Author Rafi Kohan’s entertaining new book, “The Arena,” explores the behind-the-scenes world of sporting events. “Everything but the game,” as he explains.
What he’s after is how humans experience the venues where they watch their favorite athletes and teams compete and the ways in which those buildings reflect the larger society around them.
“Stadiums are a metaphor for a wider way of life,” Kohan, a Brooklyn-based writer who’s scheduled to appear at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Nov. 19, said in an interview. “The places take on an incredible meaning. A lot of this is about America — how we come together and what we are saying about ourselves.”
As a longtime New York Yankees fan, Kohan is appalled at the new Yankee Stadium, which in 2009 replaced the original, the 1923 “House That Ruth Built.” While the name is the same, the fan experience is quite different.
“It’s terrible,” Kohan said of the new place, which he visits several times a season because, after all, he remains a fan. And yet, “it’s the worst place to watch a game. It doesn’t feel like you’re a fan.”
While the amenities are extravagant (reflected in significantly higher ticket and concession prices, even for New York), the sight lines aren’t as good, and the divide between the cheap seats and those behind home plate for the wealthy (and often unoccupied) is cavernous.
“As much as in private memory, tradition wraps itself in physical spaces, seeping into the walls, the cracks in the concrete,” Kohan writes. “In a new home, there are no ghosts. It is easier to turn away.”
He confesses his favorite ballpark is that of the Yankees’ biggest rival, the Boston Red Sox: the 105-year-old Fenway Park. Fenway, the Chicago Cubs’ aging Wrigley Field and the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field form the starting points of Kohan’s travelogue to some of the most iconic cathedrals of American sports.
He sticks to baseball and professional and college football venues, talking to tailgaters, ticket scalpers, concession managers and security personnel. He meets with survivors of Hurricane Katrina who camped out in the Louisiana Superdome for days in degrading conditions in 2005, then cheered on the New Orleans Saints when they made their triumphant football return in 2006 (over the Atlanta Falcons on “Monday Night Football”) to help lift a suffering city, if only a little.
“This escapism was part of the gift the Saints gave to the city,” Kohan writes. “But while the Superdome has been reclaimed, those stories of trauma remain, and some roil pretty close to the surface.”
The trauma of one of college football’s most passionate fan bases is less about the venue than the haunting memories of the sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which brought down legendary coach Joe Paterno.
Kohan visits the Penn State campus — aka Happy Valley — and talks to Nittany Lions fans conflicted and arguing about the legacy of the late “Joe Pa,” a major benefactor on a campus that still hasn’t figured out how to recognize him after the scandal.
“It surprised me, the extent to which it pervades the fan base, the legacy fan base,” Kohan said. “It is a real divide, but it’s also amazing how winning can paper over the divide.”
Another surprise for Kohan was his visit to Atlanta’s Turner Field, where he profiled Ed Mangan, the Braves’ respected groundskeeper, who is as secretive about his methods as he is meticulous and is somewhat fear-inducing for an author trying to learn the inner details of sod and grass.
Groundskeepers are like fans, Kohan theorizes, in that “they’re all tilling fields in such a way. It sort of makes sense. I didn’t know he was going to be so prickly.”
Kohan said he took in a game at the Braves’ new Cobb County home, SunTrust Park, during the 2017 season, and his worst fears about the new wave of ballparks were realized.
While SunTrust provides a great fan experience, “it could be anywhere,” Kohan said. “It’s such a bummer. These are our own civic buildings. The idea that they’re built with a planned obsolescence in mind kind of sucks. There’s no legacy, so it’s disposable. There’s nothing good about it.”
Kohan’s final trips are to the deserted Astrodome in Houston, where historic preservation efforts aim to reuse it, and the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., with its inflated roof fallen in years ago and the vast hulk of its metal frame decaying because of civic neglect and squabbling.
While trying to remain optimistic, Kohan acknowledges that “when a stadium dies, that mark can feel more like a wound.”