Football is a violent but complicated sport. That ought to make it an ideal subject for engaging literature, but alas, until recently this has not been the case. Save for a few classics — “A Fan’s Notes,” by Frederick Exley , “Out of Their League,” by Dave Meggyesy and “Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football,” by Nicholas Dawidoff — books about football have typically proved George Plimpton correct: the smaller the ball, the better the book.
But this season brings us an unusually large — and unusually good — selection of books on football. Predictably, there are quite a few on the Patriots and the National Football League champion Philadelphia Eagles, but there are also a few on NFL history and on linemen, the most underappreciated position in football. Here are a few of the best — or at least most interesting — titles of the lot.
ESPN reporter Ian O’Connor, author of an infamous 2000 article headlined “Patriots will regret hiring Belichick,” has a assembled a compendium on five-time Super Bowl winning head coach that covers all the high- and lowlights, including Deflategate; the Jimmy Garoppolo trade; Belichick’s increasingly tenuous relationship with Tom Brady; the treatment of Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero; Belichick’s controversial decision to bench Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and the coach’s connection to Donald Trump. Belichick did not speak with O’Connor and tried to discourage others quoted in the book from doing the same. Still, the book, which cites a book Belichick did cooperate with — David Halberstam’s excellent “The Education of a Coach” — is a fascinating look inside the team so many of us love to hate.
Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent of the New York Times magazine, offers a sweeping investigation of the big money machine known as the NFL. Leibovich is an unrepentant Patriots fan, and much of this book is seen through the lens of that character flaw. Despite that, his mordant sense of humor, reportorial skill and a keen eye for the revealing detail comes together as an engaging portrait of the players as well as the challenges the game faces. The best parts of Leibovich’s account are his dealings with what he refers to as the Membership, the NFL owners — Robert Kraft , Jerry Jones , Arthur Blank, Woody Johnson, Daniel Snyder and Terry Pegula, as well as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The short-lived United States Football League (1983-85) which was a legitimate challenge to the supremacy of the NFL, might exist only as a footnote in a business school case study were it not for the role of Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals. Instead it serves as an amusing and entertaining tale of ego and excess whose failure has been laid at the feet of our current president, who had hoped to use the league as a launchpad to his ill-fated pursuit of an NFL franchise. The USFL included as many as 18 teams and fielded such superstars as Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Reggie White, Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie. Veteran sportswriter Jeff Pearlman — whose fascination with the USFL began in high school with a 40-page term paper on its downfall — drew on 400 interviews to create this wacky, fascinating narrative.
This is not strictly a football book but a larger exploration of the struggle and protest of black athletes in America. ESPN writer Howard Bryant traces a through line from the dissidence of Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, baseball player Curt Flood, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Arthur Ashe, and Craig Hodges to the activism of Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, LeBron James, Michael Bennett and Carmelo Anthony — a group he refers to as the Heritage. It’s an important story that also deals with the post-9/11 militarization of sports and post Ferguson black activist athletes.
David Zirin, sports editor for the Nation and a columnist for the Progressive, takes on what may stand as the definitive biography of football legend Jim Brown (arguably, many consider him the greatest American football player ever.) Brown retired after nine seasons in 1966 to devote himself to civil rights activism and an acting career. Zirin focuses on Brown’s post NFL life and his politics: The NFL’s onetime leading rusher supported both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump and has said he would not sign Colin Kaepernick.
Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete
The unfunny joke among NFL players is that NFL stands for “not for long,” referring to the short average duration (three years) of an NFL career. Robert Turner, former player and post-career PhD, focuses on the transition to life after the NFL and the manifold difficulties of adjustment. He counters the stereotypes that most players are wealthy and set for life. The harsh and sad reality is the “sports industrial complex” does nothing for the majority of 20-somethings who have not prepared for life after football.
Robert Birnbaum is a writer and critic based in Boston.