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Bill Littlefield

4 books on the dark sides of pro and college sports

Commissioner Gary Bettman has expanded the NHL but he also has been responsible for player lockouts.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Commissioner Gary Bettman has expanded the NHL but he also has been responsible for player lockouts.

It is inaccurate to say that there is a dark side to professional and big-time college sports. There are many dark sides. Several recent books explore them.

In “Intercepted,’’ Michael McKnight tells the story of Darryl Henley, who played football and earned a degree at UCLA before joining the Los Angeles Rams as a cornerback in 1989. Henley’s was not the tale of a young man whose extraordinary athletic talent pulled him from poverty into the land of Bentleys and bling, however. His family was not poor. He had the benefit of a private school education. He didn’t need to escape anything but his own curious sense that he was disadvantaged by his advantages. He jumped (rather than fell) into bad company, encouraged the transportation of drugs by a cheerleader whose lack of sense was rivaled only by her absence of loyalty, and landed in jail.

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As Henley once asked himself rhetorically, “How can you get bored with money, women, football, cameras, TV?”

Unhappily for him, life didn’t bottom out with boredom, the attendant thrill-seeking, and the drug conviction, which, according to McKnight, might have been overturned had Henley had the patience to sit still and not stir. Instead, Henley embraced an unsuccessful scheme to murder the judge who’d sentenced him and the cheerleader who’d been caught with the drugs.

So in the end what proved the fatal flaw of a man who looked as if he should have succeeded in the NFL and beyond? William Kopeny, an attorney who helped Henley’s defense team, offered McKnight this explanation: “Vanity and cool . . . That’s the only thing I can come up with. Vanity and cool.”

In “The Instigator,’’ a look at controversial NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Jonathon Gatehouse writes of the National Hockey League that “money and the attendant happiness of owners trumped the desires of fans and communities.” This is true to some extent of all professional sports operations, but the commissioners of some of them have more successfully cloaked their businesses in goodwill, the American flag, and happy hoopla than Bettman has done.

Under Bettman’s stewardship the league has expanded into various unlikely retirement communities around the nation, and ticket prices and league revenue have soared, making this, on one level, a business success story. But the arenas in those communities, as well as those in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Detroit, and various other places that have snowy winters , have frequently been empty when games were supposed to be going on. Bettman’s prickly stubbornness has been primarily responsible for lockouts that have plagued the league and various unpopular moves, which have alienated fans.

And it’s likely he would neither deny it nor care. According to Gatehouse, “the fact that it’s lonely at the top suits Bettman just fine.” That’s for the best. Nobody reading this story of how a kid from Long Island who never played hockey came to take the NHL’s top job is likely to want to sit down with the guy for some good hockey talk anyway.

Rus Bradburd spent 14 years as an assistant coach with a couple of accomplished college teams. In his first novel, “Make It, Take It,’’ he introduces readers to fictional stand-ins for the coaches and “student-athletes” who eventually discouraged him from remaining in that line of work.

The themes here are compelling, if not surprising. The head coach will lie to recruit players with potential, but he’d rather leave that dirty work to his assistants. In one representative episode, there’s a chance a game will be canceled when a player named Keith French is wounded in a drive-by shooting. The opposing coach is baffled. “Why the hell cancel the game if this Keith French isn’t even a starter?” he asks.

The “National Forgotten League’’ presents a series of stories from the allegedly good, undeniably old days when nobody knew that lots of retired pro-football players couldn’t remember the names of their children. The tales are gathered decade by decade from the 1920s through ’60s.

In the earliest of those early days, “public relations” meant the visiting team’s quarterback would find the newspaper office in the town where he’d be playing and give the sports columnist a bottle of whiskey. Pro football then was a poor cousin to not only baseball, boxing, and horse racing, but to college football. It would have been a poor cousin to bear-baiting, had anyone had the initiative to reintroduce that spectacle.

But to be fair, in 1945, when lots of potential pro athletes were in the military, the wobbly NFL beat Major League Baseball in one category: While the St. Louis Browns featured an outfielder with one arm named Pete Gray, the NFL was employing two one-armed guys.

INTERCEPTED:The Rise and Fall of NFL Cornerback Darryl Henley

By Michael McKnight

University of Nebraska, 520 pp., illustrated, $27.95

THE INSTIGATOR: How Gary Bettman Remade the NHL and Changed the Game Forever

By Jonathon Gatehouse

Triumph, 352 pp., illustrated, $24.95

MAKE IT, TAKE IT

By Rus Bradburd

Cinco Puntos, 160 pp., paperback, $14.95

THE NATIONAL FORGOTTEN LEAGUE: Entertaining Stories and Observations from Pro Football’s First Fifty Years

By Dan Daly

University of Nebraska, 424 pp., paperback, $26.95

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only A Game” at WBUR in Boston. He is writer-in-residence at Curry College. He can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu.edu.
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