Let’s be clear: The Rumpus is full of nerds (many, many nerds). But sports in America is as inescapable as a volleyball getting tossed at our Managing Editor’s head. Sports lie at the intersection of sex, class, money, and education. They injure us and lift us up. They sustain our bodies and often break them.
Here is a list of books that tackle the complexities of sports in America, from nonfiction to poetry to fiction, just in time for your favorite season of whichever sport you choose to celebrate. And just a “heads up” (as they say in the sports world): this isn’t your average sports list.
Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape by Jessica Luther
Football teams create playbooks, in which they draw up the plays they will use on the field. Playbooks are how teams work and why they win. Unsportsmanlike Conduct is about a different kind of playbook, the one coaches, teams, universities, police, communities, the media, and fans seem to follow whenever a college football player is accused, charged, and/or convicted of sexual assault. This playbook is why nothing ever changes. Luther unpacks this societal playbook piece by piece, and not only advocates that we destroy the old plays, but suggests we replace them with ones that will force us to finally do something about this issue.
When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
Diaz, a former professional basketball player, examines memory’s role in human identity. Each section filters memory through specific individuals and settings. The first concentrates on a diabetic grandmother without legs and the landscape, tangible and intangible, of a Native American reservation. The second engages a brother’s struggle with drug use and his unraveling of the family, the home. The third grapples with war as a character and its tattering of individuals, families, and communities. Bigotry against Native Americans is confronted throughout the collection, and the speaker’s wrestling with identity is carefully woven into each poem. Faithfulness to and departure from tradition and culture are ever-present.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gym community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. A breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Barbarian Days is William Finnegan’s Pulitzer-prize winning memoir of an obsession, a complex enchantment. Surfing only looks like a sport. To initiates, it is something else entirely: a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. Raised in California and Hawaii, Finnegan started surfing as a child. He has chased waves all over the world. A bookish boy, and then an excessively adventurous young man, he went on to become a distinguished writer and war reporter. Barbarian Days takes us deep into unfamiliar worlds, some of them right under our noses. It immerses the reader in the edgy camaraderie of close male friendships annealed in challenging waves.
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
An enthralling literary debut that tells the story of a young girl’s coming of age in the cutthroat world of New York City ballet—a story of obsession and the quest for perfection, trust and betrayal, beauty, and lost innocence. Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.
Against Football by Steve Almond
On any given Sunday, football functions more like a national religion than a sport. In fact, we love football so much we’ve become blind to its dangers. Medical research confirms what the headlines keep reporting: football causes brain damage. It’s not just the pros who are suffering, either. Children and teenagers are susceptible to the same sorts of injuries, with the same long-term results—perhaps even more so. But football’s psychological and economic hazards—though subtle—are just as profound. Almond details why, after forty years as a fan, he can no longer watch the game he still loves.
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
The absorbing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football. With wit and great empathy, Chris Bachelder introduces us to his characters and over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time. Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s widely praised, brilliant second book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. In Citizen, Rankine offers up some of the most insightful commentary about sports in America that’s ever been written.
Apocalyptic Swing by Gabrielle Calvocoressi
“You don’t like to see a man get knocked out / cold?” Calvocoressi writes. “Then you’ve never lived in Hartford / or any town of boarded windows.” But brutalized as they are by a variety of traumas and intolerances, the speakers of these poems possess an almost devotional capacity for resilience that lifts them above their punishing circumstances. “All you gotta do is get up / one more time than the other guy thinks you can,” says the eponymous narrator of “Blues for Ruby Goldstein,” one of the book’s astonishing poems on boxing. Cornered in the ring or bottomed-out factory towns, in 1960s Birmingham or contemporary Los Angeles, Calvocoressi’s populace does more than just get up. Shaking off body blows and the deepest sorts of alienation, it counters with a harmony of hymn and jazz, of local and national, of diversity and communion. Apocalyptic Swing expresses some of America’s most crucial overlooked histories and, in doing so, it gives us a poetry of perseverance and optimism.
Thrown by Kerry Howley
In this darkly funny work of literary nonfiction, a bookish young woman insinuates herself into the lives of two MMA cage fighters—one a young prodigy, the other an aging journeyman. Howley follows these men for three years through the bloody world of mixed martial arts as they starve themselves, break bones, fail their families, and form new ones in the quest to rise from remote Midwestern fairgrounds to packed Vegas arenas. With penetrating intelligence and wry humor, Howley exposes the profundities and absurdities of this American subculture.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended. As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five characters are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Ostensibly about baseball, The Art of Fielding is about love, relationships, family, and so much more. And if you need some cocktail talk, the book is also at the center of a lawsuit.
The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka
The legendary Jack Johnson was a true American creation. The child of emancipated slaves, he overcame the violent segregation of Jim Crow, challenging white boxers—and white America—to become the first African-American heavyweight world champion. The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka’s third collection of poetry and a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in Poetry, follows the fighter’s journey from poverty to the most coveted title in sports through the multi-layered voices of Johnson and the white women he brazenly loved. Matejka’s book is part historic reclamation and part interrogation of Johnson’s complicated legacy, one that often misremembers the magnetic man behind the myth.
A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee
When John McPhee met Bill Bradley, both were at the beginning of their careers. McPhee’s debut is about Bradley when he was the best basketball player Princeton had ever seen. McPhee delineates for the reader the training and techniques that made Bradley the extraordinary athlete he was, and this part of the book is a blueprint of superlative basketball. But athletic prowess alone would not explain Bradley’s magnetism, which is in the quality of the man himself—his self-discipline, his rationality, and his sense of responsibility. Here is a portrait of Bradley as he was in college, before his time with the New York Knicks and his election to the US Senate—a story that suggests the abundant beginnings of his professional careers in sport and politics.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
In this middle grade novel-in-verse by the Newbery Medal-winning and Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning author of The Crossover, soccer, family, love, and friendship, take center stage as twelve-year-old Nick learns the power of words as he wrestles with problems at home, stands up to a bully, and tries to impress the girl of his dreams.
What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
An intimate look at writing, running, and the incredible way they intersect. While simply training for New York City Marathon would be enough for most people, Haruki Murakami’s decided to write about it as well. The result is a beautiful memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid memories and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer.
Bury Me in My Jersey by Tom McAllister
A rabid Eagles fan, Tom McAllister experiences plenty of defeats and disappointments, but his biggest challenge is coping with the premature loss of his father to cancer. In Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister explores the connection between his dedication to the Eagles and the death of his father. He details the intense bonds—between fathers and sons, among friends, and even between a city and its football team—and chronicles the joys and sorrows, victories and failures, of a lifetime of sports obsession.