Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Heading the Tabloids Off at the Pass: Swoopes Announcement of Sexual Orientation May Surprise But Hardly Shocks

So Sheryl Swoopes is gay. The news that the star of the WNBA's Houston Comets prefers the intimate company of other women strikes me as...uh...underwhelming. I'm trying to understand why I'm not more, er, excited by the news. Or the imagery. Or intrigued. Or curious. I'm certainly not shocked. Hell, isn't everybody gay these days??

It's certainly true that when the "big gay revelation" hit football in 1975 with Dave Kopay—former 49ers, Lions, Redskins, Saints and Packers running back—eyebrows were raised pretty high. That was 30 years ago. Supposedly a couple of other former football players "came out" over time, though whoever they were they weren't household names. Neither in fact was Kopay (pictured here, then and now), but he had played for

Vince Lombardi with the '69 'Skins, and a teammate of his, a terrific pass-catching tight end named Jerry Smith, was implicated by association and in fact later died from AIDS in 1986. Kopay wrote a book about being a gay athlete—the best-selling 1977 autobiography The Dave Kopay Story—and he later gained some notoriety as a public spokesperson for the cause.

I guess we are occasionally conscious about gayness in the athletic realm, primarily because it's so often shoved down our throats in so many other politically correct realms. I mean, it's okay, isn't it? Being gay is not a big deal, is it? As I said, everyone is gay—even the vice-president of the United States' daughter.

Where sports is concerned, the reality of homosexuality might cross our minds once in a while, as in the form of an oddball random question: "Gee, what if it turned out that Hank Aaron was gay?" Or, "What if Joe Montana was caught in a public park soliciting men for oral sex?" Or, "I wonder if Allen Iverson is ever on the 'down-low'?" Yeah, it would sorta be a bummer for meat-and-potatoes guys like us to learn if things like that were true. Maybe the remarkable thing, in this media-crazed, tabloid-obsessed world of ours, is that we don't hear about this stuff more.

Frankly, I'm all for privacy. I'm no more interested in whether Sheryl Swoopes is gay than I am in knowing if the Minnesota Vikings were having an orgy on a yacht. Theoretically, if the clerk at my local Blockbuster is gay, then that isn't more newsworthy to me than Swoopes' recent revelation.

Apparently, she wants to get this fact out on the table. She no longer wants to "hide" her sexuality. She wants to be above-board about her current relationship with her female partner. I guess we can all breathe easy now, and Houston's next Gay Pride Parade has a new grand marshal.

However, I'm still mostly unmoved by the news. And maybe the reason why is that a) I don't give a hang about the WNBA (and I'll bet there are a lot of folks who feel likewise); and b) somehow the idea of a lady basketball player "coming out" simply doesn't have the same shock value that it would if a prominent NBA player did the same thing. Yeah, we'd all have our antennae up if Kobe Bryant added to his dubious public profile by coming out of the closet. Things got pretty intense back in 1991 when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, proving that society still gets a little antsy about AIDS and its link to male homosexuality. Somewhere in the backs of our minds, we know that if Sheryl Swoopes is "doing it" with her mystery lover, there most likely isn't an exchange of bodily fluids going on that will prove deadly down the road to someone else.

I would even bet that if Swoopes had kept her mouth shut, the overall fallout to any eventual reportage of her social situation would be minimal. I don't think it's a publicity stunt (not that the WNBA couldn't use one), but Swoopes may have overestimated just how important it was for anyone outside the Comets locker-room to know the facts of her personal life. There's just something "softer" about the idea behind lesbian athletes, especially in an area of sport, the WNBA, where the public at large is not that interested. (Sorry, gals, but it's the truth.)

We wish Swoopes a long and happy emotional and romantic life, especially after her basketball career is over. (She's 34, and doubtless her best years are behind her.) But the truth is that gay female basketball players just don't make for very "hard" news.

Now what was that about an orgy in Minnesota...?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Beavis: "Golf chicks are c-cool..."; Butthead: "Yeah, yeah, yeah....They're cool...Yeah..."

There was a time when the ladies of the LPGA were...well, they were ladies, all right. But they usually weren't making fashion statements. The big-time lady golfers weren't usually considered babes, as we understand that term. They were female athletes who were typical in their own way: Maybe a little big-boned, not particularly attractive, their bodies geared more toward playing a demanding 18 holes and raising a glass of beer than doing photo shoots.

