Crying foul! Sports writing and the critical faculty

As someone who writes about sport both historically and occasionally contemporaneously, I am always on the lookout for books that offer a different angle on sport or some aspect of it. We are no longer in the place that Ian Hamilton found himself back in 1992 when introducing The Faber Book of Soccer, which he edited and could write in it:

‘Thinking’ books about soccer, it is said, have no market because soccer fans don’t think. But soccer fans do think, and all the recent signs are that lots of them are getting fed up with the yob label.

But in that same introduction to a book which contained writing on soccer that included all the classics from JB Priestley, Brian Glanville, Arthur Hopcraft, Sebastian Faulks and Martin Amis, Hamilton also notes that ‘most good soccer writing of the past has been done by spectators, fans at heart’ or ‘sports writing is mostly done by fantasists, by would-be practitioners, by “could-have-beens”‘. And this of course is a huge portion of the problem with most sports writing that you are likely to read.

Even as I survey my shelves in front of me, while there are plenty of ‘thinking’ books on sport and various subjects within it – the number of books that have the real critical faculties to analyse what sport was, is or has become, are few and far between indeed. Most of those that do fulfil these obligations are of course lauded and rightly so. But they have become, in most instances, classics of their genre. This has had the effect of making them in some ways, toothless; they are held up as an exemplary that most mere mortal sports writers should not attempt. I am thinking here especially of Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game? in particular, and CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary. Dunphy has not quietened with age, but is still writing, and with his most recent offering can still suggest that critiques of sport must start with critiques of society. At the end of one chapter in his most recent memoir, Rocky Road, detailing his time with Millwall at the end of the 1970s he insists in typically incendiary fashion

As useless then as they are a today, leader writers and politicians urged football “to get its house in order”. The idea that society should get its house in order first was rarely broached.

But sports writing hasn’t been, and fortunately is not, an endless succession of either dreary ghosted autobiographies or uncritical celebrations of sport. Also on my shelves I see Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer Versus The State, in which the author gives a fairly honest and balanced account of the antagonism’s within soccer between those who see it as a site for potential radical intervention from means of co-operative ownership to teams organised beyond classic gender principles and those who see it (and engage in it) solely as it is presented in its traditional, corporatised forms.

In this same line there was the recent Michael Lavelette-edited collection Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play. A recent acquisition, second-hand, was the 2008 book Foul Play: What’s Wrong With Sport by Joe Humphreys, current education editor of the Irish Times. Although written with great humour and wit, and while also written by another of sports “could-have-beens”, Humphreys’ book tears through many of the myths espoused by international sporting bodies about the potential of sport to bring people together, to encourage moral rectitude, build character and all the other gifts sport is supposed to bestow upon the world. I read that while also reading Allyson Pollock’s book Tackling Rugby. Interestingly, both books quote some of the same studies done on sports injuries, though of course Pollock’s book is vastly more detailed – focusing on this one single issue in favour of Humphreys’ more universal approach to the ills of sport.

It may be that the most obviously physically violent (some would use the more softening term ‘demanding’) sports like rugby and boxing are likely to draw more critical writing and comment. Certainly, boxing has an extraordinary literary tradition from Joyce Carol Oates to Norman Mailer (or consider the compendium The Hurt Business) – but other books have turned an eye on the fight game which is far less celebratory. From my own shelves in particular I look to Kevin Mitchell’s War Baby: The Glamour of Violence, a book about the fight between Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan that left the latter permanently brain damaged. In that book, written almost fifteen years ago now, Mitchell observes that

In its acceptable form, as living theatre, violence hypnotises its audience as it simultaneously gives it participants the dubious thrill of gambling with their own mortality for, sometimes, considerable sums of money.

Mitchell sustains his critique across the entirety of his book, as does Pollock hers, and Humphreys his. But if we are talking about sports writing that goes beyond the usual then surely it is to Mike Marqusee the final words must go. Marqusee has just died from cancer this week. To those of us who read him, his words were powerful – the best of sports writing. For my own part, I am most familiar with his book on Ali, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. First published in 1998, my edition is from 2005. In it Marqusee gets to the heart of the many questions that someone of my generation would have about Ali – how was a figure, so reviled at the height of his athletic powers, so outspoken, turned into little more than an amusing but ultimately harmless footnote in the greater struggle for civil rights and racial equality? In other words how was so unconventional a figure made to fit the frame in retrospect? Like those classic works that I have already mentioned, it seems a version of the Ali story that took the awkward bits out was going to prevail. But thanks to the writing of Mike Marqusee, anyone who wishes to really understand Ali, can not ignore Marqusee’s contribution on the subject. A greater legacy than that is hard to imagine.


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