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bill littlefield on sports

Football as thuggery, basketball as poetry

istock

Whether “the rowdy, reckless ’70s” was “the era that created modern sports,” as the subtitle to Kevin Cook’s new book proclaims, is uncertain.

The fact that during that era pro football players suffered significant damage, some of it self-inflicted, is not. Consider one NFL player’s estimate that “ninety-plus percent of the defensive linemen” were using steroids, or think on the pharmacy housed within the locker room of the Oakland Raiders, where the lads gobbled handfuls of “gray amphetamine pills that the players called rat turds,” and “several Raiders combined rat turds, steroids, and HGH with horse testosterone,” that last performance-enhancer courtesy of a trainer who also worked at the racetrack.

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Whatever it created, that era is no doubt missed by the men who own NFL teams. In 1973 the league’s average salary was $29,000 and the owners were getting $200,000 per minute for commercials that ran during the Super Bowl, meaning that “a single Schlitz or Right Guard ad was worth more than the combined salaries of the Dolphins’ Super Bowl backfield.”

Things have changed. Now players getting cranked on anything stronger than caffeine have to be more surreptitious, and their salaries have risen substantially. They are more aware of work-related health risks, especially brain damage, although that has not necessarily changed their behavior. Former Raider Phil Villapiano, who played during the ’70s, now has a son playing high school football. Young Mike Villapiano acknowledges that he has “been dinged a few times,” but he and his father know that Mike can’t “win games or scholarship offers sitting on the bench,” so he hasn’t mentioned his concussions to his coach.

“The Last Headbangers” does a creditable job of recalling the NFL of Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, and various other gridiron giants of the ’70s, and Kevin Cook doesn’t ignore the folks who brought America the action. Inevitably, Howard Cosell, “vain, insecure, and brilliant” occupies a portion of the narrative. In an especially inspired moment, Cook characterizes him as “a six-foot-one sock puppet.”

Harvard University is many things, but it is not a football power. Who would disagree with that? As it turns out, the answer is a fellow called “Coach Mac,” about whom I probably never would have heard were it not for “That Book About Harvard.” According to the author, Eric Kester, who played football for a time at Harvard and graduated in 2008, Coach Mac urged Kester to gain weight by using creatine, which is one of the substances that got Mark McGwire in trouble when a writer noticed a jar of the stuff in his locker. Coach Mac’s motivational techniques included slapping his players around and lining them up half-naked along the street outside Soldiers Field to lift weights in what Kester calls “a borderline homoerotic performance.”

The goofy idea that somebody who graduated from college in 2008 has written a memoir notwithstanding, there are some surprising revelations regarding the football culture at Harvard in Kester’s book. It’s no shock that lots of the students there don’t pay much attention to the players, whether they are on the field or lifting weights outside the stadium in their spandex shorts. But Kester’s presentation of a coach “more unstable than plutonium and Britney Spears combined” who attempts to energize his players by humiliating them and calling them names unprintable here suggests that the football culture evident among “the last headbangers” has trickled down – or up – to at least one team playing in the Ivy League.

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In “Fast Break To Line Break” editor Todd Davis and the various poetry-writing basketball players whose work he has collected convincingly maintain that there are similarities between the two endeavors. Stephen Dunn suggests that poetry and basketball have in common “the possibility of transcendence.” In both we want “to be in some kind of flow, each next moment a discovery.” Your average fan at a Celtics-Knicks game might not see it that way, but that’s why we need poets, right? Some of the musings of Natalie Diaz are less esoteric. “I sweat a lot when I play ball,” she writes. “I sweat a lot when I write poetry.” In both basketball and poetry, we’re inclined to prize the act or the line that seems easy and natural, though we know that’s an illusion. There is hard practice behind each graceful moment, whether it ends in two points or a great image. Beyond that, as Todd Davis himself suggests, the game and the revelations of poetry may serve a similar purpose. He asks us to acknowledge “a human need for rhythm and dance” fed by practitioners of both arts.

THE LAST HEADBANGERS:NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s – the Era that Created Modern Sports

By Kevin Cook

Norton, 288 pp., illustrated, $26.95

THAT BOOK ABOUT HARVARD:Surviving the World’s Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time

By Eric Kester

Sourcebooks, 352 pp., $14.99

FAST BREAK TO LINE BREAK: Poets on the Art of Basketball

Edited by Todd Davis

Michigan State University, 234 pp., $24.95

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” from WBUR in Boston, and serves as writer-in-residence at Curry College. He can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu.edu.

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