Books

A review of three books on sports

Jennifer Ring would like to remind everybody who has been celebrating Title IX for the past 43 years that some female athletes have yet to benefit from the legislation.

She has in mind girls and women who play baseball. Via interviews with some of the most accomplished of these players, Ring establishes a discouraging pattern: Even the coaches who welcome girls onto Little League teams made up almost entirely of boys are inclined to pressure the girls to give up baseball in favor of softball as soon as the boys start getting bigger.

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Though she says she has nothing against softball, Ring writes that the sport has helped to “cement the post-Title IX segregated masculinity of baseball,” and pushes for a system where girls are encouraged to play the game they want to play.

One of the ballplayers Ring interviewed for “A Game of Their Own” is her daughter, Lilly Jacobson. A veteran of the US Women’s Baseball Team, Jacobson spent her childhood resisting the efforts of coaches to steer her into another sport. And no wonder. “Baseball chose me,” she tells Ring. “I never decided to play baseball. . . . I think I was born a baseball player.”

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In one of the more memorable sequences in the book, Jacobson describes the first time she worked out with the other candidates for the national squad. She had previously been the only girl on lots of teams. “Being with other girls who played baseball felt like what I imagined it would be like to be a guy on a baseball team,”she says. “You switch from thinking, ‘I’m the only one,’ like it’s a really great thing, to realizing ‘I’m not the only one,’ and that’s even better.”


Maybe there’s a more powerful argument for supporting women who want to play baseball or otherwise transcend various limitations imposed by the culture, but perhaps not.

Asher Price’s determination to dunk would be merely the stuff of an amusing magazine piece if Price weren’t such a good writer. He recognizes in his potentially silly quest the opportunity to explore such large matters as challenging all sorts of boundaries, not just the ones established by one’s DNA.

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In the chapter titled “So, Can White Men Jump?” he recounts a discussion with a molecular geneticist and microbiologist. He writes, “We started having the sort of conversation that straddles philosophy and science.” “The Year of the Dunk” itself might be similarly characterized, except the book is funnier than that. Sure, it includes philosophy, biology, and medicine, but there’s also room for Price to acknowledge that as part of his mission to bang his forearm on the rim, he “had become a stalker of dunkers.”

The tension in “The Year of the Dunk” builds as Price sheds weight, builds up his legs, and consults various experts, all of whom seem to be rooting for him. But even with all the assistance, determination, and wit he can marshal, will this mediocre athlete on the cusp of middle age, this survivor of cancer and its treatments, be able to “be like Mike”?

Answering that question here would be a disservice to this fellow who has written a thoroughly entertaining and engaging book.

On the other hand, revealing the ending of “The Ugly Game” wouldn’t interfere at all with any reader’s appreciation of that book. Folks who pay any attention to soccer already know that while the game is beautiful, FIFA is not. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert demonstrated that in a series of articles for The Sunday Times. This book gives them the opportunity to present in greater detail what they learned by examining millions of documents provided by a FIFA whistleblower. The short version of the story Blake and Calvert tell is that an extraordinarily wealthy Qatari named Mohamed bin Hammam acquired on behalf of the emir of Qatar the world’s most popular sports event: the World Cup. Bin Hammam succeeded against considerable odds. His country had virtually no soccer tradition, the climate was preposterously inappropriate, building the required venues virtually guaranteed that thousands of essentially captive immigrant workers would die in the process, and several of the other countries bidding to host the tournament were nearly as bent as Qatar was on landing it by fair means or foul. But Qatar had the money, and the money did the job.

The story of bin Hammam’s campaign and eventual disgrace is compelling, certainly, but nearly as dramatic is the depiction of the context in which the skulduggeryoccurs. In this account, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his international band of greed-addled toadies come across as a spoiled and contemptible collection of brigands united by the unquenchable croaking of a single question: “Where’s mine?”

A Game of Their Own:

Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball

By Jennifer Ring

University of Nebraska, 392 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Year of the Dunk:

A Modest Defiance of Gravity

By Asher Price

Crown, 288 pp., $26

The Ugly Game:

The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup

By Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert

Scribner, 480 pp., illustrated, $30

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game” from WBUR in Boston. His most recent book is “Take Me Out,” a collection of sports poems.
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