I’ve been on a sports book tear the past couple weeks. Football, futbol, and golf.
Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times – Mark Leibovich
This book, by The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, arrived with nearly endless praise about a month ago. Promised as an investigation to the troubles the NFL faces in current times, it delivered as something perhaps not so comprehensive but way more fun than I expected.
First off, Leibovich does not cover all that ails the NFL. He does hit the biggest topics – kneeling for the anthem, concussions and other crippling injuries, ownership-player relations, the length of games, Jerry Jones, how the game presents better on TV than in person, Trump – but most of his time is devoted to issues surrounding his beloved Patriots. And, most importantly, Roger Goodell’s role in the game and how he has used those powers with respect to the Patriots.
Leibovich admits up front that the Patriots are a joyless, likely soulless organization and its fans are a collection of insufferable Massholes. Still, he goes to lengths to show how the Patriots may not be as evil as the rest of the world believes them to be, and how Goodell may have abused his powers in order to win favor with the rest of the league by aggressively pursuing investigations into the Pats’ activities.
I think some of that is garbage, although I was on-board from the beginning that Deflategate was stupid and largely a waste of everyone’s time.
What makes those parts of the book work is how Leibovich never hides his fandom but also never comes across like Bill Simmons, whining about how his team has been persecuted. He points out how the Pats have, indeed, done some shady shit over the years. He struggles with rooting for a team that, to a casual observer, can come across as evil much of the time.
Leibovich turns great access – he has a couple meetings with Brady and Kraft, goes to several owners’ events, and even gets wasted with Jones in an RV – into insightful observations about the state of the league. He cuts through a lot of the distracting bullshit the league dispenses to get folks not to think about the real issues facing the game. And he always does so with immense humor. Much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, whether Leibovich is making fun of himself, Trump, Jones, or any of the other book’s many unsavory characters.
I don’t know that this is necessarily a required book to understand the state of the NFL today. But it’s a damn fun read.
Encyclopedia Blazertannica – Roger Bennett & Michael Davies
Bennett and Davies host the Men In Blazers podcast and TV show, both of which focus on the English Premier League. I’m, at best, casual consumers of both of those, just catching an episode here and there. But I always find them deeply funny. So I figured why not cruise through their encyclopedia? It is filled with definitions of all they find important to modern soccer. And it is filled with both humor and insight. A fine book to flip through over the course of a week during commercial breaks in games.
A Course Called Ireland – Tom Coyne
I’m not really sure what’s wrong with me, but this is the second book I’ve read this year about someone walking around Ireland. No, I have no plans to ship off to the Emerald Island and walk its perimeter any time soon.
Unlike Round Ireland with a Fridge, where Tony Hawks traveled counterclockwise while toting a tiny refrigerator with him – and generally accepted rides from strangers – Tom Coyne took the opposite path. He began on the west coast and traveled with the clock, hitting golf courses along the way to play a “round around Ireland.” Over four months in 2007, Coyne played over 4500 shots on both some of Ireland’s most famous courses and many more that no one outside their communities had ever heard of.
Where Hawks’ trip was based on a drunken bet, Coyne’s grew from a golf trip to Ireland his father had taken him on when he was a teenager. Having already spent an entire year failing to qualify for the PGA tour, Coyne thought the perfect next golf challenge would be to do Ireland on foot to attempt to tap into what was so magical about that trip from a decade earlier. And as a true Irish golf course plays best when walked, why not walk the entire journey?
He does take a few strategically placed taxi and train rides along the way, and jumps into a car a couple times to get lifts from strangers. But, for the most part, he sticks to his Keene’s and does his best to avoid distracted drivers, mis-marked short cuts, flocks of sheep that block the road, military firing ranges, and aggressive – possibly diseased – dogs who approach him.
Another difference in the books is that where Hawks was a comedian, Coyne is an English professor. Hawks’ observations were a little rougher. Coyne’s writing is beautiful and moving, whether he’s describing a course that clings to the cliffs on the edge of the Atlantic or relating an evening in a pub where, one-by-one, folks drift in to join a session of traditional Irish music and song. Thankfully the book as just as much of the later as the former. No matter how well you write, there are only so many ways to describe a golf course in prose, especially when you have to describe 36 different courses.
Both books relate the magic of Irish society, how strangers are always welcome with open arms and a fresh pint. Both authors run into people along the way who have been waiting for them to arrive, having followed their travels in the media. In Hawks’ book, that amazed me, that an entire nation would be locked into the same media outlets enough that he would always run into someone who was aware of his journey. Coyne, who went to Notre Dame, points out that Ireland is roughly the size of Indiana, which I did not know and makes it more understandable that a random story like this could bubble into the national consciousness.
So if Ireland and Indiana are about the same size, maybe I could walk around Indiana with either a fridge or golf clubs next summer!
- Friends have been wondering this for years. ↩