A smug, wearisome catalogue.



Sportswriter Zirin (Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports, 2007, etc.) looks through the eyes of the left at the political forces shaping the history of American sports.

Americans who care little about sports probably know something about track stars Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe and Wilma Rudolph; baseball players Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente; football greats Paul Robeson, Jim Brown and Pat Tillman; basketballers Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson; tennis giants Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova; boxing champions Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali; and soccer standout Mia Hamm. We know these biographies precisely because of the political stands each has taken on behalf of racial, sexual, economic or religious fair play. Even a casual sports fan knows something about the story of baseball’s Negro Leagues, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, or the all-black, 1966 Texas Western NCAA basketball champions, largely because of their still-reverberating social implications. Zirin’s purpose, then, is somewhat of a mystery. Can there be anyone besides the ghost of Grantland Rice and possibly the Chinese Olympic Committee who believe sports can be severed from politics? Chronologically, with serial entries of seemingly arbitrary length, Zirin covers all this, as well as many other, genuinely obscure tales that serve his unrelenting, Howard Zinnian take on sports history. The cast of villains includes capitalism, patriotism, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and executive Al Campanis, Olympic czar Avery Brundage, Don Imus, longtime Redskins owner George Preston Marshall and, of course, George W. Bush. Zirin’s selection of rebel athletes is worthy, but he does them no honor by comparing them to his political heroes—the Rosenbergs, the Jena Six—for whom he has unreserved admiration.

A smug, wearisome catalogue.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59558-100-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2008

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Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading...


A maddening, well-constructed tale of medical discovery and corporate coverup, set in morgues, laboratories, courtrooms, and football fields.

Nigeria-born Bennet Omalu is perhaps an unlikely hero, a medical doctor board-certified in four areas of pathology, “anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology,” and a well-rounded specialist in death. When his boss, celebrity examiner Cyril Wecht (“in the autopsy business, Wecht was a rock star”), got into trouble for various specimens of publicity-hound overreach, Omalu was there to offer patient, stoical support. The student did not surpass the teacher in flashiness, but Omalu was a rock star all his own in studying the brain to determine a cause of death. Laskas’ (Creative Writing/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Hidden America, 2012, etc.) main topic is the horrific injuries wrought to the brains and bodies of football players on the field. Omalu’s study of the unfortunate brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at 50 of a supposed heart attack, brought new attention to the trauma of concussion. Laskas trades in sportwriter-ese, all staccato delivery full of tough guyisms and sports clichés: “He had played for fifteen seasons, a warrior’s warrior; he played in more games—two hundred twenty—than any other player in Steelers history. Undersized, tough, a big, burly white guy—a Pittsburgh kind of guy—the heart of the best team in history.” A little of that goes a long way, but Laskas, a Pittsburgher who first wrote of Omalu and his studies in a story in GQ, does sturdy work in keeping up with a grim story that the NFL most definitely did not want to see aired—not in Omalu’s professional publications in medical journals, nor, reportedly, on the big screen in the Will Smith vehicle based on this book.

Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading it.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8757-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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