J. R. Moehringer (Ed.), The Best American Sports Writing 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2013, pp, xxix + 400, paper, US $14.95.
Sport is another arena for playing out the comedy of life. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it brings out the best in us and the worst in us. This is no better demonstrated than in the 2013 edition of The Best American Sports Writing, edited by J. R. Moehringer. This is the 23rd edition of the series which first saw the light of day in 1991. Moehringer is to be congratulated on his choice of contributors and the way he has organised the various contributions. They demonstrate how sport, in the words of Series Editor Glenn Stout, ‘is more about people and what concerns us – love, death, labor and loss – than about the simple results of a game or competition. Wins and losses are the least important part of the equation – and the standings are often the worst measure of anything. It really is how you play the game…and how you think about it, and how you feel about that’ (p. xii).
Moehringer has assembled 26 contributions, 25 essays and one cheeky short play. They range in length from three to 25 pages. Eight of the contributions are devoted to football, four each to baseball and running, two to basketball, and one each to bullfighting, bowling, boxing, cycling, surfing, soccer, swimming and strongman (or person)/weightlifting. One of the themes which dominate this collection is that of death. A number of players at school died in car accidents, two of the chapters examine the reverberations from athletes who had cardiac arrests while competing, one a high school basketball player, there are two suicides including a high school footballer who experienced concussion and a lesbian killing her lover. In addition to this, there are three chapters that deal with the extensive problem of injuries and associated problems with playing sport. Sport in this collection is overwhelmingly cast as exercises in competition rather than play. Sport is not fun, it is cut throat and vicious; especially in the case of football.
The volume provides insights into the operation and mores of bullfighting and the strange world of strongperson sport and weightlifting. Surfing is portrayed as a form of cultural resistance by Hawaiians against hegemonic forces from the American mainland. The only other tilts at culture examine the background to The Simpsons 1993 show ‘Homer at the Bat’, why athletes don’t take a stand on political or leading issues and the importance of running to a ‘tribe’ in Mexico. There are contributions on a dictatorial General Manager who treated front office staff at a baseball club worse than army recruits at boot camp, and football coaches who get their jollies by bullying players and telling them how bad they are. One of the saddest chapters is on a football coach who is so obsessed with winning that he loses himself and his family. Two contributors examine sport from the perspective of the fan. One is by director of The Wire, David Simon, who tongue in cheek explains his jaundiced view on American life as stemming from his relationship with the Baltimore Orioles. Then again, maybe he wasn’t tongue in cheek says a St. Kilda supporter!
Examples of the uplifting nature of sport are provided by the high school football team who befriended a handicapped girl, protected her from bullying and thereby enhanced her sense of self worth. Barely two and a half pages brought a tear to the eye. There is a delightful story of an ex cop who opened a boxing gym to look after and keep local kids off the street. And there are examples of where sport provides individuals with a sense of self worth or in response to grief following the death of a family member or fellow player.
Moehringer has two sections where he has four contributions in a row on running and five on football. An examination of these two sections amply demonstrates his skill of composition. The first on running examines Caballo Blanco, or White Horse (real name Michael Randall Hickman) who found meaning to his life in ultra marathon running. He loved the freedom it gave him and organised races in Mexico. He died of a cardiac arrest on one such run. This is followed by an account of a middle aged dentist who cheated in marathon races as a means to raise funds for his child who has cystic fibrosis. Juxtaposed against this is an author who wants to repent for his sins in jumping onto a bandwagon in rejecting the claims of an ultra runner who ran around the world. This is guilt he is unable to assuage after more than a decade. The final contribution is by Cynthia Ritchie, which is the best piece in this collection. It is similar to the first. She writes that through running
my mind unfolds, it’s like magic, my mind opens and I’m somewhere new, somewhere deep and wordless and primitive, someplace where I’m totally and purely myself, in that space before language or time…each time I run I can feel the persistent and inevitable possibility of my own death, and behind it and before it and probably even because of it, so much fucking life (pp. 273-274 + 277).
The five football contributions begin with an examination of why is it that athletes don’t speak up on issues of the day, in comparison to the likes of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali in earlier years. This is approached from the perspective of a college football player who joins a hunger strike in support of a campaign for a living wage of university employees who perform low skilled work. He is seen as such an oddity. The answer lies in the socialisation of athletes to accept authority at a young age (because there might be a nice payout if you make it), the ostracising and condemnation by those who know such things if you put your head above the parapet and a more general malaise in American society concerning such issues.
The next four pieces provide an overarching critique of American football and the devastating health implications it has for players and others. There is an account of a 17 year old player who committed suicide after a concussion. It provides an even more alarming red flag on the problem that concussion is posing for the sport, which has involved the National Football League in major litigation in recent years. Then we have the chapter on the coach who sold his soul to the devil; he didn’t know what else he could do. This is followed by a devastating examination of former players becoming addicted to pain killers, and god knows what else, to escape the pain that their bodies experience from that wondrous short time they spent in the sun. Whatever income they accrued while playing, is quickly dissipated with disastrous consequences for themselves and their families. This drug dependence of former players is football’s dirty little secret. The final piece is a play entitled ‘Waiting for Goodell’, a take on the Samuel Beckett play ‘Waiting for Godot’. Roger Goodell is the Commissioner of the National Football League. In this three pager, the actors are waiting for him to turn up and do something about the mess that football finds itself in. Samuel Beckett didn’t pen a classic for nothing.
The Best American Sports Writing 2013 is an outstanding collection of essays. The pity is that there isn’t a better word than ‘best’ to describe them. ‘Outstanding’ may do the trick. Its contributors have paid testament to the various ways in which sport impacts on our lives for good and for bad. I eagerly await next year’s volume.
University of Melbourne
 Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth, Crown Archetype, New York, 2013.