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Best sports books of 2013

Miguel Porlan

“League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle For Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru (Crown)

“League of Denial” may turn out to be the most influential sports-related book of our time. Lots of people who were aware of the National Football League’s decades-long hypocrisy about concussions weren’t surprised by much of what Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru reported in the book. But by collecting the evidence, much of which they’d discovered, in one package, they have created a powerful indictment of the league’s spokesmen, its doctors. and some of its teams, as well as NFL commissioners past and present. Before the current season began, the NFL made the so-called concussion lawsuit go away. In return for the opportunity to acknowledge no wrongdoing and keep private its records and internal memos, the league promised to pay $765 million over a period of years to more than 4,000 former players. “League of Denial” demonstrated that even though the league managed to keep its files under wraps it could not conceal forever what it knew, when it knew it, and what it has kept from the players. As the years go by, chroniclers of reform in pro football and football in general may find themselves referring to the publication of “League of Denial” as the point where real change to ensure a safer workplace for football players became inevitable, despite the efforts of their employers.

“Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team by Tim Lewis (Velo)

“Land of Second Chances” is about the unlikely development of a competitive cycling team in Rwanda. But Lewis is not satisfied to tell only that story, intriguing and entertaining as it is. He explores what happens when well-meaning people from places like the United States attempt to impose their technology, their training techniques, and their values on a population they understand imperfectly. As Lewis reports in the chapter titled “Black Magic,” “it occurred to me for the first time that maybe not all Rwandans wanted these life-altering experiences. They were Western aspirations.” This observation transcends sports, and “Land of Second Chances” transcends most sports books. It will be a shame if its readership is limited to people involved in cycling.

“Dr. J: The Autobiography by Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld (Harper)

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Lots of as-told-to autobiographies are as bad as the distinction “as-told-to autobiography” would suggest. “Dr. J: The Autobiography” is an exception, in part because Erving’s life has been extraordinary, and in part because he is inclined toward candor. Of the days during which he liked to think of himself and his wife as “the Bonnie and Clyde of black and sexy,” Erving recalls with some chagrin “the selfishness of youth, the arrogance of entitlement, the hubris of being young and fine and rich.” There’s plenty of basketball in “Dr. J,” but the author — with the assistance of Greenfeld — also discusses his maturation into a fellow who realizes that he still doesn’t know as much as he thought he knew back in the days when he could fly.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” from WBUR in Boston and teaches at Curry College in Milton. He can be reached at blittlef@bu.edu.
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