- Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine
The Bison Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press consistently reprints some of the best writing on sports studies, fiction, and history, embracing the culture of baseball, football, and other sports in the national heritage. Shield's volume, Body Politic, is a worthy addition to their list. First published in 2004 by Simon & Schuster, the book is at first glance a random travelogue about the sports world as experienced by journalism professor Shields. Bolstered by numerous quotations and epigrams, such diverse topics as the late broadcaster Howard Cosell, clichés, the psychology of pain in sports, Charles Barkley, Ichiro Suzuki, European basketball players, and tattoos are thought out carefully and then dissected into small essential elements. Every essay is a vignette that addresses ours—and his—fascination with athletes and athletics.
However, these are not random musings by the author. Each chapter unfolds with a cogent look at what sports have wrought in the public forum over the past few decades. In his personal reminiscence about the effect Cosell had on him through listening to the broadcaster's pompous on-air deliveries and ego-driven interviews, Shields exactly captures the evolution of sports programming in our lifetimes: "I know that Howard Cosell was childishly self-absorbed and petulant . . . that he once told a Senate subcommittee 'I'm a unique personality who has had more impact upon sports broadcasting in America than any person who has yet lived' . . . Howard Cosell showed me the way across; he showed me where to look and, looking, how to stand." These ellipses indicate material spread across several pages in Shield's opening chapter on Cosell. What they indicate is the impact the broadcaster's bluster had on Shield's self-confidence as a boy and how he came to regard the panoply of televised sport. For good or bad, Cosell defined how we watch sports, and through the poignant rendering of his own childhood, Shields perfectly captures this influence.
Body Politic meanders from sport to sport, from character to character, from analysis to memoir. Of Phil Jackson's coaching of the Lakers, Shields writes: "Off the court Jackson wants to be their savior and doesn't seem to hear how high-handed he can seem." On the court, Shields notes, Jackson "almost never calls plays, which he believes makes players feel as if they're on a string—his." Jackson's is an approach to active participation in sport that is the opposite of Cosell's passive oral journalism, that is, a restrained ego and self-confidence that can still be somewhat manipulative and condescending to his audience—in Jackson's case, his players. Shields well-crafted prose illuminates what fans in the stands can only guess at.
The essay on sports movies does not break any new ground in examining the relevant motifs but is certainly better written than most cinema analysis and is certainly more erudite in unifying several sports into several themes. One major theme is well-grounded and succinct: when it comes to most film treatments of sports, hell is self, heaven is team. It is a chapter that is fun to read, and thought-provoking, relying greatly on the fact that [End Page 483] we, the readers, have a shared experience in our familiarity with the movies he mentions and that, yeah, he hits that nail right on the head.
In the essay, "Myths of Place," Shields writes of the geography of sports in the United States, how there is an East versus West ethos, an urban versus rural cultural competition. Much of this "us versus them" is in the discourse of journalism, but there is still that seemingly inbred national characteristic that creates a dichotomy based on place. And, I imagine, that in terms of urban and rural, any city in the Midwest is considered rural, with the slightly possible exception of Chicago. In the world of sports, Shields quotes players and coaches in several sports about the differences, like Jalen Rose: "The West is about...