Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: How Football Explains America

Those of you familiar with the title How Football Explains America may recognize that it was written by ESPN studio host Sal Paolantonio. Those of you familiar with the other reviews I've done may recognize this is not the first book I've reviewed by Mr. Paolantonio, with the first being an extremely negative review of The Paolantonio Report. Why, then, would I read another book? I wondered the same thing myself, marking in my book-tracking spreadsheet "Can this possibly be good?" Well, it was a library rental and a scan looked relatively promising, so I thought I'd give it a try.

So, how is it? Well, it's not nearly as bad as The Paolantonio Report. In Explains, Paolantonio tries to do a complement to Michael MacCambridge's superb America's Game, using the lens of football as a window upon a number of different topics in American history-Manifest Destiny, West Point, Father Knows Best, Show Business, John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson, and several other topics. The chapters are well-structured, beginning with a vignette from the 2007 season and then proceeding into a broader explanation of the argument for how football explains X. One quibble, which I've already alluded to: it's not so much that football explains Father Knows Best so much as football and Father Knows Best both arise from common heritage and similar philosophic and theoretical underpinnings. Football doesn't explain Father Knows Best, and Father Knows Best doesn't explain football, but both arise from the occasionally chaotic framework that is the United States.

A second quibble: setting the first quibble aside, Paolantonio's arguments of football's explanatory power simply aren't convincing. When there isn't any evidence that supports his cause, he makes it up, attributing certain ideas to Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg in their work in defining what football is, without any apparent evidence. Sometimes, he ignores evidence that detracts from his argument, as he does in saying Monday Night Football helped make the NFL more popular than baseball, when pro football was already more popular than baseball, and had been for 5 years. Sometimes, he doesn't think of arguments that would help his claims-I think he could have done a great deal with the AAFC and, particularly, the formation and merger with the AFL to draw some decent parallels. But, no, he plows ahead with his arguments that don't really work.

Explains probably isn't as bad as I've made it sound-it's not a bad book, not particularly difficult to get through, but it's not a very good one so I don't feel particularly bad being not very positive about it. Hey, I got the nickname Eeyore. So, why did I think the scan looked promising? Actual endnotes, showing the sourcing of quotes, plus a bibliography. And legit sources-Walter Camp's American Football, Michael Oriard's King Football and Reading Football (later this offseason, hopefully), even David Nelson's The Anatomy of a Game. Not just legit football books, legit non-football books, too, including William Manchester's American Caesar and Daniel Walker Howe's superb What Hath God Wrought. Useful list, I added a couple older books to my list of Football Books off Sal's bibliography. Not that I'll read them any time soon, but they're there. Next up, most likely Big Play by Allen Barra.


Jon said...

Tom, my guess is that this book is a response to Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains The World.

I think that you'll like the Oriard books. I've read Brand NFL by him. Big Play was alright if I remember correctly, but I won't spoil it for you.

PS - Thanks for turning me on to Smart Football and Advanced NFL Stats. I wish that there were more sites like those for various sports.

Tom said...

Foer's book is one of the ones he cites that I didn't mention. Maybe I should have. Paolantonio's stated purpose, mentioned in the introduction, is to do a complement to MacCambridge's book that goes into more of the why than the what. Call 'em both inspirations, if you'd like. He also mentions Michael Mandelbaum's The Meaning of Sports, which I haven't read and will probably never get around to.

In terms of other sports, the only one where I'm acquainted with the work being done in terms of advanced statistical analysis is college basketball. The guys I liked best were Ken Pomeroy and John Gasaway, who were swooped up as part of Basketball Prospectus (Ken doesn't seem to write anything anymore, which is disappointing). I also have to give a shoutout to Hoya Prospectus, about Georgetown basketball. CO, the main author, really does a good job, and the Tempo-Free Stats 101 sidebar has some really good links as a place to start (the bottom 6). From a less team-specific perspective, see Yet Another Basketball Blog for good posts and a nice collection of links. Nothing good in terms of strategy that I know of, though Eric Musselman will occasionally post pieces like this one or observations of games he's attended (normally college).