When Nancy Lopez (left) became a force in golf almost 30 years ago, she was a phenomenon of sorts. She was different because she was Latina, and she was a great player, but she never really captured the broader public imagination the way someone like Australian Jan Stephenson eventually did.

Stephenson (pictured below, now in her early 50s) got attention because she was very attractive, and for a while there it looked like golf would finally have a superstar jock babe. She even posed once in a bathtub filled with golf balls. Alas, Stephenson, despite some good golf—scoring major victories in the 1983 U.S. Women's Open and the 1982 LPGA Championship—seemed to ultimately earn the disrespect of her peers. Then, when her game turned mediocre, her looks didn't matter.

Remnants of the old school still linger today with players like Laura Davies and Meg Mallon chugging up and down the course, sort of the distaff version of John Daly. They're still fun to watch when they're hitting the ball well, but neither is going to make a splash in Hollywood. However, things are definitely changing.

What ladies golf needed to inject color and flash and the potential for sex appeal into its game was youthful players who not only had talent but would still be considered cute as a button simply because they were so young. It's happened, too, in the person of a quartet of gifted youngsters who should be around for a while. Michelle Wie (16), Morgan Pressel (17), Paula Creamer (18) and Natalie Gulbis (22) have, in their own not-insignificant way, made ladies golf an appealing spectator sport even for those who formerly hardly gave the game a passing glance. Yeah, they can play all right. Hurray for that. But also, they're not afraid to wear skirts (why would you be with supple gams like that?), they like to wear eye-catching, bobbly earrings that accent their femininity, and they all look pretty in pink, which makes the statement, "We're appealing young girls, and we don't mind letting the world know it."

With television an ever-more-powerful conduit for golf exposure, these gals have come onto the scene, not like Nicklaus or Woods, but more like Charlie's Angels. They're poised with the press, they don't appear cowed by their competitive elders, and they're all so young that their best years of golf are well ahead of them.

Gulbis (left) is already ahead of her younger confreres in the marketing game, having done calendar shoots and running a big Web site and hanging out with football players like Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. Her game is improving, though, and with her tie for fourth in this week's Samsung World Championship, her winnings neared the $1 million mark for 2005 (and that's without even a victory).

Not to be outdone, Creamer (right) took second in the same tourney.

Wie (left) had a controversial finish in the same event, but that still didn't stop her from proving what a talented young golfer we already knew her to be. Pressel (below) currently is projecting more charm than killer instinct, but she's definitely a player to watch.

At any rate, the babes are making monitoring ladies golf a higher-interest activity for a lot more people, especially men. Add to that the strong international flavor that young Asian players are bringing to the game—all surnamed Park, it seems—and it's clear to see that the old days of former workmanlike blue-collar greats like Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth (who operated without flash) are long gone. (The aforementioned Stephenson, still courting controversy, was quoted not too long ago as saying that the ladies' game needed more sex appeal, but also fewer Asians. Make of that what you will.)

This is not to say that we spectating, couch-potato-ish slobs don't appreciate a great golfer like Annika Sorenstam (below, left), now a grand old dame at the ripe age of 35. Annika still holds our interest, with her youthful, determined stride and her bobbing, tomboyish ponytail and her sensible yet very stylish shoes. She's still the queen of the game, and it's way too early to pronounce her a frump. The youngsters have a way to go to de-throne Annika, and her convincing 8-stroke victory in the Samsung makes it clear that girlishness and bloom-of-youth good looks aren't everything.

But they sure don't hurt, either.

Life Under the Microscope May Have Cost Wie Her First LPGA Purse

Being hot, young and talented doesn't always promise smooth sailing, as phenom golfer Michelle Wie discovered this past weekend at the Samsung World Championship, where the 16-year-old was making her professional debut. Thanks to the bizarre involvement of Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Bamberger, Wie was disqualified from the tournament, even after completing her final round, for something she apparently did on the third round. The disqualification cost Wie over $50,000 in what would have been her first earnings as a pro.

In certain sacrosanct golf circles, Bamberger will probably be applauded for his actions. He alerted LPGA officials to Wie's Saturday actions on the 7th hole of the Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif. Wie's ball lodged in a bush and she took an unplayable lie after informing her partner Grace Park. Wie made her drop, chipped onto the green, and converted a 15-foot putt for par, then went on to complete a round of 71. She completed a final round of 74 on Sunday, to finish fourth in the tourney, and presumably grab prize money worth $53,126. Not bad for a kid—and a strikingly attractive, supple-legged, stylish and statuesque Hawaiian American kid at that.

