New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss writes sports and history-related nonfiction, telling stories with a larger social message. His first book, “Strong Inside,” received the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards' Special Recognition Prize for social justice, becoming the first sports-related book ever to win either award. His young readers adaptation of “Strong Inside” was named one of the Top Biographies for Youth by the American Library Association and was named a Notable Social Studies Book by the Children's Book Council. His acclaimed second book for teens, “Games of Deception,” was a Sydney Taylor Book Award Middle Grade Honor Recipient and a Junior Library Guild selection. His third book, “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke,” was named to the 2022 Rainbow Book List and was named one of the “Top 100 Baseball Books Ever Written” by Esquire. Andrew lives in Nashville and is special projects director at the Vanderbilt University Athletic Department. Find out more about him at www.andrewmaraniss.com.
1 - You write books that explore deeper social justice themes -- what is it about sports stories, specifically, that can help facilitate conversations about social justice?
Sports books offer a profound opportunity to discuss issues related to social justice. First, sports are accessible. It’s not intimidating to pick up a book with a basketball player or a baseball player on the cover. And most people, whether they are sports fans or not, have some frame of reference for athletes or teams.
Sports remain one of the few aspects of our divided society that literally bring us together around a shared experience. So all those factors combine to create a solid foundation: at the very least, sports brings a lot of different people to the table. Then once you have a reader’s attention, they realize there’s so much more to a good sports book than scores and statistics.
Sports stories are human interest stories; they capture a moment in time in history; they offer inherent tension and drama. And within the world of sports reside all the social themes that matter: race, gender, sexuality, inequity, democracy, politics.
My hope is that my books bring readers, young and old, to these important issues in a way that feels natural and inspires empathy and action.
2 - You stand apart from many YA authors by focusing on nonfiction. Do you think these nonfiction stories offer something to young readers that fiction can't?
Absolutely. For one, these stories are true! We live in a time where discovering the truth and fighting against lies and liars is more urgent than ever. True stories elevate the names, experiences, and lasting lessons of remarkable people, many of whom have been written out of history.
The people I write about deserve to be known, and we can all learn so much from their example. There’s a substantial portion of adults who prefer nonfiction. I know it’s pretty much all I read. And yet nonfiction tends to be underemphasized for kids – at the same time kids aren’t reading. So my hope is that my books appeal to avid readers but also to young people who don’t realize there are books that they’d really enjoy if only they knew they existed.
At the other end of the spectrum, many of my readers are adults who fall into two categories. There are the sports fans who enjoy nonfiction and then also the men and women who aren’t into sports, and are typically fiction readers, but are pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy my books. It’s rewarding for me to help these kinds of readers understand how powerful sports nonfiction can be.
3 - In your previous book, “Games of Deception,” you write about another groundbreaking group of athletes: the Olympic men's basketball team that competed in Nazi Germany. Did you find commonalities between that story and the story of the first women's U.S. Olympic basketball team? How were the stories similar or different? What unique challenges did the women's team face?
Both teams had very little support. In 1936, the players on the men’s team had to raise their own money to pay for travel across the country to board the ship that would take them to Germany for the Olympics.
When they made it to Germany, conditions were terrible – the games were played outside on clay tennis courts, which became muddy slogs during the gold medal game. Forty years later, the U.S. women also had little support.
USA Basketball officials were so certain they wouldn’t qualify for the Olympics they had made no plans to house the team between the final qualifying tournament and the Olympics. The coaches had to scrounge around for a place for the players to live during that period, with no budget. But where the men’s team in 1936 was expected to dominate international competition – and did – the women’s team in ‘76 wasn’t even expected to qualify for the Olympics.
When they won a silver medal, not even a gold, it was cause for celebration. In ‘36, the rest of the world had a lot to learn from the U.S. In ‘76, U.S. women’s basketball still had a long way to go to catch up to the Soviets.
