fb-pixel Skip to main content

On Sports: Best books of the year

I’d read each of these books again. Or at least I’d read around in them. All are about sports but have much to offer beyond statistics. They have something to say about what it’s like to be alive on the planet. Each author demonstrates that storytelling can inform us about the particulars of football or basketball or soccer or daredevil motorcycle-riding, but it can also encourage our appreciation of communities beyond our own experience, surprise us, outrage us, and make us laugh. These books also offer an opportunity to understand what motivates and sustains our athlete-entertainers and what sometimes destroys them, and why we care.

“Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton’’ by Jeff Pearlman (Gotham)


Walter Payton, aka “Sweetness,’’ was exceptional as a football player, and representative in that he took pains to establish and protect his image. But few athletes succeed as spectacularly as Payton did in that realm. Pearlman’s biography acknowledges that Payton was a great player, but the book caused consternation because he also wrote about Payton’s hypocrisy, infidelity, and depression.

“The Swinger’’ by Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck (Simon and Schuster)

“The Swinger’’ is a novel based on a multiracial, multimillionaire, philandering golfer. If Tiger Woods returns to the top of the leaderboard, his life will have thoroughly imitated the art evident in “The Swinger’’ - which would be weird.

“The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic’’ by Linda Carroll and David Rosner (Simon and Schuster)

The great virtue of “The Concussion Crisis’’ is that it moves beyond sad stories of former NFL players with brain damage. It provides accounts of young athletes who have been injured playing various sports, and warns them, their parents, and their coaches about how irresponsible our culture has been about head injuries acquired during games we’ve taken far too seriously.


“Captain for Life: My Story as a Hall of Fame Linebacker’’ by Harry Carson (St. Martin’s)

Carson was a star linebacker with the New York Giants, but in “Captain for Life,’’ he writes that even stars are no more than “cog[s] in the machine’’ to the people who build and manage pro football teams. Unlike lots of players whose biographies are written for them, Carson, who has experienced some of the symptoms of concussion-related brain damage, wrote his own and concludes his book by maintaining that “it would be insane, idiotic, and asinine for me to say ‘I’d do it all over again.’ ’’

“At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing’’ edited by George Kimball and John Schulian (Library of America)

I don’t know why boxing has inspired so much good writing. I do know that a lot of that good writing has been collected in “At the Fights.’’ W.C. Heinz. John Lardner. These are names writ large beyond boxing.

“An Accidental Sportswriter: A Memoir’’ by Robert Lipsyte (Ecco)

Lots of sportswriters are cheerleaders. Lipsyte has been a skeptic, perhaps in part because, as he writes, he fell into the toy department by accident, which, he maintains, has allowed him to see how “the jock culture’’ has become “a defining strand in American life’’ - an excellent proposition around which to build an autobiography.

“Home and Away: One Writer’s Inspiring Experience at the Homeless World Cup’’ by Dave Bidini (Skyhorse)

That there should be a “Homeless World Cup’’ is reason to smile. That Bidini stumbled upon the opportunity to accompany the Canadian team to the event and write about the participants as they play in the sunshine is cause for celebration.


“Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sport’’ by Simon Kuper (Nation)

Kuper, on the other hand, has been writing for years about soccer players who have homes. Some of them, like David Beckham, have lots of homes. In one piece in this collection, Kuper describes a player, Gennaro Gattuso, as an “evil, bearded dwarf.’’ He has an equally entertaining go at Beckham.

“Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend’’ by Leigh Montville (Doubleday)

It turns out that Evel Knievel was a mediocre motorcyclist, but an outstanding con artist. Happily for readers, this circumstance intrigued Montville. His biography of the oft-broken, thoroughly bent, and ultimately forlorn Knievel is as much about a huckster’s attempt to fool all the people all the time as it is about jumping over fountains and canyons on two-wheeled rockets. It’s a terrific book.

“The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of Lebron James’’ by Scott Raab (Harper)

Raab’s screed against what he perceives to be the treachery and narcissism of Lebron James is laugh-out-loud funny, unless you are Lebron James. Raab’s prose is reminiscent of the unleashed riffs of the late Hunter Thompson, in case you were looking for somebody still out on that particular ledge.


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