Don’t know what it is about me that I love reading about boxing.
I never boxed. I’ve never been to the fights. I can’t remember the last fight I watched on TV. I’m not a particular fan of watching people bleed. If you pressed me, I’d admit to having moral qualms about the sport. But for some reason I love reading about it.
I know the reason.
After baseball, boxing inspires the best sportswriting.
Newspapers, magazines, books, doesn’t matter, it’s almost all good and a lot of it’s great. There are probably some terrific boxing blogs out there, I just haven’t found them yet.
Baseball, like I said, inspires the best in sportswriters. (The worst too, but never mind.) Then boxing. Then golf, then horseracing, two other sports I’ve never had much interest in outside of reading about them. Next is basketball, although that seems to be more the province of newspapers and magazines. I can’t think of many great basketball books. And, finally, football. And high school football more than college or pro.
I’ve got a bunch of sports books read and waiting for me to write up reviews for. They’re all good. The best of them is the baseball book, One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard. The next best is one of the boxing books, The Longest Fight: In the Ring with Joe Gans, Boxing's First African American Champion by William Gildea. The third and fourth best, Finding the Game and This Love Is Not For Cowards, are about soccer. I don’t know how they got in there. But then come the other two boxing books, new biographies of Floyd Patterson and Boom Boom Mancini. Last are the two football books, Mike Freeman's Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins' Perfect Season and The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s--The Era that Created Modern Sports by Kevin Cook. It’s a small sample but it but it would seem to support my ranking of the sports as fodder for good writing.
Of course, it’s probably just a reflection of my preferences. I’d rather read about baseball and boxing so, without thinking about it, I’ll reach for a book about one or the other without even considering books about other sports, so I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of excellent football books over the years, and tennis books, hockey books, jai alai, lacrosse, and synchronized swimming books, as well. God knows how many fine articles I’ve skipped.
But I’ve got reasons for thinking this judgment may be objective. Football is just very hard to write well about.
First the way the football’s played complicates narrative and description. Things happen too fast and at too great a distance and over too wide an area for spectators (including coaches, players on the bench, and reporters in the press box) to take in all at once what's happening on any given play. And they happen too fast but too close in for the players on the field to see much going on besides what's right in front of them. This means that the "story" of a touchdown or a sack or an interception or a key injury has to be pieced together afterwards from the reports of too many eyewitnesses or from or at least with help from watching the tape. This can be done and done well, but mostly the result reads like a police report.
But it's also the case that more than other sports football emphasizes strategy and violence, and both topics are inherently dull to read about. Strategy because it easily degenerates into sheer wonkery. Violence because it gets repetitive.
The two football books in my dogpile reflect that. Undefeated is really a biography of Don Shula, telling the story of his life in the context of a single season, and Shula was one of the thinkingest coaches of his time. The Last Headbangers chronicles the period when strategically thinking coaches like Shula completely took over the play on the field, but the 70s were also when football became extremely popular as television entertainment, a spectacle more than a sport, and, as Cook tells it, violence became the main attraction in that spectacle.
Freeman and Cook handle this pretty well, keeping the wonkery and the violence to a minimum and folding both into the construction of their narrative arcs, but it still hampers their writing.
Fortunately, both writers avoid another trap. Nevermind the talk about heart and character that creeps into all sportswriting and sentimenlizes the most cynical writers' prose. For a lot of fans and players and coaches, football is about will. The essential spirit of the game expresses itself in power and the will to dominate. This isn't what I like about the game. In fact, it's what keeps me from loving it anywhere near as much as I love baseball. I don't even think it's necessary to appreciating football as a sport as opposed to a spectacle. But it's there, whether I like it or not. It excuses the violence. Worse, it encourages celebration of the violence. Watching thugs inflict pain on each other becomes the point. Writers who accept this as intrinsic to the game, even resignedly, as well as writers who are seduced by it, become dull and stupid in a hurry. And they resort to cliches more often and easily to help them disguise what they're doing, which is either apologizing for bullies or out and out cheerleading for them.
