While watching a recent bone crunching pro-football game on TV, I saw a player dive into a fracas and come up the fumbled football. He took off for his goal, running for the sidelines to avoid being pummel by a pile of opposing players. With the TV camera in close I could see his grin as his teammates gave him congratulatory fists to the his helmet. It looked like his head was being knocked around inside his helmet.
“Doesn’t that hurt him?” I asked.
“Players frequently do things to their own players that would result in a penalty if they did it to an opponent,” was the response of a more sage sports aficionado.
If you read many of the current sports books you will find there is a much darker side to sports than the painful celebratory punching that occurs between team members. The same sports aficionado advised me that “There is probably a greater percentage of felons who have worn an NFL uniform than the percentage of felons in the general public.”
So I decided to look back at classis sports novels to trace the “cultural development” of this bad reputation, only to find that there is a paucity of sports novels written before 1950. One of the most well-known, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, loosely based the life of Eddie Waitkus, was published in 1952. The novel has a darker, more realistic ending than the popular movie. The baseball prodigy, who loses his best years is a more reckless character that doesn’t succeed in his comeback and fails to win the big game for the pennant.
Occasionally there are more light hearted views of the sporting life such as George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, a real account story of how he gained access into the Detroit Lions’ training camp practices despite obvious ineptitude as a athlete. But other than the scrubbed clean sports books for preteens and younger, many of the current “true stories” in sports describe a litany of gambling, dirty dealing and drugs that make the opponents seem like the least of the player’s worries.
Even in Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger’s candid coverage of one dramatic season for the Permian High School Panthers, there are painful revelations about high school football. The town gathers ritualistically to cheer on its athletes, who lose much in their gamble to become a stars, and are discarded as soon as they are no longer useful. Sports have been around since ancient times, but their imprint on anything resembling literature has been fairly weak until recently. I suppose the heroes of the playing field have replaced the heroes of battle. And you are probably well aware of all the novels about the darker side of war.