Unionizing College Football: Ben Strauss Discusses “Indentured”

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Even after researching and writing “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” a searing indictment of college sports’ governing body, author Ben Strauss still can’t resist the power of the bracket. “March Madness is still a lot of fun! But at the same time, it’s hard to watch with the same passion as when I was younger knowing that the system is so fundamentally flawed,” Strauss says.

Those flaws are painstakingly catalogued in “Indentured,” co-authored by Joe Nocera. It charts the NCAA’s long history of funneling the spoils of college sports directly to coaches and administrators. The star athletes who generate the estimated $13 billion a year are unpaid “amateurs” and can have their careers taken away for the slightest violation of their amateur status or daring to speak out against the system.

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Nonfiction Review: “Thrown” by Kerry Howley

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Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of fighting. My teen son was a wrestler and endured his share of cauliflower ear, knee injuries, concussion and all-or-nothing coaches. My husband made a documentary about head injuries in sport, so I tend to be squeamish and protective of the human body. I therefore approached “Thrown” with caution.

It’s a layered, complex work about MMA fighters, their ambitions, obsessions and myth-making. Out of sweaty training basements and small-town fighting cages in the Midwest, we meet fighters Erik and Sean. Why do they fight? We are asked to weigh their world of “ecstatic experience” against the alternative offered by the healthy-minded, with their pre-natal yoga and gluten-free diets, “their dull if long lives of quietist self-preserving conformism.” By the end of the book, I’m in with the fighters. Read the rest of this entry »

Transition Game: Longtime Reader Editor Michael Lenehan on Race, Basketball and a Changing World

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Rouse, Vic 63 winnerBy Brian Hieggelke

I’ve known Michael Lenehan for more than twenty years, in that distant friendly way you know your competitors. He was the top editor of the Chicago Reader from the time we started Newcity until the company was sold in 2007. I knew very little about him—friendly competitors tend to limit their conversations to five minutes or less—other than that he had a devilish grin and the kind of dry wit that feels like it must be skewering you without you even understanding how. What I did know is that he was largely responsible for executing the Reader’s editorial vision all those years, and that he not only once published a 20,000-word story on beekeeping that epitomized what made the Reader different, he wrote it. Lenehan was an editor who was a proven writer.

Now, several years after the sale of the Reader led to his exit from what had been his life’s work, he’s published his first book, “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball,” the story of Chicago’s—of Illinois’—only national basketball champion, ever. But even more than digging up the backstory of the hardcourt’s ultimate one-hit wonder, he convincingly constructs a narrative, told with acumen and suspense—that this team, that this national championship game, marked a turning point in the sport and in the country, as we grappled with the final stages of overt racial discrimination. But expect no self-righteous soapboxes here; Lenehan lets the story tell itself by following the fates of three teams that converged in the tournament that year: the Loyola Ramblers; the would-be-dynasty-in-process Cincinnati Bearcats, who like Loyola fielded a starting lineup dominated by African-American players but attacked the game in a wholly different style; and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team so white that it had to sneak out of state at night in order to play in an integrated basketball game. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “After Artest” by David J. Leonard

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And you thought watching sports was innocuous. How could it be? Savagery’s long been our best bet at crowding our toughest thoughts out of the brain, so when you’re yelling LET’S GO and WIN IT ALL and GET THE BALL at the bar after you’ve had a few, that’s all fine and well. But if you’re like most fans of basketball, it’s just also the case that you’re not typically thinking about whether you’re watching the largest, most indelible symbol of systematic racial oppression in America—but you are. Or so says David J. Leonard, approximately, in this startlingly thorough scope of zeitgeist, for the western nation so sprawling and divided it can hardly be called one.

Michael Jordan—and the media dream that was the druggy socio-political cloud, which some argue made Barack Obama’s presidency much, much more possible—diverted the division between all citizens so well that the NBA was left in a stupefied hangover of brand identity for years after his final championship triumph in Utah. What this eventually amounted to was the realization that (despite the mega-billions effort to convince otherwise) the NBA is made up of a bunch of black guys. Fine and well, on its face—but before Magic and Larry and MJ’s games and David Stern’s pointed PR savvy took America by storm for two decades, the NBA being a bunch of black guys was certainly not okay with most Americans. Just ask Bill Russell, the greatest competitor Boston ever had, an eleven-time champion as player and coach; he’s hardly even welcome back or remembered in Celticsland, after ruling the NBA in the 1960s. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Gold” by Chris Cleave

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Watching the bodies of Olympic athletes move so beautifully and powerfully, we want to get inside their heads. We want to be them, and we believe if we can get inside their heads, maybe, just a little bit, we can. But listening to athletes get interviewed after a match, answering the same questions with the same answers again and again, is never as satisfying as we wish it would be. (Have you seen the “Ryan Lochte Is Terrible at Interviews” video on YouTube?)

