Three recent sports titles
COURSE CORRECTION: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX
By Ginny Gilder
Beacon, 272 pp., $26.95
Ginny Gilder’s autobiography, “Course Correction,’’ is ambitious.
The book’s subtitle and the glorious cover photo of an eight-woman crew on the Charles River might suggest that “Course Correction’’ is about what Gilder achieved as a female athlete. But it’s also about the various obstacles she overcame to create the life she really wanted, including how she freed herself from a childhood that had her convinced she would never be acceptable, let alone triumphant.
Rowing had a lot to do with her triumph. Gilder was, in her own words, “a goner” the first time she witnessed “the fluid, controlled motion” of a crew at work.
Several years later, she was one of the Yale athletes who famously demonstrated to end the university’s discrimination against the female rowers. With her teammates, she engaged in a splendidly original and successful protest in 1976. The women’s crew stripped in the office of the director of women’s athletics, conveying the message that “[t]hese are the bodies Yale is exploiting.” (Owing to the disparity in facilities, for instance, while the men showered and changed into dry clothes after their workouts, Gilder and her teammates, cold and wet, had to wait on the bus.)
Gilder, who had asthma and was short for a rower, became good enough at the sport she loved to make the US national team and win an Olympic medal in 1984. But even after she’d achieved that goal, her life was poisoned by the conviction that, as she puts it, “enough was never enough.”
The book’s fourth and last section is titled “Recovery,” and it’s a frank examination of the rewards and the cost of self-discovery and self-realization (which in Gilder’s case included leaving a husband when she came out as gay) — endeavors that require at least as much courage and tenacity as making an Olympic team.
THE PROFESSOR IN THE CAGE: Why Men Fight and Why We Like To Watch
By Jonathan Gottschall
Penguin, 304 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Self-realization is also at the core of “The Professor in the Cage,’’ but lots of readers won’t be sympathetic to the quest Jonathan Gottschall chronicles.
Gottschall presents himself as an English professor who hates his job for two reasons: He’s not on the tenure track, and English professors are all wimps anyway. Hoping to provoke his colleagues to band together in their disgust with him and get him fired, Gottschall takes up cage fighting. He starts showing up in class on crutches with a split lip or a black eye.
His scheme doesn’t work. Nobody in the department seems to care. He has to continue teaching English. But he becomes fascinated with the fighting. He finds in the cage a “rite of passage” otherwise only available to “gangs, fraternities, and elite military units.” He begins to think of fighting as “an enactment of the whole human tangle, with everything lovely and terrible on display.”
Perhaps inevitably, he enters the cage for an actual fight against a fellow who knows what he’s doing. When one of Gottschall’s moves succeeds in that bout, he celebrates the takedown as “maybe the single coolest thing I’ve ever accomplished in my life.”
If the subtitle of “The Professor in the Cage’’ had been “Why I Fight and Why I Like To Watch,’’ his case for “masculinity as simply strength and toughness” would have been more convincing. His motives and interpretations are his own, and he’s entitled to them. When he endeavors to speak for all men, it sometimes feels as if he’s overmatched.
MEN IN GREEN
By Michael Bamberger
Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $27
With “Men In Green,’’ Michael Bamberger had in mind a kind of “Boys of Summer’’ of golf. He picks nine great golfers (“living legends”) to visit or write about long after their glory days have passed. He also seeks out nine “secret legends” of the game. These are people with whom nobody but the most serious golf fan will be familiar.
One problem with the concept is that Bamberger regards his “Boys,’’ like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, with awe in a way that Roger Kahn did not when wrote about the retired Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn was young when they were young. Together they grew old. When he re-encountered them, he took them as he found them, without the baggage of worship.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t some good stories in “Men In Green’’ because there certainly are. Some of those stories reflect the nearly sacred nature of golf’s rules, even the silly ones, and the contempt engendered throughout the golf community when somebody neglects to report himself for inadvertently moving a twig. If golf isn’t intrinsically goofier than baseball or football, it’s certainly possessed of its own idiosyncrasies, and the author is on top of them. Beyond that, Bamberger’s touch is often agreeably light. “If golf is not a form of hunting,” he writes, “it is at least a goose chase. Reporting is, too.”
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” from WBUR in Boston. His most recent book is “Take Me Out’’ from Zephyr Press, and he edited “The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz’’ for Library of America. It was published in March.