The Best American Sports Writing 2010 is the latest in a series of collections dating back to 1991. In each collection, series editor Glenn Stout chooses a volume editor to sift through the many, many submissions in an effort to choose the very best sports writing of the previous year. Most articles originally appeared in print (either newspaper or magazine), although recent volumes have begun to incorporate online writing as well.
In the past, Stout’s choices for volume editor have been some the truly great sports journalists of the modern era. Recent editors have included Bill Littlefield (NPR’s “Only a Game”), Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Buzz Bissinger (Friday Night Lights), and Richard Ben Cramer (“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now,” which appears in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, reviewed here). For the 2010 volume, Stout chose none other than Groton’s very own Peter Gammons, of Boston Globe, ESPN and NESN fame. Gammons introduces the various profiles, columns and exposés with an essay that explores the way physical feats produce emotional reactions, and the timelessness of that connection. His essay is followed by 26 phenomenally well-written stories about sports ranging from boxing to golf, from skiing to basketball.
There is also an emotional range to these articles that compliments their topical range, from Thomas Lake’s heartwarming profile of Mallory Holtman, the college softball player who made national headlines when she helped an injured opponent around the bases on a home, to Wright Thompson’s gut-wrenching quest to find a boxer who fought Muhammad Ali and effectively disappeared, to Pat Jordan’s laughably ridiculous attempt at getting an interview with Jose Canseco. Each story in this collection is evocative in the literal sense of the word- it evokes an emotional or thoughtful reaction. Eric Nusbaum’s “The Death of a Pitcher,” about a young Mexican pitcher kidnapped and then executed, is so tragic in its randomness that a sense of melancholy fills you upon finishing it. But Malcolm Gladwell’s “Offensive Play” is more cerebral, a comparison between Michael Vick and his dogs and NFL coaches and their concussion-riddled players. Both, Gladwell argues, are instances of a person in power (owner/coach) exploiting a subordinate’s (dog/player) desire to please him to the point that the subordinate willingly puts his life on the line. These exploitations, Gladwell says, are social evils, and they require acts of social compassion to fix.
Whether it makes you think, makes you feel, or both, there is not a single article in this collection that you read and just move on from. Every article requires time- a moment, an hour, or a week- to digest in your brain or heart. These articles stick with you, and that’s every writer’s goal.
A Sad, Crazy Time in Sports
If we think of sports as a cultural institution, then sports writing is a reflection on our culture, an analysis into the modern athletic zeitgeist (spirit of the times). And if these articles are the best representations of current sports writing, then the zeitgeist of sport is overwhelmingly negative. Of the 26 articles, there is only one truly uplifting article, and it’s the first (Lake’s “The Way it Should Be”). After that, there is nothing but sadness, injury and death for a very long time. There are three articles about concussions in the NFL- Gladwell’s comparison with dog-fighting, a history of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (long-term post-concussive syndrome) and the myriad ways the NFL has tried until very recently to deny it and silence any study supporting it, and a look at former Patriot Ted Johnson’s life after football (and many concussions). The Johnson profile directly follows the CTE history, most likely because one of the NFL’s ongoing arguments against CTE studies is that they’re all post-mortem studies, and you can’t connect concussions to all of these CTE-destroyed brains until you study them while they’re still alive.
There are two crushingly sad tales. The first is Thompson’s “Shadow Boxing,” about trying to find a man who fought Ali and then vanished from history. The story takes Thompson to one the bleakest, harshest parts of Miami, and his imagery is so brutally descriptive (such as crackheads looking under his restaurant chair while he’s still eating trying to find cigarette butts for the leftover tobacco) that your insides twist and knot. Thompson’s conclusion- that time and drugs effectively erased this person from history, because no one alive has any idea what happened to him- leaves you gasping for air.
But where Thompson goes for your guts, Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler makes your blood boil with outrage. “Failing Our Athletes,” subtitled “The Sad State of Sports in Boston Public Schools,” is about exactly that. At 34 pages, it is the longest article, but that’s because it leaves no stone unturned in a comprehensive examination of everything wrong with Boston high school athletics. And everything is what’s wrong with them. Funding is non-existent. Equipment is out-dated, broken or found in dumpsters. Training facilities are terrible, when there are any. Coaches are incompetent, and the trainer (one for the entire city) is beyond over-worked. Busing keeps schools from developing community support, and it doesn’t matter, since the communities are plagued by gang violence that often claims students’ lives. There is no support from the professional Boston teams, but that’s because no one’s gone to them with a legitimate grant proposal. When you read this essay, the overwhelming feeling is of despair. Given the sheer number of issues plaguing Boston athletics, how can it ever get better? There is no answer.
The sadness of sport eventually ends, but it doesn’t get happier. The best way to describe the last few articles of the collection would be “zany.” In Michael Lewis’ “The No-Stats All-Star,” about the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier, Lewis departs from his usual “statistics are everything” mantra, arguing that Battier’s bizarre defensive prowess defies all statistical analysis but is there just the same. Richard Hoffer’s “The Revolutionary” is about the man who invented the modern high-jumping style, “The Fosbury Flop,” essentially mid-jump, and his kooky adventures in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Dan Le Batard’s “Life Throws Bernie Kosar for a Loss” is about former Cleveland Brown quarterback Bernie Kosar’s current lifestyle, and you come away from the article thinking Kosar, constantly in pain and on the verge of total bankruptcy, is completely delusional. And the collection concludes with Jordan’s “Chasing Jose,” which you come away from knowing Canseco is completely delusional, as is the company he keeps.
This is not a book for those seeking a fun read about happy-go-lucky athletes and game-winning home runs. This collection is a stark portrayal of the world and lives of real athletes, marred by injury, external violence, death, and sometimes just time itself. But every article, even the ones about professional cyclists, speak to the connections between sport and the rest of life. Sports don’t happen in a vacuum. What happens in sports affects the outside world, and vice versa. To deny this or attempt to sugar-coat it does a great disservice to the athletes who put their health, both physical and mental, on the line for our entertainment. Journalists are taught to seek the truth, and that’s what these journalists have done: presented the truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us, God.