In his carefully timed novel “Gold,” British author and journalist Chris Cleave gets inside the minds of these athletes and aspires to more eloquently express the answers to all those questions we have about what it’s really like to be an Olympic athlete. In the end though, it’s not the minds of Olympic athletes we want to slide into—it’s their bodies. That’s not something a book can do. You’ll need a personal trainer if you want to get anywhere near that.  Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Sweetness” by Jeff Pearlman

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If you ever saw Walter Payton run, you’ve never forgotten it—not just his elusive speed, but the power that routinely broke tackles. Then there was that exuberant kick with which he finished runs—often gaining additional yards—and which in the fourth quarter made defenders look like slackers who had run out of steam.

For years before the arrival of Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka, Payton gained yardage behind offensive lines that were mediocre at best, his margin not just talent but a toughness fostered by his own grueling work ethic: He ran up hills and stadium stands in season and off, and sprinted after each practice play.

He wasn’t the fastest or biggest running back, but Chicago fans learned he was the best all-around runner, blocker and receiver, and probably the best player, pound for pound, in the history of professional football. He was further endeared to fans by his reported penchant for pranks and a publicly self-effacing attitude, underlined by a calm voice more evocative of Michael Jackson than Dick Butkus.

We loved him, but alas, Walter, we hardly knew ye, as Jeff Pearlman’s detailed, thoroughly researched yet also thoroughly readable biography “Sweetness” makes eminently clear. Perfect athletes are perfect people only in adolescent biographies, but after reading this “warts-and-all” book, the reader may be forgivably sad about how lost and misguided Payton often was away from the game he loved, and be deeply wistful at his untimely wasting away from cancer. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Said in Stone: Your Game, My Way” by Steve Stone

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By Eric Lutz

Steve Stone is one of those odd public figures, in sports or elsewhere, who can be simultaneously one of his field’s best minds and also one of its most pompous blowhards.

He’s like that hipster friend who knows more about music than you could ever hope to learn, but—god damn, can you stop talking about the time you yelled “Secret Santa Cruz” at a Lifter Puller show and they played it two songs later? The Bob Nanna version is ten times better anyway.

Stone is equal parts baseball-brilliant and Olympic-caliber name-dropper in his new book, “Said in Stone: Your Game, My Way”—a work sure to bore ninety-two percent of the US population and turn off another seven percent with its semi-self-indulgence.

But for the one percent whose appreciation of America’s pastime goes beyond the Old Style on breezy June afternoons but whose knowledge of the game doesn’t go beyond an intermediate level, Stone’s book will be a good read, stuffed with entertaining anecdotes and comprehensive baseball theory. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction review: Run, Boy, Run

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Run, Boy, Run

Thirty years ago, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club in Tokyo. It was a tiny place. During the day, he served coffee; at night, the club became a bar. Murakami closed up himself, arriving home as the sun was rising in the sky. It had never occurred to him to do anything else, let alone write fiction. And then, it did. Read the rest of this entry »

411 Seven Days in Chicago: Menace on the Mound

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You can’t take the New Yorker out of Society of Midland Authors’ recent award-winning biographer and St. Charles resident Judith Testa, and you certainly can’t wash out the dirty mouths of trash-talking baseball players. “Fucking cocksucker this and fucking asshole that—that’s the kind of language that baseball players actually use, ” proclaims Testa, who remembers, at age 7, watching Dodgers’ feared pitcher of the 1940s and 1950s and subject of her latest book, Sal Maglie, commonly known as “Sal the Barber.” Testa, a retired NIU art history teacher and author of “Rome Is Love Spelled Backward,” has clearly strayed away from her expertise to delve into her favorite childhood pastime and focused on “the one sport she always truly understood or cared about.” She says of Maglie, “He was really scary—not just to batters but to his audience, even watching him on television,” she says. “He was very sinister, he just conveyed an atmosphere of menace.”

Author Visit: Fight Night

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Catching up with Eugene Robinson requires a considerable amount of stamina. The journalist, spoken-word artist, musician, mixed-martial-arts cage fighter and, most recently, author, has a pretty full plate. Last year alone saw the release of “The Narcotic Story,” a much-anticipated work from long-running art-rock phenomenon, Oxbow, a grueling tour itinerary and the release of Robinson’s first book, “Fight: Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking” (Harper).
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