As this is posted, it’s the 80th birthday of Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Who? You probably know him better as Pelé, one of the greatest footballers/soccer players ever. Some people claim that, at his best, he was the greatest at his sport. On the one hand, being a sports star can give a person all sorts of perks and ‘clout.’ And, depending on the sport, it’s really lucrative, too. But being a sports star isn’t always as easy as it may seem. Beyond the regular workouts, training, and sports contests, there are other pressures, too. In fact, if you look at crime fiction, being a sports star can come with all sorts of complications…
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarter, for instance, the Cambridge rugby coach, Cyril Overton, comes to Sherlock Holmes with a puzzling case. His star player, Godfrey Staunton, has gone missing. Staunton is normally a reliable, mature player, so his absence is doubly confusing. Overton is concerned about Staunton’s well-being, of course, but there’s another reason he’s worried. Cambridge is set to play Oxford in a match the next day, and there’s little chance of Cambridge winning without their best player. Holmes agrees to take the case, and he starts asking questions. As he finds out the truth, readers are reminded that sports stars are more than just the athlete on the field…
Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar is a former basketball star. He would have continued his career, but a severe injury put an end to that plan. So, he went to law school, and now owns New York-based SportsReps, where he works as a sports representative/agent. His experience is a reminder that, no matter how talented a sports star is, one injury can change everything. Bolitar still has connections in the world of sports, of course, and he does keep his hand in the game. But it certainly is a different world for him. Throughout the series, as we get to know his clients and the various situations they face, we see that gifted athletes don’t always live the charmed lives we might think they do.
Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn knows that. She’s the coroner for Shrewsbury, and also the mother of twins. In River Deep, we learn that one of them, Sam, is a gifted footballer. His nickname is ‘The Beckham of Shrewsbury School.’ In one sub-plot of the novel, Gunn is called into a meeting with the P.E. master, Paul Grant, who tells her that Sam has a very rare talent. According to Grant, Sam could easily get a place at a football training school and end up with a lucrative contract as a professional. It’s a difficult situation for Gunn. She appreciates her son’s talent, and she’d love him to succeed. But she knows, as the rest of us do, that relatively few footballers have the talent to ‘go pro.’ And, even if they do, there’s always the risk of serious injury. It’s a dilemma faced by many parents whose children have real athletic talent.
Sports stars, like other famous people, often live in a proverbial goldfish bowl. Unlike most of the rest of us, their private lives become fodder for every tabloid and social media outlet. And that’s even more common in this age of easy access to all sorts of social media stories. We see a little of that in Alison Gordon’s Safe at Home. The main plot concerns a group of young boys who’ve gone missing and later been found dead. Gordon’s protagonist, sports journalist Kate Henry, gets involved in the case when her partner, who’s a police detective, investigates. Henry’s got a challenge of her own, though. Her specialty is baseball, and she covers the Toronto Titans baseball team. So, when left-fielder Joe Kelsey decides to come out as gay, he wants her to break the story. It’s a difficult choice even today, and it was more so in 1991, when the book was published.
There are, of course, a lot of temptations, too, when you’re a sports star. After all, there’s the money, there are the fans, and more. And there are some crime novels that deal with this. For instance, in John Daniell’s The Fixer, we are introduced to New Zealand rugby star Mark Stevens. He’s in the last few years of his career, and he is playing for a French professional team. He’s doing well, too, and enjoying living in France. Then, he meets Rachel da Silva, a Brazilian sports journalist who’s doing an in-depth piece on rugby, and she wants to interview Stevens. He agrees, and the two start working on the story. She tells him about a friend of hers named Philip, who makes money betting on sports, and suggests that Stevens could make money, too, by helping Philip with ‘inside information.’ Before long, Stevens is caught up in that web, lured in by Philip’s generous gifts and Rachel’s ‘attention.’ Then, Stevens finds out that what Philip really wants is for Stevens to ‘fix’ matches. This presents him with a real dilemma. It’s one thing (if not exactly ethical) to provide some information. It’s another to rig a match. But by this time, Stevens is deeply in with Philip, and will find it very difficult to free himself.
There’s a harsh look at the life of a sports star in Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. This is the story of Wally and Darren Keefe, who grew up in a Melbourne suburb. They’ve loved cricket all their lives, and both have a talent for the game. But they’re very different in temperament. Where Wally is disciplined, focused, and driven, Darren is less disciplined and less consistent. However, he has a rare natural gift, so when he does play well, he shows once-in-a-generation talent. The two of them become professional players, with all that that life means, and we see how their different dispositions, and the things that happen to them, impact them as the years go by. Ultimately, it all leads to tragedy. Among other things, this novel shows the ‘down side’ of the world of cricket, and serves as a reminder that being a sports star has its risks.
But it’s still a life a lot of people would love. And Pelé has been one of the best, and a real inspiration. So feliz aniversário, Pelé, and thank you for sharing your gift with us.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a translated line from Acredita no Véio (Listen to the Old Man) by Pelé, featuring Grammy award winners Rodrigo e Gabriela. The song’s in Brazilian Portuguese, but there are translated lyrics available.