Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup
Brookings Institution Press, 2015
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In a way, everything about Andrew Zimbalist’s Circus Maximus is great. The book is thoroughly researched, thoroughly argued—hard to find a hole in its logic. And yet: how devastating. Zimbalist draws from an apparently bottomless well of examples of cities and countries who turn their well-being inside-out in an attempt to host the biggest, grandest Games—a family shoving themselves into bankruptcy by insisting their dinner party have silk napkins, a private chef, gold-speckled sundaes.
The sheer volume of information, all of it pointing to the same conclusion, is hard to argue with: a country who doesn’t already have massive stadium infrastructure in place should never attempt to host these outsized tournaments. Zimbalist frequently points to the only two financially successful tournaments in recent history—the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics—because they provide such a stark contrast with the mess that every other tournament has left in its wake, its final stadium-building bill simply too large for any country to responsibly volunteer paying. There are the business atrocities, yes—the 2008 Beijing Olympics earned a tenth of what it cost&mbdash;but too frequently there are human rights atrocities on top of it: at the time the book was written, over a thousand migrant workers had died while constructing stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.Continue Reading
Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur’s Ordeal in Professional Baseball
Lyons Press, 1961
There is, surrounding George Plimpton, the same world-traveled air that surrounds the fictional beer-selling sliver of a character The Most Interesting Man in the World (TMIMITW). TMIMITW gains his fictional interesting-ness via the sheer imposing number of his travels, an original far-flung montage of adventure and sport to accompany each new commercial in an apparently eternal series. Plimpton’s interesting-ness is a bit more interesting because, well, he actually did all of the journeys that would be recounted with a laugh over a beer. The trade-off for adventuring fictitiously versus actually: while TMIMITW commands each day with magnetic suaveness, Plimpton’s most interesting moments were a carnival of mishaps, his own shoes endlessly tripped over. Which probably makes for more interesting reading anyway.
Plimpton’s personal journey into “participatory journalism” began with him sitting in Yankee Stadium, watching a ballgame and basically wondering what it would take to get on the field with real-live Major Leaguers. It feels like an impossible ask here in 2015: inevitably a small army P.R. staff would materialize from thin air to prevent today’s journalist from playing the game in front of actual paying spectators. In the late fifties, though, one could, as Plimpton did, talk to a man named Toots Shor in a New York City bar, and Toots would be able to convince a magazine editor that it would be a good idea to have Plimpton pitch before a November exhibition of All-Stars. Continue Reading
Chamique: On Family, Focus, and Basketball
Chamique Holdsclaw with Jennifer Frey
Much like Brittney Griner’s In My Skin, Chamique is a slapped-together memoir by a college basketball wunderkind, Chamique Holdsclaw, following the player’s uneven rookie year in the pros. Where In My Skin charmed with Griner’s honesty and desire for self-improvement, Chamique broke hearts with a tale that has since been proven to be an elaborate façade—although it’s not easy to tell if Holdsclaw herself understood the book’s content was a façade at the time.
This is pretty astounding, considering the many beans that Holdsclaw is willing to spill in Chamique. Pre-teen Holdsclaw is effectively forced to steal money from her parents, themselves nonfunctional alcoholics, to get food for herself and her younger brother, Davon. As she grows older, Holdsclaw dishes dirt about plenty of her professional relationships, including her displeasure with her WNBA team, the Washington (D.C.) Mystics, for allowing her closest friend on the team, backup Rita Williams, to be signed elsewhere.Continue Reading
In My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
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No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.
Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading
Sarabande Books, 2014
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Being intimate with some sports is far from a guarantee that one is even acquainted with all of them. Personally I’ve never wanted to watch a single mixed-martial arts fight until reading Kerry Howley’s Thrown, a page-turner that has a lot to teach students of journalism, of creative nonfiction, and of fighting itself.
Criss-crossing the Midwest for one steamy gym after another, from Davenport to Milwaukee to Cedar Rapids, Howley spends the better part of two years tracking two fighters until she is nestled comfortably in their innermost circle: that is, invited over for the ritual living room screening of Pumping Iron at the end of another week in the gym. Having discovered both the fighters and fighting serendipitously, the chance inciting incident of her journey, Howley brings the reader along with her on the learning curve until we, too, are aghast at the screaming lack of understanding on display from the casual fans who surround her at cageside.Continue Reading
Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism
W.W. Norton, 1999
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It doesn’t take very long for a revolution to seem quaint. In 1999, the year that Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism was published by Cornell Professor Emeritus of history Walter LaFeber, the concept of a cellular telephone was enough to count for a revolution. No wires! Conversations outside—anywhere! Woah! Fifteen years later, one is only enamored with that original, novel lure of the cell phone when willfully strolling down memory lane. Remember when we were so simple.