Where male athletes of the 1930s (and beyond) were lifted up as heroes, in basketball and other sports, women athletes of the 1970s were typically either disparaged or ignored.
They didn’t play for adulation or with hopes of making money. Still, there was a lot of pressure on the U.S. women’s team in ‘76. They understood that by playing well, they could change the course of women’s sports in America by inspiring younger generations of girls to play sports and to push for equal opportunities in their schools and communities.
4 - “Inaugural Ballers” set squarely in the heart of the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, with women athletes coming up in a pre-Title IX era. How did the cultural issues of that time impact the athletes and women's basketball in general?
Nine of the players on the ‘76 team (and both coaches) have since been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. These were outstanding players. They all overcame social pressures and stereotypes – the idea that it wasn’t “ladylike” for girls and women to sweat or play sports.
They grew up with very few female role models. There was no dream of playing professional basketball. They all made it to the top thanks to singular determination and hard work with no real promise of reward. Some would say they played for a pure love of the game, as if there was something wholly admirable about that.
I think it’s important not to romanticize the era. These women deserved so much more. They succeeded despite all the obstacles thrown their way. Obstacles that were born in sexism, misogyny, and the insecurity of men.
What was interesting to me was how little connection there was between these strong, pioneering athletes and the women’s movement. Here you had women athletes who were determined to do what they loved and not be confined by traditional gender roles, yet they weren’t held up as icons of the movement.
Many of them didn’t consider themselves feminists, even as they destroyed stereotypes and artificial limitations. Today, we see women athletes held up as icons for equity, such as when the U.S. women’s national soccer team protested for pay equity.
Times have changed, and as female athletes’ platforms have become larger, they have come to be seen as some of the strongest and most visible advocates for social change. The athletes of the early Title IX era, including members of the ‘76 Olympic team, paved the way.
5 - 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX -- but inequities between men's and women's sports are still an issue and a point of conversation. What lessons from these early players, many of whom became some of the most legendary figures in the history of basketball, can we borrow to tackle modern issues faced by women athletes?
Every generation has its struggle. When it comes to inequities between men’s and women’s sports, many of the same issues persist: less financial support, less media coverage, disparagement of female athletes by insecure men, an assumption that the public is less interested in women’s sports – even when that is proven untrue at every opportunity.
Women athletes of the 1960s and 1970s were political beings in their very existence, challenging the status quo. Today, of course, women earn scholarships to play college basketball and they have an opportunity to play professionally in the WNBA or overseas. Their platforms are large and powerful enough that their collective voice helped turn a Senate election in Georgia.
Female athletes are no longer “grateful” for whatever small benefits are thrown their way. So even as inequities remain, we’re hearing about them more from the people who are directly affected and much of the public seems more sympathetic.
And just as athletes of the ‘60s and ‘70s laid a foundation for the athletes of today, it’s notable that you often hear today’s women stars speak about their interest in improving conditions for women in the future. There’s always been an acknowledgement of the connection between generations.
6 - Did anything surprise you when you were researching this book? Any stories you hadn't heard that changed your perspective on the sport?
There were many things that surprised me: the degree to which the NCAA fought against Title IX in the 1970s; the ebbs and flows of women’s basketball in the U.S. from the 1800s through the 1970s – the cyclical way in which cultural forces would restrict the game as it became popular, and how it would re-emerge and grow stronger; and the ‘underdog’ position of the U.S. team in ‘76 – the U.S. national team has been so dominant for decades, it was hard to believe they weren’t expected to even qualify for the 1976 Olympics.
I was also happily surprised to see the documentary The Queen of Basketball, on team member Lusia Harris, win an Oscar earlier this year. I interviewed Ms. Harris for the book before she passed away. I’m not sure this counts as a ‘surprise,’ but I was also struck by the similarities between the politics of the ‘70s and the politics of today when it comes to women’s rights. Certainly there has been notable progress, but the gains of the last 50 years are in jeopardy today.
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