During the 2016 NFL season, when then–San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, he joined a roster of athletes who have come to symbolize the intersection of sports and activism: Jackie Robinson, who agreed to turn the other cheek when confronted with racist insults and threats of violence, and U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who bowed their heads and raised their fists on the medalists’ podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
The Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, who has a book on Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown coming out this spring and is founder of the Edge of Sports imprint at Akashic Books, calls sports “an unbelievably effective ideological Trojan horse.” Books on the subject needn’t stick to the playing field, he says; instead, they can tackle hardships in the world at large.
Linda Ganster, editorial director at Rowman & Littlefield and Rowman & Littlefield International, says that sports books naturally reflect what’s going on in society. As LGBTQ athletes and athletes of color continue to capture public attention, she says, their stories will reflect a “different set of triumphs and tragedies.”
A good biography has value on its own, says Bob Bender, Simon & Schuster vice president and executive editor. “We’re trying to find great stories out there that need to be told,” he says, regardless of “what happens to be going on at any particular moment.” In August, S&S is releasing Raymond Arsenault’s Arthur Ashe, a biography of the pioneering tennis star, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993.
The book tracks his professional career—born in segregated Richmond, Va., in 1943, he was the first African-American to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team and won singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open before retiring in 1980. He was also an outspoken champion of civil rights and, in his final years, an AIDS activist. Such stories matter, Bender says, because they’re “inspirational and instructive to us today.”
Lakers great Elgin Baylor also faced racial discrimination: he sat out a game in Charleston, W.Va., during his rookie season in 1959, after he was refused a hotel room there. His protest turned into a national story and prompted an apology from the town’s mayor. Baylor’s memoir, Hang Time (HMH, Apr.), written with Alan Eisenstock (Sports Talk), covers his 40 years in professional basketball, including his support of the threatened player boycott of the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, which secured better working conditions for athletes in the league.
In Jim Brown: Last Man Standing (Blue Rider, May), Zirin looks at Brown’s glory days with the Cleveland Browns but also examines his complex legacy far from the gridiron: civil rights activism and work with Los Angeles gangs, accusations of violence against women, and public support of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. PW’s review called the book “the definitive biography of Brown.”
Zirin’s Edge of Sports imprint at Akashic is publishing Tigerbelle (Sept.), a memoir from two-time Olympic gold medalist sprinter Wyomia Tyus. The daughter of a tenant farmer in rural Georgia, she won top honors at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. In the book, coauthored by Elizabeth Terzakis, she recalls her turbulent path to the top and her struggle to find recognition afterward.
Artie Wilson, by contrast, never quite made it to the top. He was a star shortstop in the Negro Leagues and in 1949 became the first African-American player for the minor league Oakland Oaks. Two years later the New York Giants called him up, but after just 24 at bats, Wilson convinced the team to bring up his former teammate Willie Mays in his place. The Giants sent Wilson back to Oakland.
Former newspaper sportswriter Gaylon H. White (The Bilko Athletic Club) profiles Wilson in Singles and Smiles (Rowman & Littlefield, Apr.). R&L’s Ganster says readers identify with this kind of “unknown, unsung hero story,” because Wilson—who played in the minors for another decade—maintained a high level of play and cheerful demeanor under the specter of what might have been.
Howard Bryant, a columnist for ESPN the Magazine, says in the modern era, sporting events are patriotic spectacles, complete with military flyovers and police processions. In such a climate, athletes have no choice but to make their voices heard. “How can you tell someone to stick to sports when there’s an F-15 jet flying over their head?” he asks.
In The Heritage (Beacon, May), Bryant discusses the changing role of African-American athletes in an increasingly politicized sports world. He notes that many athletes see commonalities between themselves and the private citizens participating in Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other social movements. “When it becomes that personal, the players realize, ‘I’m not protected by my millions, because I grew up here. I’m still connected to all of these people,’ ” Bryant says. And that’s when they get involved in increasingly vocal ways.
One such athlete is Michael Bennett of the Philadelphia Eagles, whom the Root called “one of the most outspoken and progressive voices in the NFL.” In Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (Haymarket, Apr.), which Zirin coauthored, Bennett offers his thoughts on topics including racism and police violence.
“We have to fight the numbness,” Bennett writes in the book. “People turn on the TV and see another Black person murdered, and they’re like, ‘What are the Kardashians doing?’ We all need to say, ‘This shit needs to change.’ ”
Serena Williams has also spoken out against police brutality and other issues over the course of her two decades in the public eye. In Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend, and Cultural Heroine (Rowman & Littlefield, Nov.), sports journalist Merlisa Lawrence Corbett looks at the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner’s career as an athlete, business woman, and celebrity, and also at the impact she’s had on discussions of racism, feminism, misogyny, sports marketing, and the status of female athletes.
Superstars like Williams push the boundaries of what’s possible in sports. The essay collection Upon Further Review (Twelve, May), edited by Slate’s Mike Pesca, goes further, posing a series of hypothetical sports scenarios. PW’s review calls the collection an “enlightening and entertaining” book that “gives sports fans much food for thought.”
In “What If Football Were Reinvented Today,” for instance, former NFL player Nate Jackson wonders how the game might take into account “players whose minds and bodies have been broken by playing this game.” Journalist Mary Pilon, in “What If... Title IX Never Was,” imagines how U.S. sports would suffer without mandated, if imperfect, equal opportunities for women.
Personal trainer Sarah Hays Coomer draws a direct connection between women’s activism and athleticism in Physical Disobedience (Seal, Aug.), explaining why taking care of one’s body is a first step toward abolishing gender inequality.
The book, says Stephanie Knapp, senior editor at Seal Press, also serves as a reminder that anyone can be an activist. “We’re always told to shrink our bodies, to critique them, to squish them into something,” she says. “And to really say, ‘I’m going to reject that idea and I’m going to truly take care of my body’: that’s what makes it a place of activism.”
Proud (Hachette, July) is the memoir of Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first woman to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. in the Olympics. The book, written with journalist Lori Tharps, details the bigotry and financial hardship Muhammad faced on her way to winning the bronze in the team sabre competition in the 2016 Olympics.
“Everyone loves a champion,” says Krishan Trotman, senior editor at Hachette. As Proud and other forthcoming sports titles show, “it doesn’t have to be a white male football player to show power and leadership.”
Pete Croatto lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and is working on his first book, with Atria.
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Journalist Dave Zirin has made his career at the juncture where athletics meets activism.
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