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David Shields. Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.

David Shields. Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine. University of Nebraska Press, 2007. Paper, $16.95.

Somewhere around the early 1990s, American sportswriting abandoned adulthood and embraced the inner child--unimpressed apparently by the gravitas of the golden age of sportswriters (Rice, Smith, Runyon et al) and all their pretentious attitude about how sports and culture area dynamic and that sports reflect a time, an era, sportswriting became the stuff of the moment--the hastily executed bios, the up-against-a-deadline chronicle of championship seasons quickly forgotten, the self-help manuals of superstars du jour with cut and pasted power cliches, the batched-up sports columns that have already yellowed--sports writing, influenced by, who knows, USA Today, Sportscenter, MTV, Hunter Thompson, conceded historic perspective and settled for getting it out quickly. How refreshing to engage any of these essays. Shields, a much-published professor of English at the University of Washington, wants (you can tell in every paragraph) to return sports to its larger frame of reference, to explore the games we play for metaphors about how we think, paradigms for how we live, and models for what matters to us.

These essays are first a joy to read--the sentences bristle with energy and clarity, wit and wisdom. The tone is perfect for classic sportswriting, clever, biting, refreshingly candid, and all the while understanding that sports matter because, well, because we play them. Shields recognizes the paradox of great sportswriting--the games we play, so physical and so muscular, explicated into meaning by writers who are to put it kindly athletically challenged--and works it brilliantly. The essays on the Zen of Phil Jackson, the logic of tattoos, the sensibility of the modern fan, the implications of play-by-play coverage, indeed all of these essays sparkle, brittle and edgy. The fascination with the Eastern influence in American sports threads a number of the offerings--a fascinating read, for instance, of Ichiro and Hideki and another on the Buddha-calm of Tim Duncan and the tao of playing with pain--but the essays share for the most part Shields' aggressive curiosity and his often mesmerizing ability to transmute the stuff of the sports page into a convincing metaphor for what he sees ultimately rests at the heart of the games we play: the struggle between flesh and spirit. Although he is relentlessly hip (he understands the market read of contemporary sports, understands the crucible-world its athletes live within, understands the inevitable unsavory behavior that will ignite when kids are given lots of money and lots of free time), there lingers about these essays a decidedly old school sense of the spiritual to sports, its elevation. At times hilarious, at times street, at times giving way to the sheer joy of being a geek who like a brainy alchemist converts the stuff of the sports pages into metaphor, irony, and insight, Shields offers a testimony to sports that is wide-ranging (baseball, basketball, football) and seeks to position this collection as something that ought to last. OK, the literary references get a bit tedious and they seem out of place (a bit patronizing, Professor) but the reading of contemporary sports is intellectually sound and stylistically pleasing.

Allen Cheney

Phillipsburg (VA) Gazetter
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Author:Cheney, Allen
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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