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The SportsThink Weekly Review #88
July 14, 2023
Welcome new readers! The SportsThink Weekly Review highlights my favorite sport-related reading of the week. Most articles are recently published, but some are not; the only rule is that I’ve read them within the past week. Some are relevant to my day job as a professor teaching courses on the business, history, and philosophy of sports. Others are just plain interesting, relevant to my lifelong obsession with the games we play. I also occasionally share articles and assorted musings on Twitter. The newsletter is free, but comes with two requests. 1. I’m always open to suggestions, so send me the good stuff that you read! 2. If you enjoy the newsletter, please share it with other folks who might enjoy it as well. Finally, I try to focus on non-paywalled writing, but if you find yourself unable to access anything, just hit reply to the email and I’ll do my best to get you a copy. Thanks for reading!
Hi everyone, hope you had a great week. The format here is a little different this week, as a few different threads came together in my head. Happy reading.
This was the big article of the week for me. Teicher is essentially asking, “why don’t we see many great—potentially best-selling—books on sports anymore?” The short version of Teicher’s answer is that a constellation of forces have combined to thin the market for book-length treatments of sports: the rise of the long-form documentary, the insane pace of the media cycle and the “hot takes” that go with it, the economics (of time and money) for writers who could be putting their energies elsewhere (newsletters, podcasts,etc.), the continued decline in book reading at a broader level, etc. Teicher lays this all out pretty eloquently and it is certainly worth a read.
What Teicher doesn’t do is proclaim the death of the sports book, but of course that was the interpretation of many in the Twittersphere. It’s hard to argue with his points throughout the article, but I expect that the genre is far from its death. There are still plenty of great sports books being published, as Wendy Parker’s fantastic Sports Biblio Reader newsletter can attest. That said, we may be in the final stages of the era where folks could make a career out of writing such books. The John Feinsteins of sports lit are fewer and further between; Jeff Pearlman might be the last of this dying breed. As Teicher lays out, the economics just don’t really make sense for writers.
It may also be that it isn’t the death of books on sports that we’re dealing with here, but the more general death of books. I don’t mean this in the sense that “no one is reading anymore.” Although that’s very much a part of it: the statistics are all over the place on this, but it’s fair to say that with each passing year, there are fewer people reading books and those that do read are reading less. (The pandemic years saw an uptick in reading, but the downward trend has been pretty consistent for a couple decades.)
I guess what I’m trying to come to terms with is the idea that we may very much be living in the End Times for books as an entire medium of thought and communication, especially when it comes to narrative non-fiction. This is hard to fathom, as anyone reading this has grown up in a world where books were the standard format for knowledge, and to a lesser extent, a standard format for entertainment. But books—as we know them—are a relative blip in human history. Yes yes there have been bound books for a few thousand years, but even if we start at Gutenberg some ~600 years ago, books as a common, mass-produced cultural commodity are less than 200 years old. (I’m painting with broad strokes here, but we’re talking post-industrial revolution and the rise in literacy with mostly-universal schooling, not the leather-bound volumes in some rich dude’s private library.)
It brings me no joy to consider this: after my family, books are the things I love the most. After the fear of not seeing my children grow up, not having time to read all of the books I want to read is my biggest existential crisis. And yes, I realize that I’ll always be able to buy books for the rest of my life and I’ll never have time to read them all. But this is where I landed in the wake of reading Teicher’s piece, that we may be nearing the end of books as a “technology” of knowledge. And maybe it’s better to think of this as “book length treatments” of subjects as what we’re on the cusp of losing, because writing doesn’t seem to be disappearing just yet. (By contrast, VHS and DVD are effectively dead, but the concepts of movies and TV shows are still in good shape. I’m not lamenting the move from physical books to e-readers, I’m lamenting that eventually e-readers won’t be full of books as we know them.) The books will go away progressively, not all at once. Literature and novels will probably be the last to fall, business and self-help will endure for a while (but I imagine the small-but-significant number of these books sold at airports is already declining, thanks to inflight wi-fi), but popular non-fiction (including sports books) may very well be the first domino. Maybe that’s what Teicher is ultimately getting at.
Now, if that wasn’t enough of a downer, we can also look to the shifting landscape of sports journalism. It felt grimly timely that around the same time Teicher’s piece was published, both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times announced seismic changes to their sports sections. As with the decline in sports books, the changes at these papers seem at once inevitable and incomprehensible: of course the media landscape has changed radically in our lifetimes, but these papers were among the stalwarts of sports journalism FOR SO LONG.
As someone who sends out a weekly newsletter on sportswriting, this is a lot to process! But what we can’t lose sight of is that there is still plenty of excellent sportswriting out there, be it longform, investigative, or otherwise. Toward that end, let us sing the praises of Nicole Markus, Alyce Brown, Cole Reynolds, and Divya Bhardwaj, the Northwestern University journalists who broke the story of the wretched hazing culture within the university’s football team. If you follow US sports, you’ve likely seen coverage of the story, but read their piece if you haven’t already. (this follow-up is also good.) Well reported and impactful, journalism like this seems to be the whole point of a free press.
As for the hazing itself? Awful, inexcusable. Of course. And another instance where we’ll find a way to make this solely about the individuals responsible (who are bad and should be punished!) and let the broader culture of sports off the hook. “Our hazing was never like that, it was good hazing.” That sort of thing. (And sure, I’m on board with some good natured razzing, making the freshmen sing in public and grow a moustache, the milk gallon challenge or whatever. There is a place in sports for goofy bonding rituals. But let’s not pretend that any meaningful bonding is happening via sadomasochistic physical and sexual abuse, no matter how steeped said abuse is in tradition.)
We talk about this in my classes, that we can’t have our cake and eat it too, that if we believe “sports” have some intrinsic power to do good, we have to be able to shoulder the responsibility when things go horribly bad. To ask what it is about our sport systems and cultures that allows these behaviors to continue. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald—now fired—and his fellow coaches went into the homes of these young men and sold their families a false bill of goods, that they would protect them and nurture them and treat them like family and develop them into fine adults. Fitzgerald and the men (and sometimes women) like him who stand idly by while some of the worst things in sports happen survived similar treatment themselves, so they believe it is ok. They believe some level of abuse is essential, somehow. And what cost is there to pay? That sound you hear is the ticking of the world’s most cynical clock, which will chime soon enough when Fitzgerald resurfaces in another locker room. Let’s not forget that DJ Durkin oversaw the negligence that lead to Jordan McNair’s death at Maryland and was working with the Atlanta Falcons less than a year later. Five years hence, he’s now at Texas A&M, making $1.5 million a year and promising mothers and fathers to trust him with their boys, once again.
My apologies for a heavier newsletter than usual. With any luck, we’ll have some more fun next week. Please share the newsletter with friends and family, and please send along the good things you read.
See you next week,