For today's Buffalo News, columnist Greg Connors did a neat thing, asking a bunch of sports media people—some local, some national—to name their favorite sports books. They listed some really good titles, and it's fun to see what writers like Bryan Curtis, Will Leitch, and Josh Levin came up with. You should go check it out.
The best part of the list, though, doesn't involve smart people recommending good books that are worth reading, but ESPN football columnist Gregg Easterbrook recommending bad ones that are not, and doing so in his own thankfully inimitable style. The man has reached his peak; he will never be haughtier or less self-aware than this. Behold!
"The Meaning of Sports," by Michael Mandelbaum. Analyzes why the United States is the world's most athletics-obsessed nation. Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and also a sports nut, normally writes about foreign policy. It's good when intellectuals pay attention to sports.
If the name Michael Mandelbaum rings a bell, it may be because he's Thomas Friedman's collaborator and pet academic. A search of the New York Times archives turns up an astonishing 104 mentions of Mandelbaum in various Friedman columns, invariably attached to some glib, reductionist aphorism deployed in service of a stupid point about how the world needs lower trade barriers and more people getting shot. ("Rules are a substitute for walls—when you don't have walls you need more rules," for instance. OK, man.)
The Meaning of Sports, which I'd guess only Mandelbaum, Easterbrook, and I have actually finished—it's not the sort of book that anyone's actually expected to read, more of a prop to put on the table when you're giving a lecture at some think tank—is exactly what you would expect from a Friedman intimate, pretty much what you'd get if you could press tapioca into boilerplate. Basketball has very interesting things to say about the organization of the post-industrial knowledge economy, baseball is (no shit) about the "remembrance of things past," etc., etc.
Gregg Easterbrook wants you to read this book. Gregg Easterbrook hates you.
(Of course the best thing here is the line about how "It's good when intellectuals pay attention to sports." Who could he possibly be talking about, you wonder.)
"Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball," by George Will. And it's good when sophisticated thinkers pay attention to sports. Will's descriptions of behind-the-scenes life in MLB may seem a little dated today, now that cameras are everywhere in sports. At the time this book was published it was very fresh.
I actually like Men at Work, even if it wouldn't come to mind as one of the very best sports books I've ever read over a month of Sundays, so I can't knock Easterbrook too much for this pick. (Hey, it's better than him recommending an interesting book about whether it's alright for "Jewish executives to worship money above all else.") What I can knock him for is managing to get everything in this paragraph exactly wrong. George Will is not a sophisticated thinker, and in fact the best thing about the book is that he operates as a straightforward reporter, capturing a lot of interesting things baseball people do and say, rather than as some sort of sports theoretician; his descriptions of behind-the-scenes life actually aren't dated at all; and, pace Easterbrook's tacit claim that the book is now a bit stale, it comes off as quite prescient about the statistical revolution. That self-congratulatory line about how nice it is when people like Gregg Easterbrook pay attention to sports, by the way—the second in two book recommendations!—made me stab myself in the head.
But then, the coup de grace:
"The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America," by Gregg Easterbrook. Won't tell no lies, I think this book is important. Spells out how football can be reformed to make the sport just as exciting as popular as today, but no longer notorious.
Oh, fuck off.