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Book review: “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back”

Two sports journalists cover the dumb, corrupt, dark and controversial sides of the games we love.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Minnesota Twins
The Twins lost this game 15-0 in 2011. Unknown is if the masked fans were Bill Smith and Terry Ryan.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As we all know, there are three strange, rare creatures you can find in America, if you look far and wide for evidence of their existence. The first is a man who neither knows nor cares about sports. The second is a woman who does. And the third is Bigfoot.

That common assumption is one of many looked at in Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back. The authors, Jessica Luther and Kavita A. Davison, are both longtime sports journalists and fans – Davidson of the New York Knicks, Luther of college basketball and the Olympics. Unsurprisingly, both have faced that assumption. It’s among several reasons both authors have questioned their fandom over the years; as they put it, “welcome to our club for sports fans who care too much. It’s exhausting here, but we can’t leave. We don’t want to.”

Each chapter focuses on a different problematic aspect of sports, from the cultural (gender stereotypes) to the economic. They are non-sequential, so you can read them in any order you wish without missing essential information from earlier in the book.

Many TwinkieTown readers would likely start with the chapters discussing problems in baseball. These include PEDs, troublesome mascots, troublesome off-field violence, troublesome owners, and... wait for it... your favorite and mine, sports stadium financing!

The ownership one recounts in some detail how the Mets got absolutely bamboozled by Bernie Madoff, and are still paying for it. The stadium one, naturally, features several observations from the great Neil deMause, plus this money quote by a former Blue Jays executive, on teams claiming financial hardship: “I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me.” There’s also an extensive rundown of the Vikings’ shakedown, pitting locality against locality to get the deal Zigi Wilf wanted. And a mention of that little-known perk which public funding brings; municipal bonds are tax-free to investors nationwide. You may not watch the Las Vegas Raiders or live in Nevada, but because of the municipal bonds used to build their stadium, your federal taxes went to subsidizing part of the thing.

A similar chapter focuses on the events which cost taxpayers the most; the Olympics and World Cup. Brazil had the misfortune of hosting one in 2014 and the other in 2016, and took a huge economic blow. Not only the enormous cost of building multiple facilities and providing extra security, but issues with infrastructure, forced housing relocation, and the like. Vice Sports reporter Aaron Gordon, writing daily dispatches of the events themselves, was so appalled he published “The Rio Games Were An Unjustifiable Human Disaster, And So Are The Olympics.” The upcoming World Cup in Qatar already has an appalling record of exploitation and deaths among the estimated two million migrant construction workers.

Other non-baseball chapters similarly cover areas that you’re probably familiar with. Brain trauma in the NFL, for instance. And how any attempt by the NFL to address the problem is basically a corporate write-off, not serious compensation. (For one thing, it’s a one-time-only deal; it does not apply to future victims.) And you are no doubt aware that permanent brain damage happens in other sports, as well. Although it surprised me to learn that the most dangerous non-football sport is competitive cycling.

I was also surprised to learn about the ongoing hassles faced by women’s tennis players. The prejudice faced by gay icons like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King I knew about. I didn’t know about the appearance mockery faced by more modern stars such as Serena Williams, for ostensibly having a physical build which isn’t “feminine” enough. (King’s challenges were dramatized in a surprisingly good Emma Stone / Steve Carrell movie.)

There’s another chapter on the visibility of women’s sports in general, which brings up the interesting question — are these sports less covered because they are less popular, or less popular because they are less covered? When baseball started getting national media attention, the biggest sports in America were boxing and horse racing. Now they draw less attention than March Madness — a sport which, in racing/boxing’s heyday, hadn’t even been invented yet.

Naturally, Luther & Davison address the aforementioned biases towards non-white/straight guy journalists. This chapter is told primarily in first-hand accounts by different sports reporters. It makes me think of the Twins’ press box, which includes both an Asian-American and a woman – and up until recently, Lavelle E. Neal III.

Then there are some chapters which would strike some here as “too political” (as if stadium financing isn’t political!) One addresses the subject of Native American team names/logos. The Washington NFL team (and especially their owner, the loathsome Dan Snyder) come across as badly as you’d expect.

They cite an interesting study published in a psychological journal in 2008 about whether or not even the most supposedly “positive” mascots of these sorts have more positive or negative effects on high school and college students; it found that, overall, the mascots do more harm than good. What’s more, seeing those mascots improved the feeling of self-worth among students of European descent.

Also, I knew that the Florida State University’s name had permission from Florida Seminoles – partially because of that school’s cooperation with the tribe on softening some of the school’s more offensive uses of the name. But not all Seminoles live in Florida – in 2013, Oklahoma Seminoles issued a resolution condemning all such names/mascots, citing that studies showed their negative effects. (As for the reason there are Seminoles in both Florida and Oklahoma, well... go ask President Jackson.)

The chapter “Embracing That Athletes – And Sports – Are Political” has the familiar Kapernick story, of course, yet also reminds those who may not have known that Kapernick started by sitting out the anthem unobtrusively; it was a Green Beret veteran who convinced him that kneeling showed more respect. The chapter has stories of other athletes who’ve been criticized for their stances, from the ones you know (MLB’s Robinson, boxing’s Ali), to ones you don’t.

I was particularly taken by the story of Toni Smith-Thompson, a Black basketball player at a small New York college who began turning her back during the anthem in 2003. It went unnoticed until a game against the proto-military US Merchant Marine Academy, where somebody had gotten word of her protests, and the game sold out. A Division III women’s basketball game. (I had briefly attended that school a few years before, and I promise you that women’s sports were not big crowd draws.) The midshipmen yelled things like “Go back to Iraq, you bitch . . . curses and all kinds of other slurs. And they weren’t really just directed at me, either. The slurs were aimed at the entire team.” (I can also promise you this would have been exactly a thing those students might do.) Unsurprisingly, she received death threats for weeks, and eventually left the team: “I didn’t want to do basketball anymore as a professional or other serious endeavor . . . A lot of it was really tainted for me.”

Keep in mind that this young lady was opposing a war that almost anyone not named Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld’s burning ghost now considers to be a tragic, colossal mistake.

Less politically charged, but certainly depressing, is the issue of athletes who behave cruelly and sometimes criminally towards women, such as Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman. At the time of the Chapman signing, Tanya Bondurant (then Anderson) was running SB’s Yankees site, Pinstripe Alley (they’ve always had good writers over there), and became so frustrated she pledged to donate $1 for every strikeout Chapman recorded to an anti-domestic violence foundation. Interviewed by this book’s authors, Bondurant says :

“I think that if you are a woman, particularly a woman who writes about sports . . . you get threatened, you have people say just these horrible, awful things that they would never say to males writing about sports. So I think that it’s a definite difference when you’re a woman and you see this problem that we have in society with domestic violence and trying to mesh that with, “But I also like sports, and I want to like sports care-free. But we can’t do that.”

Ultimately, I think this is a book most TwinkieTowners would find interesting. Most would probably disagree with one or more chapters. (I strongly disagreed with one defending baseball’s lack of a salary cap.) I learned more from it than I disagreed with it, and that’s always a good thing in a book.

Plus, who can’t love this quote about sports stadiums: “why do we subsidize one person’s entertainment and not another’s ... “Film buffs don’t get tapped to finance new movie theaters.”