Enter SI's Bamberger, who apparently watched Wei's Saturday round with skepticism. Not until Sunday did he raise concerns about Wei's third-round, 7th hole drop. Things get weird from here on in. LPGA officials listened to Bamberger, who accused Wei of actually moving her ball toward the hole (a big no-no). However, upon reviewing NBC Sports videotape, the officials found nothing conclusive to impune Wei's actions. Why the controvery didn't stop there remains a controversy unto itself. Instead, the LPGA's Robert I. Smith insisted that Wei and her caddy, Greg Johnston, accompany him out to the 7th hole for a reenactment of her drop. Wei showed Smith the how, what and where, and armed with a piece of string for measuring distance, the official concluded that Wei had indeed moved the ball toward the hole, apparently somewhere in the 3-to-12-inch range. Thus, the scorecard she signed for that day was now deemed incorrect, and the teenager was disqualified from the match. No $50K maiden purse, no fourth-place finish—but now plenty of ignominy.

I have questions and suppositions. If Smith looked at the tape and judged it to be inconclusive, why did he bother to go the extra mile to find the utter truth about a matter of inches? If Bamberger knew what he suspected on Saturday, why did he wait until Sunday to make his accusation? Moreover, why did he wait until Wei had completed her Sunday round, when he might've brought things up Sunday morning? And since when did the LPGA imbue such powers in reporters, even after NBC's own tape footage showed nothing discernibly awry?

It's not that I'm not for the rules, because we all know how golf feels about that. But let's suppose that instead of a well-publicized, bangly-earringed 16-year-old female at that 7th hole, we had a frumpy, mannish, sensibly attired, late-blooming 38-year-old female rookie making that drop. Would Michael Bamberger have cared? Would he have been scrutinizing her, looking for a chink in her armor? Would he have bothered to say anything to the officials? If so, would the officials have cared? Would they have been satisfied that TV video showed nothing untoward? Would they have taken her and her caddy out to the hole the next day with a measuring string?

No one's justifying anything here. But this appears to be one situation where being young, attractive and extraordinarily gifted, as Wei clearly is, actually backfired. Those of us who are pretty much average in every way might smirk and feel that it's about time that the "beautiful people"—whether it be Wei, or Angelina Jolie, or Tom Cruise, or whoever—get their comeuppance, lavished with praise, publicity and enormous sums of money as they otherwise usually are. But somehow I'm not smirking.

I'm not really sure if Wei got shafted, but I do know that she clearly paid for her celebrity. Bamberger's own actions look excessive, if not obsessive. One wonders if he would've ratted out Annika Sorenstam. One wonders whether LPGA officials would have listened to him if he'd tried.

Let's assure that this doesn't ever happen again—to anybody. Surely the golf organizations can station an official near the green of every hole at every tournament. When unplayable lies happen, the official can be easily called over by the player or caddy, and can supervise the drop. Sometimes you see this happen, but why isn't it happening in every instance? Let's take the guesswork out of this situation, and not lay all the responsibility at the feet of the game's ritualistic regard for rules and the honor system, which obviously might have flaws. I still think Arnold Palmer got away with murder at the 1958 Masters, though that controversy is never allowed to become fodder for polite discussion. Arnie, especially, won't talk about it.

Maybe somewhere Michael Bamberger is a hero to somebody. To me, he sorta looks like a jerk.

Bennett Injury Puts Titans Rookies in the Limelight

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett (pictured, below) dislocated his thumb in Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He'll be out of action at least two weeks probably, possibly longer. Since Bennett is the Titans leading wide receiver, this development would supposedly be viewed as tragic, with the team already struggling at 2-4. It takes on even more frightening dimensions when you consider that the presumed heir apparent to Bennett's lead slot would be Tyrone Calico, a third-year guy out of Middle Tennessee State who simply has not lived up to his potential. Calico came out of college in 2003 as a speedster with the tag of "potential superstar sleeper." But he's got bad knees, and he simply has not stepped up as a reliable pass-catcher. He neither has provided the deep threat the Titans envisioned, nor has he proved to be a durable, fearless receiver who can catch the ball in traffic and still hold on to it. I'm not sure if Calico exactly "hears footsteps," but it's either that or his hands are only average. No matter how you slice it, he's been a disappointment.