At any rate, I think the emphasis on strategy, violence, and power leads to too much analysis, editorializing, and rah-rahing in place of storytelling.
But there's one more thing that gets in the way of strong storytelling. The nature of the work itself.
There simply isn't time for people in the game to stand around telling each other stories.
It's not just that the games themselves are so fast and furious. The season is compressed compared to other sports, some of which---golf, tennis, boxing, horseracing---don't have real seasons, they have cycles, and go on all year. Baseball practically does too, now that the World Series can finish in November.
And the football work week is intense. Game days are hard, but so are the workdays in between. It's non-stop study and drill.
Now think about how much time over the courses of their long seasons people working in other sports spend standing or sitting around with nothing to do or doing work that doesn't require their full attention or concentrated physical effort. For baseball players that includes long stretches during their games. And what are they doing while standing around? Waiting, mostly. For their turn in the batting cage. For the next race to start. For the champ to finish his road work.
That gives them a lot of time to talk.
(On the golf course you're expected to do your waiting in near silence, but then there's all that time walking to the next hole.)
Which is what they do, talk. They talk shop, of course. But, mainly, they shoot the breeze, one way or another, exchanging news, catching up, gossiping---telling stories. And all this chatter is very helpful to someone planning to write about any of these sports, because what are sportswriters, after all?
Tellers of other people's stories.
Reporters are dependent on their sources, and the better their sources are at telling them about themselves, what they do, what goes on around them how they go about their jobs, the better they are at telling stories, the more and the better the material the writer has to work with when re-telling those stories to readers.
No way I'm suggesting that football players and coaches aren't as intelligent about their sport. In fact, I'd bet just the opposite. But I think players and coaches and trainers and other workers in other sports are more practiced in explaining what they do in the form of stories, because a lot of the point even when they're talking shop is to entertain each other while passing the time. They learn to illustrate their points with anecdotes and gossip and jokes and comparisons and the occasional tall tale, and this shows up in the reporting.
In the writing.
Because people enjoy a good story, smart storytellers learn how to craft a rattling good yarn. Over time and many re-tellings, they refine and revise their own stories. They also collect other storytellers' stories and pass them along. And when you collect stories, you collect characters along with them. And characters bring with the m their own unique voices.
(Storytellers also learn how to turn themselves into characters in their own stories.)
It seems to me that this is the big difference between writing about football and writing about other sports, particularly baseball and boxing.
Writing about football is full of personalities, usually outsized ones. Writing about baseball and boxing is full of characters.
Joe Namath was a personality.
Ty Cobb was a character.
And this is the case with Undefeated and The Last Headbangers. Both books feature lively biographical sketches but there are more personalities---like Mercury Morris in Undefeated, John Madden and John Matuszak in The Last Headbangers---and few characters, like Cus D'Amato in the Floyd Patterson biography or Battling Nelson, Eubie Blake, and Joe Gans' mother in The Longest Fight.
The most character-like character in The Last Headbangers isn't a player or a coach. He's a professional storyteller. Howard Cosell.
Which may explain why the best part of that book deals with the rise of Monday Night Football.
Now it may be that baseball and boxing simply attract more characters, that the athletes themselves and their coaches and the people who surround them and gravitate to the sport tend to be eccentrics. I don't know. What I do know is that the parade of eccentrics is longer and more colorful in the books I've read about baseball and boxing. Which explains my preference. Which explains why I read more about them. And which probably explains how I've missed out on a lot of great football writing. I don't expect to find what I love to find in writing about baseball and other sports.
So, your turn: I'm working on reviews of all the books above, and not this week but starting the week after it's going to be rather sports heavy around here. This week's going to feature vice-presidential candidates and movie star dogs. Meantime, if you have any recommendations not just for good football writing but good sportswriting period, please leave a comment.