The title of Mike Freeman’s Bloody Sundays makes it sound like a lurid, self-righteous hatchet job against the sport of football, so I was a bit apprehensive when I first cracked open my review copy. Fortunately, my fears were groundless. Bloody Sundays is an unflinching, warts-and-all look at the NFL. But it is scrupulously fair – and clearly written out of love for the game, not contempt.
Most of Bloody Sundays consists of profiles of prominent players and personalities including Tampa Bay Bucs’s coach John Gruden (whose devotion to the game could plausibly be considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder) and an anonymous NFL player hiding his homosexuality from his teammates, coaches and fans. Sexuality remains a taboo subject in almost every sport, especially the NFL (only three players have publicly ‘outed’ themselves, all after retiring), and Freeman’s portrait is believable and touching. But it is also admirably skeptical – Freeman openly doubts his subject’s assertion that over 150 active players are gay. A lesser reporter would accept such a lurid allegation unquestionably.
Freeman also touches on the serious physical injury (including brain damage) suffered by many players long after they retire, the league’s continuing problems with domestic violence, and racism. (In the age of MacNabb and Vick, it’s disturbing to find out how recently NFL teams were converting talented black college QBs to wide receivers, on the premise that blacks were not intelligent enough to play quarterback.) And in one of the book’s more intriguing sections, Freeman explains why the Philadelphia Eagles are usually so good while the Cincinnati Bengals – whose front office is a kind of make-work program for the owner’s immediate family – are usually so bad. (Most teams have 15 scouts on staff. The Bungles have two.)
Freenan devotes the final third of Bloody Sundays to explaining his choices for “best ever” at every position in the game, including assistant coach. Some, like Jerry Rice, are no-brainers, but I was a bit surprised to see Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown chosen as the greatest ever QB and RB. (They’re both defensible choices, but I’d have picked Joe Montana and Barry Sanders, respectively. It’s also a bit jarring to see Freeman come perilously close to apologizing for Brown’s history of domestic violence, just after proposing a tough strategy to combat domestic violence by NFL players.) Then again, if you can’t argue about football, what can you argue about?
In the end, after airing much of the NFL’s dirty laundry, Freeman’s love for the sport remains obvious. He even ends Bloody Sundays with “99 reasons why football is better than baseball,” most of which are true, and some of which are quite funny. (“Baseball has purists. Purists are whiners pining about the good old days before wild-card playoff games and the time when those damn colored folk had their own league.”)
For anyone with even the slightest interest in America’s real national pastime, Bloody Sundays is an essential read.