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Beyond the Big Three (Baseball, Football and Basketball)

Reviewed by Allen Barra
Sunday, November 9, 2008

PLAYING THE ENEMY Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation By John Carlin | Penguin Press. 274 pp. $24.95

Playing the Enemy is a classic sports-brings-the-community-together story. John Carlin, a senior writer for the Spanish-language newspaper El País, chronicles Nelson Mandela's 1995 effort to unite an apartheid-ravaged South Africa by having the country's national rugby team, the Springboks, host the sport's World Cup.

There is no need to milk the story for false sentiment: A climax with 62,000 fans, mostly white Afrikaners, rooting for an underdog, integrated home team doesn't need melodrama. Anyone who can read the words of former black militant Justice Bekebeke and not be moved has no soul: "An hour before the game I was still torn and confused," but then he saw "the old man, my president, wearing the Springbok jersey. . . I still could not quite shake off the old resentment and hatred, yet something was happening to me, and I realized that I was changing. . . And I said to myself, well, this is the new reality. There is no going back: the South African team is now my team, whoever they are, whatever their color."

Carlin has no illusions about the power of sport to eradicate centuries of racism, but he makes a good case that the tournament was, to paraphrase Churchill, the end of the beginning of a new South Africa. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu told Carlin, "The great thing about everything good that has happened is that it can happen again." And it did: The Springboks took the title a second time in 2007. I wonder if Morgan Freeman is available to play Mandela in the film version?

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF SPORTS IN THE UNITED STATES 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play By Dave Zirin | New Press. 302 pp. $26.95

At his best, Dave Zirin, also the author of Welcome to the Terrordome and a weekly online sports column, "The Edge of Sports," is the conscience lacking in the mainstream sports media. Other times, he can seem like a self-righteous scold. (A "People's History" indeed. Did "the people" commission him?)

What's missing from this book, Zirin's third, is a passion for sport itself, a sense of something that animated him to write about sports besides the social issues to be found in them. Another thing that's missing is a passion for accuracy. Marvin Miller, the first head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was a chief economist with the Steelworkers, not an organizer; the 1994 baseball strike was hardly a "routing of the owners," but in fact was the first time the union made concessions; and baseball analysts have found more convincing reasons for the late-1990s homerun barrage than performance-enhancing drugs: among them, legitimate weight training, whip-handled bats and more hitter-friendly ballparks.

The real problem with A People's History, though, is that Zirin is preaching to the bleachers. What he's essentially done is rehash American sports injustices, from the search for "The Great White Hope" (when Jack Johnson was heavyweight champion) to baseball's color barrier (broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947) to the struggle of gay athletes in recent years. Those who, like me, agree with him don't really need to hear about these issues again, and those who don't agree aren't going to be persuaded by the book's strident tone.

A little humor might have helped. "Bigotry continues to be unchallenged," Zirin writes. "Hurricane Katrina destroyed a majority-black city, which continues to die from naked neglect. Women face a constant barrage of sexism in our 'girls gone wild' culture. And if you challenge it, then you must be a humorless prig." No, not necessarily. But you might be someone who tends to substitute radio talk-show rhetoric for genuine analysis.

FANS OF THE WORLD UNITE! A (Capitalist) Manifesto For Sports Consumers By Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski | Stanford Univ. 221 pp. $27.95

Stephen F. Ross, a law professor at Penn State, and Stefan Szymanski, an economics professor in London, are the rarest of sports activists: They actually understand something about economics and law. Simply put, the plan they propose in Fans of the World Unite! is nothing less than a massive restructuring of American professional sports based on the idea that the current system of monopoly is unproductive: "The best model for consumer protection is generally the forces of competition in the market place."

Their thesis has two prongs: First, NASCAR should be the model for American sports: "leagues should be organized by a company independent of the participating clubs." Second, as with "European soccer, the right to participate in premier-tier competition should be based on demonstrated merit, not guaranteed." He is referring to a pyramid system used not just for European soccer but also for basketball, ice hockey and rugby. Simply put, if a tema doesn't perform well, it can be relegated to a lower tier while another team is moved up.

If this seems, well, a bit academic to you, Ross and Szymanski back it up with such illuminating chapters as "Competitive Balance" and "How A Restructured Sports League Would Work." The problem, of course, as Bob Costas observed of baseball owners, is that they "couldn't even agree on what to order for lunch." Fortunately, the authors have a blueprint, based on pressuring Congress, for dragging sports owners, kicking and screaming, into the new millennium. Fans have nothing to lose but home-city television blackouts and soaring ticket prices.

SOCCER IN A FOOTBALL WORLD The Story of America's Forgotten Game By David Wangerin | Temple Univ. 350 pp. Paperback, $19.95

David Wangerin, a soccer writer and high school coach born in Chicago and raised in Wisconsin, is the intelligent, compassionate and committed spokesman that American soccer needs. Unfortunately for American soccer, he now lives in Scotland. Also, unfortunately for him, I am one of the "stream of commentators who rail against soccer as boring." Well, not boring exactly, but less interesting than baseball, football and basketball, which is why even enlightened and humane tomes like Soccer in a Football World make my eyes glaze over.

Perhaps if Wangerin stuck to his intention of simply telling the story of soccer in America with passion and eloquence, I would have been able to relate to it more. And he is capable of eloquence: "All I have set out to do is tell the story as I understand it, from what I have read and heard, as well as what I have witnessed first-hand, occasionally in packed stadiums but much more often on windswept fields and other modest arenas where the heart of American soccer kept beating -- faintly but persistently." But when he falls back on the familiar soccer lovers' mantra of blaming "many in the media [who] berate the game because they fear it," I close the book.

Like many others who are frustrated with Americans' resistance to professional soccer, Wangerin equates our apathy with fear of the game's foreignness. But Americans don't fear soccer; it's a game they want their kids to play while they themselves watch the Yankees and Red Sox or the Giants and Redskins on TV. (And maybe people in other countries would watch other sports if they had an option?) To paraphrase Chris Rock's famous routine on hockey, only soccer fans watch soccer. Still, I can't help but wish that Wangerin were coaching soccer at my daughter's high school. ·

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal.

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