To be even blunter, I'm not even sure Bennett is good enough to be a #1 wide receiver anyway. You've got to go back to the days of Steve Largent with the Seahawks or Fred Biletnikoff with the Raiders to find a situation where a white guy is a dominant wideout. (Please, no comments about reverse race-baiting. Facts are facts.) Bennett is very good, don't misunderstand. He's extremely useful. His size is a definite advantage and he has his big moments. But he was better when Derrick Mason was around, because opponents focused on Mason's elusive, tough-over-the-middle presence. All alone, Bennett doesn't really pose a consistent deep threat.

So the situation doesn't look particularly hopeful for Tennessee, unless you consider the glass half-full instead of half-empty. The kiddie corps of rookies—Brandon Jones (left), Courtney Roby (center) and Roydell Williams (right)—have, in my opinion, all the potential in the world.

Jones has already shown a ton of guts. He goes over the middle and holds onto the ball, God bless him. As far as I'm concerned, he's now the #1 Titans receiver, and anything the team gets out of Calico at this point is a bonus.

Furthermore, Roby and Williams deserve a shot at more serious playing time. Heck, I say start all three rookies on Sunday against Arizona, a mediocre team ripe for being surprised. The sooner these guys get into the offense full-time, the faster they'll get better. This is a risk the team has to take. With their defense still struggling to find consistency, especially with a young secondary, the key to any success this year rides with the Titans being able to keep up offensively.

Time to roll the dice with the kids.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Ten National Network Sportscasters We Can All Do Without

This is a busy time of year in sports. We’ve got the major league baseball playoffs ratcheted up and heading toward the World Series. NFL and college football are in full swing. Hockey and the NBA are just beginning.

Clearly, it’s prime-time for the major sports networks. That means exposure to the lineup of broadcasters who take the national stage, and, at whatever level of quality, inform and entertain the home viewers. The problem is, we’ll also be exposed to some broadcasters who will annoy the heck out of us, and thus threaten to ruin the experience of watching the games or the subsequent round-ups. Yeah, we can always turn the sound down. And let’s face it, you don’t really need an announcer to tell you what happened—certainly not if you watch a good game closely.

Nevertheless, the sports broadcasting profession has reached a certain celebrity status of its own, and a wide variety of styles and personalities have proliferated in recent years. Many people don’t bother to wonder how these folks do their jobs, or if they do them well. You could argue that’s it’s all a big, subjective game of broadcast-booth roulette.

However, it would appear that, in the network hiring game, very often celebrity or status or marketability are substituted for really important broadcasting traits, such as clarity, coherence, accuracy, listenability, professionalism, humor, humility, grace and insight. There are many entertaining sportscasters I like—Al Michaels and Chris Berman come to mind—but in my opinion, some guys and gals have either stayed around too long, or should never have been there in the first place.

So, if I ran the sports broadcasting circus, I’d do a little house-cleaning. In no particular order of importance, here are the folks I’d yank off the air.

Josh Lewin When I lived in Chicago, this guy did the Cubs a season or two. He annoyed the heck out of me. Then I lost track of him, and he resurfaced on FOX. Recently, he broadcast a divisional baseball playoff game. My first thought when I saw him on camera was, “Hmmm...this guy looks like a dyspeptic raccoon caught in the headlights of an SUV.” Then I listened. He’s got one of those “I went to broadcasting school” voices, and he infused his narrative with a load of presumptive crap, for example, about how Braves star Andruw Jones was “happy to shoulder the burden for the team when everyone else was in a slump...” Well, gee, was there a chance Andruw might’ve been unhappy under any circumstance—making $10 million a year playing baseball? But I digress. I listened some more. About the third inning, I came to an amazing realization: Josh Lewin has a lisp! Now I don’t mean to be cruel, but does it make any sense to have a guy with a lisp doing play-by-play on national TV for a Major League Baseball divisional playoff game? Aren’t millions watching and listening? Obviously, the guy is trying damn hard to compensate for his impediment, yet it’s still very noticeable. I mean, what’s the standard here? In the interests of fairness and affirmative action all around, maybe we should get a guy with a cleft palate to join the broadcast team. That’d be pretty interesting, I guess. Listen, Lewin might know his sports, or he might simply be a guy who desperately wanted to avoid having a real job and used his connections to enter this world. But I’m sorry, this is broadcasting, and listening to a guy with a lisp getting through nine innings of a baseball game is outrageous, not to mention damn uncomfortable. His uncle must be a stockholder.

