From doping to Deflategate, scandal and sports go together like peanuts and Cracker Jack. Last week, for example, tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for the recently banned substance meldonium, a transgression that may result in a suspension of two years or more. She was one of more than 60 athletes to test positive for the drug, according to media accounts.
What’s new, however, are the number of forthcoming titles that go beyond sensational exposés to explore the complexity of the issues.
“While tell-all memoirs from high-profile athletes or coaches will always sell,” says David Hirshey, senior v-p and executive editor at HarperCollins, “there’s been an interesting shift toward books that illuminate social issues in sports.”
Here, editors at several publishing houses speak about new books that go beyond the headlines.
Paying the Price
The financial gain and tremendous fame that go along with sports success can be hard to resist. But players and their families are increasingly questioning whether the rewards are worth the risks.
Major League Baseball is beginning to acknowledge a surge in serious arm injuries, which MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said is of “grave concern” to the sport’s future. In The Arm (Harper, Apr.), Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist Jeff Passan looks at so-called Tommy John surgery, frequently used to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).
“Injuries to pitchers’ arms cost Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and yet the sport’s establishment remains willfully blind to its current plight,” says Hirshey, the book’s editor. Some 25% of major league pitchers have had the surgery, and Passan sets out to answer the question of how baseball failed the pitching arm, and what can be done to save it.
The question of whether the gain is worth the pain applies to younger athletes, too. For Lasting Impact (Liberty Street, Sept.), Sports Illustrated special contributor Kostya Kennedy spent a year tracking the highs and lows of one high school football team. When its players are benched for concussions and other injuries, parents must assess whether they want to let their sons play the full-contact sport.
The perils of high-pressure sports are more than just physical, as detailed in The Courage to Walk Away (Atria, Oct.) by Jonathan Martin, who in 2013 turned his back on his $4.7 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. Early press reports said Martin left for emotional reasons; later, the harassment and bullying he’d endured came to light.
While bullying in general is widely discussed and condemned, pro ball is a different game. “For a long time sports played by its own rules, behind closed doors,” says Todd Hunter, the book’s editor. “Now sports is forced to follow rules that the rest of us have to abide.”
In the book Martin attempts to answer the question of how, as he writes, “a six-foot-five 304-pound male, a gladiator of American sports, gets bullied as though he were the skinny nerd on a playground, a pimply teen tormented by mean girls, or a worker berated by their boss.” He is critical of the NFL, his team, and of the perpetrators, but also assesses his shyness, depression, and his elite background (he is the child of two Harvard alums and is a Stanford-educated classics major), which made him an atypical candidate for the NFL and a prime target of bullying.
Bucking the System
Four years ago, sportswriter Mark Johnson approached Ted Constantino, publisher of cycling-centric Velo Press, about doing a book on the repercussions of the Lance Armstrong scandal. Rather than “rehashing that story,” Constantino says, he encouraged the author to explore the “broader question here about the complicity of some of the governing bodies,” such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.
In Spitting in the Soup (Velo, July), Johnson argues that blaming only the athletes ignores larger cultural influences; teams, coaches, sports federations, and even spectators play a role. He also points to the problem of singling out the use of performance-enhancing drugs in a society in which Prozac and Adderall are prescribed routinely.
Even before the Lance Armstrong doping allegations became a federal case in 2010, there was the so-called Tour de Farce of 1998. In The End of the Road (Bloomsbury Sport, July), Alasdair Fotheringham, a journalist who has covered 22 Tours de France, recounts the ill-fated race from its opening stages, when Festina team masseur Willy Voet was arrested at the France-Belgium border with a carload of drugs, to the multiple police raids and arrests that resulted in only 96 of the 189 starters reaching Paris.
Charlotte Atyeo, the book’s editor, says that when she received the pitch she was surprised to learn that no book on “cycling’s biggest scandal until Lance Armstrong” had yet been published in English. Fotheringham’s examination, she says, tells us “how we ended up in sports today.”
In American Huckster (Harper, Apr.), Mary Papenfuss and Teri Thompson write of a different kind of corruption, showing how Chuck Blazer went from being a suburban New York soccer dad to a FIFA executive committee member to an FBI informant. Under the godfather of professional soccer, as former FIFA head Sepp Blatter is known, Blazer made millions skimming off FIFA; when the FBI and IRS nabbed Blazer, he turned whistle-blower in exchange for immunity, leading to the arrest and indictment of 18 FIFA officials for racketeering and bribery.
Left unchecked, greed in sports can lead to extreme exploitation. In The Lost Boys (Bloomsbury Sport, May), investigative journalist Ed Hawkins exposes how poverty-stricken children as young as 13 from South America and Africa are sold a vision of untold riches in Europe’s professional soccer leagues. Lured by crooked scouts, the children are led to believe they are the next big thing, only to have their families’ savings depleted while attending hyped academies across Europe; the vast majority are then abandoned in the country to which they have been trafficked.
Not all that long ago, the idea that a sports career was a ticket to financial security was laughable. In Players (S&S, Apr.), Matthew Futterman, a senior special sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, shows how, in a span of a single generation, professional sports went from an occupation that required top athletes to work second jobs to a field in which the top 50 athletes each earn more than $20 million per year.
The story begins in 1960, when Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer, convinced Arnold Palmer to sign with him. Within a few years, Palmer went from earning an annual income of $5,000 to $500,000.
S&S senior editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler says that while Futterman acknowledges the trade-offs that come with big money, the author views it “as a good thing that athletes are getting paid better now and not being taken advantage of.” Futterman, she says, sees McCormack as a hero “for recognizing that imbalance and almost single-handedly flipping it.”
Liz Hartman is the author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Sports (Plume, 2006) and a frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly and the Wall Street Journal.
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Biographies and memoirs bring to the fore sportscasters, and high-profile and lesser-known athletes.