Should your book group read sports books? Many would quickly say no, but I beg to differ. In the last ten years, I’ve become a much less regular watcher of sports, but I still read sports books. An individual game is mostly about the competition–the winner and the loser–but looked at in its broad sense, sports is about so much more–about preparation, determination, about handling success and handling failure, about grace under pressure and courage through adversity. These are the big human questions, about our universal ideas, not just short term excitement about which player or team goes home the winner.
An outstanding recent example is Bryan Mealer’s Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football’s Forgotten Town. It’s set in Belle Glade, Florida, a central Florida community which once supplied the world with sugar and vegetables, making some companies wealthy on the back of the tough migrant farmers who live in the muck. In recent years, agriculture is on the decline and violent ghettos stricken by drugs, AIDS, and poverty dominate the sad town. But Belle Glade still has one great claim to fame: it’s an assembly line for great college and professional football players. Despite the fact that impoverished Belle Glade High and a couple of neighboring schools don’t have big money boosters or first-class facilities to train and play in, they remain football powerhouses, regularly claiming state titles in football-mad Florida.
But that environment creates a pressure cooker for the young athletes and coaches of Belle Glade, they’re not just competing for football success like other high-powered programs. They’re working to keep their community’s head high and competing with other gifted players for the best path out of poverty. Almost nothing but another championship pleases fans used to the best, and the second guessing can ruin idealistic coaches and brave young athletes alike.
Mealer followed the team for a season, focusing on coach (and former NFL star) Jessie Hester, about eight of his players, and in an interesting contrast, young Jonteria Williams who is trying to find an alternate route out of poverty, using not her athletic skills but her academic skills in a quest to get to a good college and become a nurse. There’s Mario Rowley, a quarterback with average skills but a big heart. He’s trying to succeed despite debilitating injuries. a town full of critics, and the loss of both parents. Kelvin Benjamin is the wide receiver blue chip, a player with unbelievable skills but a troubling attitude.
Readers will have plenty to discuss after reading this book: how much importance should high school sports be allowed to assume in a community? How much access should recruiters have to students? What is the role of a coach in an impoverished community? Do sports truly provide a way out for many students or are they another pitfall for lost dreams? Whether you love sports or hate them, there’s a lot to think about here in a work of nonfiction that has characters as complicated as those in the best novels.