Terry Bradshaw I’ve had it up to here with this guy. What’s the deal? Are TV execs so enamored of Bradshaw’s Super Bowl trophies that they refuse to see what a lunkhead he is? What’s really amazing is that they not only allow him to proliferate, they give him extra little features, like “10 Yards with TB” (or whatever that thing is called). Bradshaw is a boob. He’s a graceless presence on the FOX pre-game football show with James Brown, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson, and he ruins what otherwise is a broadcast with very good chemistry. They cover it all up by casting Bradshaw as the freewheeling bumpkin, but the plain fact is that he’s no Will Rogers when it comes to wisdom. Terry Bradshaw is the #1 reason why TV needs to think twice before automatically putting ex-jocks in the studio. Put him out to pasture instead. Please. (Note: Research for this story led me to a speakers' bureau Web site, where Bradshaw was listed as an available talent. His appearance fee? $30,000-$50,000, or approximately $1,000 per IQ point.)

Brian Baldinger Baldinger is an ex-NFL offensive lineman and now color man for NFL football on FOX. He's also had a ton of other sports-related gigs as an "author" and commentator. There's a good amount of promotional stuff about him online, which leaves the reader with the impression that he's a solid pro. But when he's on-air, he refuses to shut up. He’s a neanderthal, plain and simple, with an endless supply of faux-macho verbiage. His booming voice is out of control, and he’s guaranteed to make you turn your volume down at 14:48 of the first quarter. Ever see the look on play-by-play man Kenny Albert’s face when they cut to the booth while Baldinger is rambling on about a load of nonsense? Poor Kenny, he’s got to endure that for three hours. We at least have remotes in hand for damage control.

Joe Buck Okay, I’ve written about this guy before. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. Aside from my feelings about how he lucked into his career as the son of a semi-legend (Jack Buck), I am now of the opinion that, while Joe does have a decent broadcasting voice, his main problem in general is that his head is so far up his ass that he’s reached the point of no return. He’s smug, self-satisfied, humorless (despite his public avowal that he's all about humor), and he’s another guy who needs to learn that talking all the time doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. We’re stuck with him forever probably—he's only 36—on both football and baseball prime-time broadcasts. But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate it. For baseball playoffs, a good solution is to turn the TV down and listen instead to the ESPN radio broadcast with the excellent team of Dan Shulman and Dave Campbell. (Note: It was suspiciously difficult to locate a simple studio-style headshot of Buck for this story, which has led me to believe that "his people" are probably controlling the availability of such things in the interests of Joe's marketability. Why is this not surprising? Instead, here's a photo of Buck with his boothmate Tim McCarver, who almost made this list himself.)

Kevin Kennedy This career’s a mystery. Kennedy used to be a major league manager. Now he’s Jeanne Zelasko’s alter-ego on the FOX baseball pre-game show. I wonder how Jeanne feels about him interrupting her all the time? He does it constantly. He seems to have absolutely no sense of timing, which maybe explains how he never made the majors as a ballplayer. In fact, Kennedy's record as a manager was pretty good, which makes you wonder why he didn't stick with it. Be that as it may, he’s a very clunky broadcaster. Kennedy seems like a nice enough guy, but he’s not that incisive, his personality is blah, and he just seems to be in the way. There HAVE to be plenty of other guys who could do this job better.

Paul Maguire Paul Maguire might be Brian Baldinger’s idol. He’s one of the original bad color commentators to endlessly spew a load of macho nonsense about the players, what they’re thinking, how they feel, how rugged they are, etc., most of it projected crap that reads like a figment of Maguire’s imagination. (Sometimes it almost sounds gay.) He’s the bullhorn in the Sunday night ESPN booth with Mike Patrick and Joe Theisman, neither of whom are particularly good themselves, but come out smelling like a rose in comparison. Maguire’s been around forever, going back some 35 years to NBC broadcasts of the old AFL, following his own pro career as a punter with the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills. Maguire has three modes of delivery: Loud—Louder—LOUDEST. Take some time to listen closely to what he says. It’s absolute tripe. Has he made enough money from this gig? Can we please ask him to leave now?

