathon, at the age of 35. Gebrselassie believes that track work in his 20s laid the foundations for marathon success in his 30s (“If you cut a young tree for timber, you cannot succeed,”) though the 25-year-old Gebrselassie might have had a greater potential for running faster.

Major marathons generate and pay out big money, which isn’t to say that the elite marathoners are stars. Caesar describes the average, presumably Western viewer tuning in to watch the start of an elite marathon:

What you see is a parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies. Their names are as good as indistinguishable, and their stories mysterious.

Caesar attempts to remedy this by profiling Geoffrey Mutai, one of the marathoners leading the charge to lower the marathon record. He couldn’t have chosen a nicer — and faster — guy, even if the humble, soft-spoken runner doesn’t quite pop off the page. We first see Mutai trying to get in the zone before the 2012 Berlin Marathon by summoning “the Spirit,” or what the French cyclist Jean Bobet described, in typically sensual Gallic terms, as la volupté: a state of “speed and ease, force and grace.” The Spirit does arrive, and he wins.

Mutai is from Equator, a town in Kenya’s Rift Valley perched 9,000 feet above sea level. He is a Kipsigi, “a subtribe of the Kalenjin, part of a Nilotic family of tribes who emerged from the Nile Valley centuries ago, and who now utterly dominate distance running…the most extraordinary sample of geographically concentrated dominance in any sport.” Caesar outlines some of the cultural and genetic explanations for their success: Kalenjin runners have a comparatively active childhood and tend to be “extremely slender below the knee;” their diet is “nearly perfect for an endurance athlete;” they were born at altitude but have sea-level ancestry, an optimal combination for heart and lung efficiency, as David Epstein pointed out in The Sports Gene; and the financial rewards are enormous. Caesar also mentions but pays less heed to evolutionary arguments about Kenyan prowess, from the more plausible — cattle raiding conferred reproductive benefits on the swiftest over long distances — to the absurd — painful Kalenjin circumcision rituals “bred toughness” over the centuries, culminating in an athletic population capable of producing a specimen who can run endless 4:40 miles without flinching.

There is much debate about each of these explanations, but Caesar sees Kenyan dominance as a numbers game. A combination of genetic and socioeconomic factors has created the right conditions for world-class marathoners to emerge: “Of the hundreds and thousands of men and women who attempt to have careers as professional runners, these particular athletes play the music of their lives most sweetly.”

Mutai was one of 11 children, overcoming an abusive relationship with his father and a bout of teenage drinking to dedicate himself to the sport. He left Equator to train alongside a group of self-coached runners in the remote village of Skyland (Kapng’tuny), this during a time when the region was beset by violence stemming from the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential election:

On long runs, the athletes didn’t know whom they would meet. The marathon runner Wesley Ngetich was killed during the violence by poison arrow. The world marathon champion Luke Kibet was severely injured when he was struck by a stone.

Mutai himself narrowly escapes being attacked by a machete-wielding mob just two months before his first international marathon in Monaco. Caesar effectively captures the bemusement that Mutai feels when transported from this alternately ascetic, roiling environment to the Riviera: “Mutai found the place ridiculous. People in Monaco drove their cars in tunnels and treated their dogs in hospitals…Here he was, in this odd place where rich mzungus [whites] lived crushed together, and he had a chance to change his fortunes.”

Which he does. Mutai wins the race and goes on to become a world-class marathoner. In 2011, led out by the front-running American Ryan Hall and pushed by fellow Kenyan Moses Mosop and a strong tailwind, he produced the fastest marathon ever run at the time, 2:03:02. (Though the challenging Boston course, for officious reasons not worth getting worked up over here, is not world-record eligible.) Even after raking in prize money from subsequent victories in Berlin and New York, he continues to retreat to a small cottage with no running water and three roommates during peak training periods, heading out up to three times a day — between naps — to run on “God’s own racetrack: the dirt roads of Skyland.”

This may sound crazy to the millions of Americans forced to listen to their coworkers droning on about their marathon training, but Caesar could have gone into more detail about Mutai’s workouts. Unlike the pair of books by Chris Lear on collegiate runners (Running with the Buffaloes and Sub 4:00), Caesar doesn’t delve too deep into the specifics of the training program, but rather outlines the building blocks — long runs of around 20 miles that get progressively faster and hills, lots of hills, which “[stay] in the legs longer” than track work. Another staple is the “fartlek,” a Swedish term meaning “speed play” that has been reliably making me giggle for decades. (It involves a continuous run alternating between faster and slower paces.)

Really though, the Kenyan training strategy is simple: “We start slow…and then we pick [go fast].” And perhaps we’re overcomplicating what’s needed to run a two-hour marathon, such as devising new shoe technology or constructing a sheltered course with a more forgiving surface than asphalt. Why not cover the first half in one hour or so, and then, in the lapidary parlance of these extraordinary athletes, pick? Easier said than run.