Book Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2014


Christopher McDougall (ed.), The Best American Sports Writing 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York, 2014, pp, xxi + 388, paper, US $14.95.

Sport exists because people like playing, watching, writing and reading about it. It is part of the human condition. For some it is an occupation, source of income and provides a sense of worth; for others it is a leisure activity and/or focus of interest. In 1991, Houghton Miller began a publishing venture entitled The Best American Series. One of the areas included was sport. Authors submit already published magazine articles to the sports’ series editor, Glenn Stout. He identifies those (121 for this issue) that are potential candidates for inclusion in the series. He then appoints an editor who selects the ‘best’ 25 for publication. For 2014, he chose Christopher McDougall who, in 2009, published the widely acclaimed Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Random House, New York).

The articles included in the Best collection of any year will be a function of material submitted and the two stage vetting process by the editors. Sport, in its various manifestations, being just another expression of the human condition, operates along a spectrum from good to bad, with many variations in between. The articles chosen for 2014 are situated more at the bad end of the spectrum. I finished the book with a feeling of despair. An example will be provided to illustrate this.

It involves a college basketball coach on a high salary who is sacked because of his verbal and physical abuse of players. Jonathan Mailer observes that ‘competitive sports…are…maybe…fundamentally a realm in which men can behave like emotionally stunted rage machines…[the coach] is no different from any other addict, only his vice is perfection…Part of the allure of the world of competitive sports is that it doesn’t require self awareness. Your only job is to win’ (pp, 249 + 256).

A volume of this type usually provides examples of the uplifting nature of sport. There is only one clear example in this year’s volume. David Merrill relates the story of one legged Anthony Robble who turned to wrestling to find a sense of self worth and confront those who mocked him for his appearance. He was a relentless trainer and perfected a style which enabled him to become a college champion. Having convinced himself and the wrestling world of his worth, he then retired from the sport to get on with the rest of his life.

An account is also provided of a lost soul who found self worth as a champion backgammon player who earns his living by gambling against high rollers. He said he took up backgammon because he ‘couldn’t function properly in the “normal” world’ (p. 328). There are two articles which compare the laissez faire life of tennis star Serena Williams with that of Li Na, as she negotiated her way around China’s state controlled system of sport.

This volume contains three thematic articles. One compares the Japanese and American approaches to practice and training in baseball, especially at the schoolboy level. The Japanese have a tradition of repeating ‘a simple physical task beyond the point of exhaustion’ or nagekomi (p.40). This results in pitchers ‘throwing out their arms’, shortening their careers and earning potential. Sports medicine is something that has not penetrated the workings of baseball in Japan; that society which likes to adopt and imitate western practices. Amanda Ripley argues that school sports have had negative effects on the academic success of children and the American economy, more generally. More resources should simply be channelled away from sport into academic pursuits. Amanda Hess examines the development of sports’ bras for female athletes. In the process she highlights the ways in which young girls use dieting and surgery, essentially self mutilation, to stop mensuration and reduce the size of their breasts to pursue sporting success. All power to Serena Williams!

From here on the tone of the articles goes down hill. There are four examples of sport and fraud. There is the cage fighter with local mobster links who faked his death. Next, the college footballer who played on, despite following the death of a girlfriend, who, in fact did not exist, to obtain publicity to enhance his chances of being drafted. Then there is an examination of claims that the hustler Bobby Riggs threw his tennis match against Billie Jean King in ‘The Battle of the Sexes’, in 1973, because he was in debt to the mob. Another illusion shattered. Finally, an account is provided of the declining days of the legendary fight promoter Don King. Along the way he was jailed for manslaughter, and whose legacy ‘In the eyes of the public…is a monster because he stole from his fighters’ (p. 159).

Patrick Hruby examines a mother with a young son of a family of National Football League stars who contemplates whether or not she should allow/encourage him to play football, given recent public awareness of the harmful effects that it has on the long term health of players (Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, League Of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, And The Battle For Truth, Crown, New York, 2013). She is checkmated when her son loses interest in the game and decides he would rather pursue other sports, including chess,

Eli Saslow provides a sad account of a school basketball coach who lost his job and standing in his community over false claims that he had been involved in child pornography. There are also articles which examine dimensions associated with suicide, where participating in sporting contests can result in death (car racing, surfing – shark attacks and drowning, running – falling of a mountain in a fun run in Alaska and the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon) and two former NFL stars who in their post football careers committed murders. Money and fame did not enable them to escape the histories of their troubled childhoods.

As terrible as these articles are, the saddest, if not the best written piece in the volume is Flinder Boyd’s account of Thomas Webster Jr, a 24 year old from Sacramento, who quits his job and travels by bus to try out at the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park, on 128th Street, New York. This is an event which has helped launch the careers of a number of famous players. Webster has had a troubled childhood and is prepared to gamble all in trying out at Rucker Park. He bombs out. He heads back to Sacramento with nothing to look forward to. More to the point, he is stripped of the dream that once gave him hope. The American dream as nightmare! Herein lies the value of this well chosen and thought provoking volume; it looks at sport in the raw. Sport is just another venue where we stumble our way through the fog of life.


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