Every day there are new books set in sports, and a lot of them are piled on my desk, and, as I’ve promised the publishers’ reps who sent most of them, I’ll get to them.
But the other day I picked up one of the old books set in sports — old enough so that when it came out in 1983, I was just reading books, not talking to the people who wrote them, which, in the case of this old book, I regret. It’s titled “The Franchise,” and the author was Peter Gent, who died last month.
Peter Gent was a Dallas Cowboy during the ’60′s, and although his career was short, he was paying attention. Dallas traded him to the New York Giants after the 1968 season, and immediately the Giants cut him. Perhaps because of that, or because once as a Cowboy he had injected himself with several syringes full of Novocain in an unsuccessful attempt to convince himself and Cowboys coach Tom Landry that he could play with three broken ribs and a cork-screwed back, Gent figured he might have something beyond tackles and touchdowns to write about.
The novel presents a sprawling account of a team in Texas built into a powerhouse on the arm of a hot quarterback. The owner gambles with mobsters and marries for lust before a national audience hosted by a televangelist. The player rep and a sportswriter get murdered. But never mind the gratuitous trappings. The most striking aspect of the novel, written almost 30 years ago, is Gent’s presentation of issues still current. One young pro wistfully recalls his days as a sought-after prospect, when a college coach came up with “$10,000, a new car, university jobs for my parents and my sister, and a rent-free house.” Only the $10,000 sounds anachronistic.
Gent mocks as rubes the suburban politicos who build the franchise a new stadium. They don’t see that their tax breaks and free, improved infrastructure will benefit nobody but the team’s owner. The author also gives us a team doctor who tells dizzy, disoriented players, “You just got your bell rung. Get back in there.”
Books hang around. Thanks, on Thanksgiving, for that. Readers can still find “The Franchise” and argue about how accurately the novel reflects the realities of today’s NFL, but perhaps there will be no argument about something Gent himself said about the pro game in an interview 10 years ago. “It was violent, and it was cruel,” he told a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “There was a part of the game that was literally insane. And I loved it.”