I read two new books recently, both about sports, though one was interesting the other was bland. The disappointing book was called, simply, The Football Book. I hoped it would be better than it was, but I feared from the first that it would be as it indeed was because I noted that it was put out by Sports Illustrated, a magazine with which I have never been impressed. It was mostly a lot of large pictures (the book itself is the size of a coffee-table book) which in and of themselves are not terribly interesting, devoid as they are from all context, both the games from which they were taken and because they have little or no connection to the text. Other than an insipid introduction by Rick Reilly, all the writing in the book is republished excerpts from past magazines and most that is writing of a very low quality as well. The book is not informative, it is not interesting, it provides nothing new and it rarely even attempts any of these feats. The closest it comes is listing leaders for various statistical categories in each decade. This, though, falls short because (again) no context is given. Who came in second place? Or third? How would a player who played 5 years in one decade and 5 years in the next stack up? The book also includes the 20 or so greatest players at each position. Determined how? Ranked it what order? No such information or reasoning is given. If you like looking at large, uninteresting pictures and reading uninspired prose from hacks, then this is the book for you.
The second book was much better; it held my interest well and served it’s purpose admirably. Game of Shadows is a book about BALCO, Barry Bonds, steroids and professional sports. The book is marketed and written about in most news accounts as if it was only about the first three of those four topics I listed, but the fourth is at least co-equal with them and perhaps the most important. The writers are up front about the fact that much of the evidence for Barry Bonds knowingly taking steroids is circumstantial. But no less an eminence than former Chief Justice Warren Berger noted that “Circumstantial evidence is the most damaging evidence there is, because it’s the most difficult to arrange.” (Quoted in this article.) Indeed, the evidence is such that there is not a doubt in my mind that Barry Bonds knew very well what he was doing and the book also raises concerns that steroids are a much more widespread problem than most people realise, not only in baseball, but throughout all professional sports. In this book, the writers link BALCO and steroids to football as well as baseball, though not basketball, but I see no reason why basketball should not also have its problems. It merely may not have had any players mixed up with BALCO. For anyone concerned about the direction of sports in the current era and especially anyone with an interest in whether or not today’s athletes are setting the marks they do with chemical assistance, this is a must-read book.