Michele Tafoya In truth, I have nothing personal against this lady. And isn’t it sweet that ABC has let her take a little maternity leave from her “Monday Night Football” sideline reporting duties? (Awwww...what a caring, multi-billion-dollar cut-throat company they are.) Maybe Tafoya is simply rewarded by the system, which says that a female MUST be doing that job. Well, her return is not happily anticipated here. She’s strictly a boring, by-the-book interviewer, throwing dumbass leading questions at usually inarticulate jocks. (“How important was this game to you?” Yuck.) Ironically, the gal who’s been replacing Tafoya recently, Sam Ryan, is strikingly good, with quick, sharp questions (as far as it goes) and a lively style. And—I know we’re not supposed to say this—she’s better looking. Maybe Michele, who is 40, should stay home with the kid.

John Madden Okay, this is heresy, right? And Madden is a god, right? Who is little ol’ me to demand his ouster? Yeah, he still has that folksy charm and distinctive voice, and maybe it’s kind of a soothing thing, knowing he’s there on “Monday Night Football.” But have you listened recently to some of Madden’s verbiage? He’ll say things like, “Not only the entire NFL, but EACH and EVERY team...” (Doh!) It’s been pointed out to me that Madden has always been the master of the obvious, and that’s part of the legend. I dunno, I was thinking it’s kinda dumb, and maybe this is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. I actually liked Dan Fouts a few years ago, when he was the color guy, before The Great Madden Maneuver. Whatever. I guess I can endure him. Chances are there will be no alternative.

Sean Salisbury Poor little Sean Salisbury. He had a pro football career of sorts [click here] but he doesn’t seem to have ever gotten over the fact that he was a less-than-mediocre NFL QB. To compensate, he’s adopted an aggressive, arrogant, know-it-all persona on his ESPN radio and TV broadcasts. Sean always sounds like he’s trying to prove something, and it comes across as some of the most strident reporting you’ll hear anywhere. He appears completely devoid of a sense of humor and he rarely smiles, which seems peculiar for a lucky stiff who actually was paid for playing football for years even though he did very little playing, then moved into broadcasting even though he was hardly a household name. Lighten up, Sean, ya putz! Better yet, since you seem incapable of that, maybe you could just leave. There are sharper guys around (though probably none angrier).

Mike Golic Attacking Golic seems like kicking the dog one too many times. I’ve done it before [click here], but I still wish he would go run a beer distributorship, which is what mediocre ex-jocks used to do. Golic’s on ESPN radio and TV. I guess he got grandfathered in on The Terry Bradshaw Clause. He’s a well-intentioned dumb guy. He’s painful to listen to. Maybe they can find a well-intentioned smart guy to replace him. But I doubt it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Southern Festival of Books in the Sports Spotlight

The annual Southern Festival of Books is a regional gathering that takes place in downtown Nashville. This past weekend's affair was typically interesting, with plenty of authors and publishers hawking their wares, with serious literary lions like Clyde Edgerton and Bobbie Ann Mason signing autographs and delivering addresses to a book-savvy crowd.

I had the distinct pleasure of moderating an 11 a.m. program on Saturday, Oct. 8, "From the AAU to the NFL: Sports Storytelling," which featured three marvelous authors whose new books capture uniquely diverse stripes in the sports color spectrum. Best of all, these gentlemen knew how to tell good yarns, and they deftly incorporated them into their presentations.

First up was William Price Fox, a teacher of creative writing at the University of South Carolina, and also a veteran journalist and novelist who has taught at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, published fiction works such as Southern Fried, Ruby Red, Lunatic Wind and Wild Blue Yonder, and has contributed more than 100 stories and articles to magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Esquire. Fox also spent some time in Hollywood, and authored the screenplay for Norman Lear’s 1971 cult feature film Cold Turkey.

Fox’s new volume, Satchel Paige’s America (Univ. of Alabama Pr., $16.95, ISBN: 0-8173-5189-2) is less about America and more about the man, who was probably the most gifted African American pitcher to never get to play major league baseball in his prime. When Paige finally left the old Negro Leagues and joined the Cleveland Indians at the ripe young age of 42, he could still pitch, but more than that, Satchel simply became a folk hero, by virtue of his colorful personality and his funloving approach to the game. Paige stories are endless, as are attributed aphorisms such as, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Despite his brief major league stint, Paige got to pitch in a World Series, and in 1971, by virtue of his acknowledged pitching dominance in the Negro Leagues, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Amazingly, in 1965, at the presumed age of 59 or 60—no one was ever exactly sure when Satchel was born, but earliest estimates put it at 1905—he pitched three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics.

