“A rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote of sportswriters covering the 1973 Super Bowl. Thompson’s full-gonzo assault on his erstwhile peers remains far livelier than anything in John Schulian’s anthology “Football: Great Writing About the National Sport,” and it hovers over this dutiful but scattershot book like a smirking ghost.
Schulian’s book is the logical companion to the Library of America’s 2002 anthology of baseball writing, edited by Nicholas Dawidoff. The inevitable comparison is not kind to the later volume, but then again, genuinely literary football journalism is woefully thin on the ground. Dawidoff’s book boasted the work of such literary greats as John Updike, Don DeLillo, Gay Talese and Roger Angell; Schulian makes do with competent entries from Roy Blount Jr., David Maraniss and Buzz Bissinger. Aside from an excerpt from Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” the collection includes nothing that soars and sings the way the best baseball writing does. You know you’re in trouble when Schulian reverently refers to Frank Deford’s work in Sports Illustrated as a “beautifully written” icon of “the days when words mattered more than anything else.”
Second-guessing the choices made by the editor of such an anthology is a sour exercise, but in addition to including an article by Thompson, I would have lobbied for an excerpt from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which makes a poignant connection between high-school gridiron heroics and the ideals of masculine success, along with James Wright’s spare, beautiful poem about high school football, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”
What is included here grows less charming the deeper you go. Early pieces by W. C. Heinz and Shirley Povich strut that slangy prewar voice that seems so distinctively and jauntily American. The George Plimpton excerpt, with its sly anti-heroics, confirms that “Paper Lion” remains the only truly essential football book. Later pieces turn increasingly to gung-ho myth-building and the cliche of the sport as an emblem of warfare.
Watching a Bears-Lions game in 1970, Arthur Kretchmer feels “compelled to go out there and get my shoulder in — smash my body against the invaders . . . because to not volunteer involves a potential loss of manhood that is too great to face.” Even as sharp and streetwise a writer as Richard Price yields to the hot glow of the myth, referring to playing for Bear Bryant as “a combat camaraderie, a brotherhood of suffering and surviving.” Only two of the book’s 43 selections are by women: one an inside look at the life of an NFL cheerleader and the other an excerpt from Jennifer Allen’s book about growing up the daughter of coach George Allen.
To his credit, Schulian, a former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News, is forthright in his coverage of what he calls in his foreword “the mother of all problems” — namely, “the epidemic of degenerative brain disease the NFL has unsuccessfully and shamefully sought to pretend doesn’t exist.” Paul Solotaroff’s article on the suicide of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson and Rick Telander’s account of the proud, broken husk of Hall of Fame end Doug Atkins are chilling.
But one would have hoped for a more penetrating look at the slippery moral calculus of fandom — something along the lines of Steve Almond’s recent meditation “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” — or a piece by the pugnacious truth-teller Dave Zirin.
To talk honestly about football today is to drill down into all kinds of wormy layers where national self-identity, masculine value systems, peer validation and aspirational behaviors wallow in a chthonic haze. Like most middle-aged American men, I love football for its violence and celebration of toughness even as I deplore its exploitation and commercial vulgarity. If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice — and sanity — it is entirely possible that this book will serve as an unintentional epitaph for this sad, sordid, brilliant, haunting game. The Library of America, of course, is in the business of documenting the crosscurrents of American life and can thus only record what is reflected back to it. In this case, the reflection remains murky.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
Great Writing about the National Sport
Edited by John Schulian
Library of America. 463 pp. $30