The King of Sports (a book review)

The King of Sports

Pick a subtitle, any subtitle…

I categorized this book review under parenting for a reason. It belongs there. A large part of this book focuses on football in America in an academic setting – college and high school. It’s valuable information that parent’s should keep in their back pocket if they have kids interested in playing sports, especially football.

On to the review!

Gregg Easterbrook is probably best known for his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column (TMQ) that he writes currently for ESPN.com. As a matter of disclosure, I read that column regularly. I enjoy Mr. Easterbrook’s writing style immensely. He has a unique sense of humor and he’s not afraid to call out bad behavior in football (especially in the NFL). However, that column includes frequent side-trips into politics, science, and popular culture. This book dispenses with those distractions and jumps right into the heart of the matter: the current state of football in America.

You didn’t realize how much of the NFL is funded by public tax funds? All to support billionaire team owners at the expense of the public? You’ll learn about it here. Think the concussion issue is an NFL problem? Mr. Easterbrook looks at concussions, not from the perspective of the professional players, but from the local high school level, and even down to Pop Warner, where children crash into each other on the field, even while their bodies (and their skulls in particular) or not even close to fully developed. Should football dominate a high school career for the emerging athlete? The author asks whether the trend to playing high-school football all year round is really in the interest of the students, or is it leading to teenagers who are less well-rounded because all they did was play or practice football constantly instead of experiencing other aspects of life?

Good questions all, but the largest portion of the book is devoted to college football, where “football factories” rule and getting an education runs a distant second. Why don’t these colleges demand their student-athletes go to class and keep a respectable GPA? Most college athletes won’t be able to go pro, but if the program is set up deny them the education as well, what do they end up with as they go out into the adult world? Why are coaches rarely punished for violating NCAA rules, but players violating even the most minor ones (that they may not even understand) are hunted down with extreme prejudice? Why does college tuition from everyday students go towards the football program, yet students can’t even step foot in the state-of-the-art training facilities their money helped pay for?

Is the NCAA completely blinded by money?

Maybe the most interesting, and cautionary chapter for parents, is where the author explores the idea that football has taken on a cult status. Sounds silly, right? I took this picture today in one of the giant windows at Macy’s on State Street in Chicago’s loop (one of three huge advertisements at Macy’s):

You can see me reflected in the glass ... no, I'm not wearing Hugo Boss

You can see me reflected in the glass … no, I’m not wearing Hugo Boss

How much do you suppose that cost Hugo Boss? They thought it was worth the cost to associate themselves with the NFL over a MEN’S PERFUME (let’s call it what it is). The NFL has an official smell! Never mind that I’m pretty sure the official scent of football is sweat and urine… (Look it up.)

It’s important to remember that Gregg Easterbrook loves football. He watches more games than most of us. He coaches it. He writes about it. In the book he details positive aspects of the sport, from health and fitness, to camaraderie and character building. But if you’ve read his column, you know that he’s asked the tough questions about the sport for years now. He’s questioned player safety at all levels and looked critically at the NCAA. He doesn’t advocate paying student-athletes, but he does advocate making sure they have the best chance at a college degree. He makes compelling arguments for reforms that would not reduce the excitement of the game in any way and would protect youth players. And, of course, he’s not shy about telling state leaders to stop throwing public money at private team owners.

Of course, books are rarely perfect. Mr. Easterbrook occasionally makes unexpected associations without any particular reasoning, such as blaming video games for lack of maturity in young men (sorry, I played video games as a kid but I still experienced life outside of them). And he seems to have a disconnect between what a kid’s life is like in a city versus kids in rural areas. Also, he writes his chapters like he writes his column, in relatively short sections. It’s an odd, almost staccato narrative structure at times.

Very small complaints, though. Gregg Easterbrook continues to shine a light on the dark corners of America’s favorite sport. Not because he dislikes it, but because he thinks it could be better than it is after the Friday night lights are turned off.

If you’re one of those readers who cries a little bit after the Superbowl because TMQ stops until the next season, owning this book will help you through it. It’s like inviting Gregg Easterbrook over for dinner and shooting the breeze about your favorite sport, only to wake up in the morning and find he’s still there, sitting on your couch, watching your television, and eating your Cheerios.

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