Fox's book is a compilation of amazing conversations the author had with Paige back in the 1970s, as the two men hung out together in various Kansas City juke joints and bowling alleys and at Paige's home. Paige passed away in 1982, but his legend has lived on without abatement. Satchel Paige's America serves as a welcome reminder of the Paige legacy and the role the man played in making it clear what white America was generally denied in missing the opportunity to see the greatest Negro Leagues ballplayers in their heydays.

The program's second speaker, Clyde Bolton, spent 40 years as a beat sports reporter in his native Alabama, more than 30 of them with the Birmingham News. The multi-award-winning Bolton is reputed to be the most widely read Alabamian in history, and it's hard to argue the point. In all those years, Bolton covered Alabama and Auburn football, the Southeastern Conference, high school sports, minor league baseball, college basketball, and Nextel Cup car racing. Not surprisingly, he rubbed elbows with the most compelling sports personalities of the past four decades, including Michael Jordan, while he was playing minor league baseball with the Birmingham Barons; Muhammad Ali, with whom Bolton broke bread at a fraternity house on the Auburn University campus; football Hall-of-Famer Johnny Unitas; and irrepressible Alabama football coach Paul (“Bear”) Bryant.

The new book that brought Bolton to Nashville is Stop the Presses (So I Can Get Off) (Univ. of Alabama Pr., $25, ISBN: 0-8173-5252-X), which is a delightfully wide-ranging memoir of his life in sports journalism, filled with priceless anecdotes and no-holds-barred opinion. Bolton regaled the festival audience with amazing stories and interesting factoids that captured not only his long career but also provided a deep perspective on the changing technology and commercial concerns that have altered sports reportage, not to mention the games themselves. Bolton recalled a time when reporters used to use carrier pigeons to get late-breaking game info over to a newsroom, then proceeded to entertain his audience with the tale of a young reporter under deadline (Bolton) standing outside a bathroom stall to get answers to his questions from none other than Joe Willie Namath, former Alabama quarterback great, who was, uh, otherwise engaged.

It turns out that Bolton is also a novelist, whose works include, most recently, Turn Left on Green and Nancy Swimmer: A Story of the Cherokee Nation. Bolton took some time during his address to discuss the latter book, which offers a heartfelt view of the miseries incurred by Native Americans during the infamous Trail of Tears.

Bolton was inducted into the Alabama Sports Writers Hall of Fame in 2001. Meeting him and listening to his simple wisdom was a complete joy.

The program's final guest was the amazing Robert W. Ikard, a Nashville thoracic surgeon who has moonlighted as a sports journalist, a social historian, and a musicologist. Dr. Ikard is the author of a music history, Near You: Francis Craig, Dean of Southern Maestros and also a book called No More Social Lynching, which probes both the over- and underside of social and racial progress in his native Maury County, Tennessee.

Dr. Ikard’s new book, which again shows his knack for uncovering interesting historical subjects, is Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball (Univ. of Arkansas Pr., $24.95, ISBN: 1-55728-783-X). At first glance, this volume
might put the reader in mind of the film A League of Their Own, director Penny Marshall’s excellent story about the women’s baseball league during World War II. Part of this book covers the same chronological era, and indeed the vivid archival photos contained within are simply that, offering a unique glimpse into the style and personalities of the young women who played basketball under the auspices of the now-defunct Amateur Athletic Union, which existed approximately 1930-1970.

Long before the more highly publicized and more lucrative rise of women’s college and professional basketball in America, there was the AAU, which always seemed like a forerunner of the NCAA to some of us, but in fact was quite different. Dr. Ikard’s book is the first to thoroughly explore the complex and heretofore unknown history of the Amateur Athletic Union’s women’s basketball program. In so doing, he focuses the light that needs to be shed on four decades of women’s basketball that is all but forgotten in this current age where women’s athletics gets serious attention from media and fans alike. Just for Fun also serves up long-overdue profiles of the women—most of them rural gals from the central and southern U.S.—who, in playing on AAU teams, truly created what used to be their own special playground, and helped to lay the foundation for women’s athletics in the modern age.

Dr. Ikard's surgically precise address to the SFB audience offered fascinating new sports perspectives and ably put the capper on a delightful and inspiring 90 minutes of book-chat.