Many writers nowadays are trying to write about sports from a larger perspective, to treat sports as a manifestation—and an important one—of American society. Few of them are succeeding. Too often the genre that might be called sports sociology manages to be neither one nor the other. The sports are written about in a self-consciously arty style and the sociology is strictly amateur.
As a case in point, take a new book called The Game They Played by Stanley Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95). You would have to go a long way to find a better subject than the one Cohen has chosen—the college basketball scandals of the early '50s, when disclosures of point shaving by the national championship team of City College of New York led to revelations of similar and, in some cases, more flagrant cheating by leading players at other colleges in New York and beyond. Unfortunately, you would also have to go a long way to find a more disappointing book.
The Game They Played is both a curious and an irritating piece of work. Curious, because Cohen seems at once infatuated and embarrassed by his subject. Irritating, because he insinuates himself into the story and because he looks out at the hinterlands from the vantage point of New York with the kind of condescension that makes even the most level-headed provincials hate the big city.
Cohen clearly loves basketball and knows that the story of the scandal is well worth telling, but he insists on wrapping it in a blanket of deep thinking that quickly smothers it. He gives us a lot of heavy breathing about McCarthyism and the '50s, and a lot of nonsense about the loss of innocence and the coming of cynicism. The result is that he almost seems to deny the legitimacy of the story he is telling—yet few stories in or out of sports are more poignant, even heartbreaking, than this fundamental tale of cupidity and naiveté and shattered lives.
To make matters worse, he mixes into this unlikely brew of jock prose and sociological megathink a wholly gratuitous personal reminiscence about his own non-career as a basketball player; he wraps it in false modesty, referring to himself as "one" or "you," but the self-preoccupation glitters through. So, too, does the arrogance of the New Yorker who thinks the rest of the country is inhabited by hayseeds and prigs.
Great subject, awful book. Let's hope someone else does the story justice.