So it goes with Michael Jordan’s basketball career—or, to be more accurate, the societal impact of Michael Jordan’s basketball career. In the book, LaFeber bestows revolutionary language upon the types of business deals that fueled Jordan’s career. Considerable time, for instance, is spent detailing the newfangled business strategies from Nike, the shoe company that helped propel Jordan to global fame, and vice versa. Nike, an American company, produced and sold most of their shoes in other countries, which LaFeber identifies as a revolutionary new way of doing business, of the world interacting with itself.
Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo
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In John Stevens’ half-biography/half-koan-medley Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, we visit bamboo-fenced dojos, learning from early 20th-century Japanese master Awa Kenzo how archery can be a vessel that improves a whole person. In particularly zen fashion, piercing the bullseye doesn’t seem to be the primary requirement in demonstrating an improved self. Indeed: “Kenzo argued that in today’s world the true purpose of archery is to perfect the human spirit.”
Admittedly, some of the koans–spoken by Kenzo, translated by Stevens–read as much like a line of dialogue for a cross-legged yogi in a Saturday Night Live sketch as they read like actual wisdom. The tenth and ultimate level in shooting prowess is, I guess, achieving “a shadowless moon-mind.” Your guess is as good as mine here.
Plenty of times, though, it feels like Kenzo’s aphorisms scratch meaningfully beneath the surface of physical activity, recording the ways in which the spirit moves with the body. A personal favorite: “If you look at the target as your enemy, you will never make progress. The target is a reference point, not your opponent.” I’d like to think that “target,” here, can be read not just as the archery-specific bullseye but also as any of life’s targets that we, you know, aim for. Usually it feels like we’re doing battle with our goals in life–some days it would seem they have picked a fight with us–but in Kenzo’s approach these objectives aren’t battling with us any more or less than a mirror is battling with us. The mirror, the bullseye are reflections of ourselves as we truly are.Continue Reading
The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks
Crown Archetype, October 2014
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Like the casting of James Bond or the election of presidents, the styles, moods, and values of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks in any given generation provide a meaningful reflection of where American masculinity is oriented. So no big surprise, then, that the manicured post-adolescent quarterbacks profiled in Bruce Feldman’s The QB—and, but of course, their omnipresent and phenomenally expensive private tutors—resort to the airy jargon and buzzwords of modern business whenever they get excited.
One of the main characters in The QB is Trent Dilfer, who was an average quarterback—as far as NFL-caliber quarterbacks are concerned—from 1994 to 2007. Dilfer’s verve for life, though, seems to have been only awakened in retirement by running Elite 11, a workout-camp-slash-TV-show focused on grooming the nation’s most promising high school quarterbacks. Excuse me: Elite 11 is a “forward-facing platform” focused on establishing a “holistic coaching ecosystem.”Continue Reading
Super Bowl champion and/or spiritual guru.
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance
Random House, 1997
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Perhaps this moment feels like the second half of a joke that starts, “You know you’re in Seattle when . . . ” but it really happened: I was putting my groceries on the little conveyor belt thing, and I looked up to see Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, staring at me from the cover of Mindful Magazine.
It’s a pretty rare cover for Mindful Magazine, and not just because it featured a football coach instead of any number of the world’s more conventional health-and-wellness gurus. On most covers of Mindful Magazine, we see the subject kneeling in lotus, beaming, impossibly large, and generally just super-duper well-rested and overjoyed to be alive!! These covers just might turn off or even intimidate readers with their smarm. Carroll, meantime, is perched on a stool, quietly poised in a business suit. Perhaps, if the picture were cropped differently, one would see the Super Bowl ring on his finger.Continue Reading
Sit, stand, kneel.
My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football
Paul Finebaum with Gene Wojciechowski
Harper Collins, 2014
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I could travel the world for years and never get halfway through my bucket list of all the sporting events I’d love to attend in person. But certainly one thing way up high on that list is a fall spent deep in America’s South, watching Southeastern Conference college football. And I’m saying that from up here in the gray Northwest, where it seems like every other business is adorned year-round with the number 12, a show of solidarity with the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Still, Seattle’s famous football (and football) mania looks like a passing hobby compared to the mania that overtakes the diagonally opposite region of the country during football season. Continue Reading