Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2011”

"The Best American Sports Writing 2011," edited by Jane Leavy

Four months have passed since I last reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s “Best American Sports Writing” series. We’re long past due for another, so here’s the 2011 collection.

Jane Leavy’s Not-So-Hidden Agenda

Introductions by BASW volume editors are usually just thematic essays (“sports rule” and “sports writing rules” being the two most common). The editors use those themes to loosely connect the stories that follow, so the introductions normally read as if they had been written after all the stories had been chosen.

But Washington Post writer Jane Leavy uses her introduction to lay out specific goals for the 2011 volume. Leavy begins with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and from there makes it abundantly clear that she began the process wanting to show sport’s recent shift towards the extreme.

This results in a collection of 29 stories that, despite varying greatly in both content and style, maintain a subtle, almost intangible connection to each other. It’s a bold strategy, and it both bolsters and sabotages BASW ’11.

The Upside: Sport’s Breadth and Variety

Of all the volumes I’ve read, “The Best American Sports Writing 2011” is the least dependent on the Big 4 professional sports. I finished BASW ’11 with an even greater appreciation for how varied the professional sports world truly is.

Chris Jones’ “Breathless” is about a free-diver basically trying to live underwater. Conversely, Craig Vetter’s “Icarus 2010” is about a BASE-jumper trying to fly unaided by parachutes or windsuits. Paul Solotaroff writes about Clay Marzo, one of the most bad-ass surfers out there, and Bret Anthony Johnson writes about Danny Way, one of the most bad-ass skateboarders.

BASW ’11 contains stories about crew, soccer (played by both homeless people and Chilean miners), boxing, wrestling, even video games. Stories about raising dogs and stories about raising horses. And yes, there are stories about football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

Whatever your personal athletic taste, chances are you’ll find at least one story that speaks to your own experiences. Not one essay is badly written or boring, although Michael Farber’s uber-detailed “Eight Seconds” never makes a point about the USA-Canada gold medal Olympic hockey game. I even enjoyed John McPhee’s “The Patch,” and normally I hate fishing stories.

The Downside: Sport’s Danger and Cost

Because Leavy begins both her intro and the volume itself with Kumaritashvili’s death, she sends a clear message: Because sports are more extreme, they’re also more dangerous, more lethal. Any subsequent story that portrays aggression, violence, danger carries with it that negative implication: The aggression needs to be dialed back, or people will keep dying needlessly.

While that framework works for some stories – X-Gamers know the risks of their professions – for others it just doesn’t. S. L. Price’s “The Pride of a Nation” is a fantastic examination of lacrosse’s place among the Iroquois, including the Nationals, their internationally competing lacrosse team (the only such indigenous team in the world). I absolutely loved the story when Sports Illustrated ran it back in July 2010. But in Leavy’s world, the intimidation the Iroquois seek by using handmade wooden lacrosse sticks isn’t a show of pride but rather brutality.

The creeping feeling that sport is heading in the wrong direction – one that will end with a high body count – doesn’t ever go away, and it’s reinforced by stories of actual wrongdoing. Jason Fagone’s “The Dirtiest Player” makes former Colts WR Marvin Harrison a murderer. Megan Chuchmach and Avni Patel’s “ABC News Investigation: USA Swimming Coaches Molested, Secretly Taped Dozens of Teen Swimmers” destroys the program that gave us Michael Phelps. And Robert Sanchez’s “The Crash” shows how even those only peripherally connected to sport – in this case, a rescue team trying to find survivors after a plane carrying Wichita State University’s football team crashed in Colorado in 1970 – wind up traumatized.

Not even sports writers are spared from Leavy’s overbearing fears. Nancy Hass’ “New Mike, Old Christine” is the story of a transgender sports writer for the Los Angeles Times who ultimately succumbs to the depression not uncommon to those with gender identity disorder. An inability to maintain his/her career as a journalist is one of the contributing factors.

“The Best American Sports Writing 2011” begins with death, and it ends with death. Leavy wants readers to see that the world of professional athletics is already wrought with danger, and it can only get worse.

That’s a pretty depressing lens to force onto sports, and ultimately, I’m just not sure it’s valid.

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