Thursday, November 24, 2016

Playing Through the Whistle by S.L. Price

Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football and an American Town by S.L. Price was a really good book from the Sports Illustrated writer who has penned three other books I've enjoyed, Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports and especially Far Afield: A Sports Writer's Odyssey and Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America.

Playing Through the Whistle expands greatly on a feature for SI several year ago and the book is a look at the dying town of Aliquippa, PA and high level football from a high school that's produced NFL stars Mike Ditka, Ty Law, Sean Gilbert, and Darrelle Revis. Additionally from Aliquippa were Henry Mancini, composer of Moon River, the father of basketball star Pete Maravich, and former Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld.

Price wrote of how early Aliquippa was the story of immigrants, people who came with nothing but the desire to work hard and who formed a life, for many of them through their labors on behalf of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (or J&L Aliquippa Works) in town. Towards the beginning of the book, the struggle between the employer and unions coming in is chronicled and then later on, racial tension in town (and America as a whole) detailed. In 1962, some black players walking off the football team to protest the lack of any black cheerleaders on the squad, and then Price provides remarkable reading about the fights in town between blacks and whites in the 1970's. In many ways, the book is a history of class and race in America, told through the prism of the town, football in it, and a struggle between sports as a positive force and societal and economic problems off the field.

Another major local sports star that Price wrote about was former Cowboys star Tony Dorsett, who played for nearby Hopewell Senior High in the early 1970's as Aliquippa High was in the quagmire of racial tension and constant fights. Dorsett not going to Aliquippa High School echoed what many families who could were doing, moving their kids out of Aliquippa public schools, either by sending them to private schools or just moving away to areas like that covered by Hopewell High. From an economic perspective, Aliquippa Works in 1979 employed 10,000 people, then in 1981 the bleed of jobs began and by 1985 there were only 700 remaining. As jobs were leaving town, crack cocaine came to Aliquippa in the mid 1980's and the drug trade, and accompanying violence, hit the town hard. Aliquippa High School was often a dangerous place and for many there, it was a choice between football or the streets, with each pulling on them.

The book closes out with modern day Aliquippa and paints a picture of a hard town and a hard life for those who live there, with things seemingly going the wrong direction. Some people succeed and get out, but it's a tough go for the place when the primary goal for those looking to achieve something positive includes them leaving.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Originals by Adam Grant

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant was an interesting read that brought to mind books such as those by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt and by Malcolm Gladwell.

Grant is an acclaimed 35 year-old professor at the Wharton School of Business and in Originals, he puts forth a number of compelling ideas, some he covered in his February 2016 TED Talk, "The surprising habits of original thinkers." Those included the benefits of procrastination, with the example of how Martin Luther King Jr. delayed in writing his "I Have a Dream" speech and his ideas germinated, and the power of those who have doubts about their ideas and proceed cautiously, with the example of Grant's students who started the business Warby Parker.

Some of the ideas from Originals that weren't in Grant's TED Talk included how people who use Firefox or Chrome as their PC browser in aggregate tend to be more successful than those who use an already installed web browser because they took the initiative to go and get something different, and how if you want to do original and impactful work, the big thing is to do a lot of work, much of it unremarkable.

Also tremendously interesting from Originals was the chapter on leaders in the women's rights movement who in the 1800's should have been allies, but became bitter enemies, delaying success for the movement. The idea that Grant put forth was that if people agree on some things, their disagreement on others can be much more profound than disagreements between people who don't agree on anything, and never expected to. Very much related to this idea is how methods and tactics can be more important than values, as they're more easily agreed upon, and can avoid the bitter fights over value differences. From Grant in his chapter on first and later born kids was the concept of praising and speaking to character rather than actions, with the example "don't be a cheater," rather than "don't cheat," having more impact. It's an interesting idea which actually runs counter to notions I've seen elsewhere about praising the actions and activities of kids rather than making character based statements out of their actions.

The final concept out of Originals to note here was the the idea of fighting a battle in different ways depending on how strong the support for your fight. Grant told the story of the non-violent resistance group Otpor! that helped lead the charge to overthrow Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia. When Otpor! was gathering support for the cause, they focused having people feel part of a larger group opposing Milošević and engaging in smaller-scale resistance tactics they could get behind and not feel exposed them to much retribution and danger. Along these lines, a story was told how in Chile in the 1980's, people drove slowly in town to protest the Pinochet government and in Poland, people pushed their televisions in wheelbarrows through town to protest government lies in the news. The idea of all this was that when commitment toward a goal is wavering or thin, it's best to consider progress already made, or focus on humor, then when commitment solid, it's then best to look at bad things to overcome or avoid or work still to be done. If that "negative motivation" brought up too soon, it can jeopardize the movement before it gains it's footing.