Upon Further Review

The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History


By Mike Pesca

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From Mike Pesca, host of the popular Slate podcast The Gist, comes the greatest sports minds imagining how the world would change if a play, trade, injury, or referee’s call had just gone the other way.

“Intriguing…thought provoking…delightful.” –The Washington Post
No announcer ever proclaimed: “Up Rises Frazier!” “Havlicek commits the foul, trying to steal the ball!” or “The Giants Lose the Pennant, The Giants Lose The Pennant!” Such moments are indelibly etched upon the mind of every sports fan. Or rather, they would be, had they happened. Sports are notoriously games of inches, and when we conjure the thought of certain athletes – like Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood – we can’t help but apply a mental tape measure to the highlight reels of our minds. Players, coaches, and of course fans, obsess on the play when they ask, “What if?” Upon Further Review is the first book to answer that question.
Upon Further Review is a book of counterfactual sporting scenarios. In its pages the reader will find expertly reported histories, where one small event is flipped on its head, and the resulting ripples are carefully documented, the likes of…

What if the U.S. Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?

What if Bobby Riggs beat Billie Jean King?

What if Bucky Dent popped out at the foot of the Green Monster?

What if Drew Bledsoe never got hurt?

Upon Further Review takes classic arguments conducted over pints in a pub and places them in the hands of dozens of writers, athletes, and historians. From turning points that every sports fan rues or celebrates, to the forgotten would-be inflection points that defined sports, Upon Further Review answers age old questions, and settles the score, even if the score bounced off the crossbar.



Mike Pesca

America exists because the sky was foggy.

To be fair, it was particularly and peculiarly foggy on the side of the East River where it needed to be foggy. It was August 29, 1776, and George Washington and the colonists had been badly beaten in the Battle of Long Island. They had not even covered the spread. If the British troops under Admiral Richard Howe had finished the rebels, historians agree, they probably would have snuffed out the American Revolution right there. But then, in the small hours of morning, the fog rolled in and the colonists rowed out. In historian David McCullough’s telling, in his book 1776:

Incredibly, yet again circumstances—fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often—intervened. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, remembered a soldier, that one “could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.” Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all.

This is one of the great what-ifs in our country’s history. But for a low-lying cloud—paired with the rough currents of the river and some guerrilla tactics acquired by Washington while fighting in the French and Indian War—a great nation might never have been.

This is how the best what-ifs work. Find the bend in history’s path and straighten it out, perhaps along the way convincing ourselves that the imagined did become real, with the fog of memory as sufficient cover.

In sports we accept the turning point, as such, more readily than we do in the real world. We much prefer to think of our history as a march of inevitabilities rather than as a series of contingencies. The alternatives can be too big to contemplate.

After all, if Washington hadn’t escaped the British, perhaps I wouldn’t even be sitting here, protected by a First Amendment, blithely turning our sports heroes to goats all in the name of a thought exercise. Can we really say that there wouldn’t have been an America? The United States of America does seem like a pretty compelling idea—stronger, certainly, than the thickest of fog. But to watch and to be invested in sports is to know how much our world is shaped by happenstance—how all would be different but for one errant pass, one blown coverage, one fumbled exchange, one bungled coaching decision.

Sports are a celebration of turning points. In recent years this has been made explicit with the advent of real-time win probability charts, graphs that pinpoint a team’s odds of victory even as play is underway. You can actually follow along as your team’s chances for victory plummet in real time when, for instance, your offense decides to take a twelve-yard sack and commit a holding penalty with an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. For the record I did not commission a “What if the Falcons had not done sixteen things wrong in Super Bowl LI?” essay, just as I decided not to commission “How much damage would an Olympic rifle team do to a school of fish, provided said fish were neatly stacked in an oak barrel?”

We readily acknowledge that games, seasons, careers, and legacies can turn on single plays. And when the play does not break right, the eternal cry of “Wait ’til next year” is invoked. Close on the heels of that lament comes the question “What if?”

What-if is a fundamental part of sports. Without what-if there’d be no draft, no spring training, no trades, no free agent acquisition. Every roster rebuild in pro sports has been a multi-million-dollar exercise in what-if. Every tweak of the replay rules, every announcement of innovation via the “competition committee,” is an official endorsement of what-if. Every excuse of “I thought it was good leaving my hands” or “I could have sworn I was on the base when he tagged me” is the athlete engaging in his or her own version of what-if.

But when we fans propose a what-if scenario, we most often are proposing an if-only. If you hear a voice on sports talk radio, or sports talk podcast, make reference to “one of the great what-ifs,” they usually do not mean, “What a fascinating cascade of unforeseen occurrences might have transpired.” They usually mean, “Had we taken the road not traveled, we’d have been much better off.” Run instead of passed, drafted the forward instead of the center, traded for prospects instead of veterans. These, the usual what-ifs, are rueful reactions to scenes of trophies hoisted by rivals, parades down someone else’s Main Street, your own mayor paying off a stupid bet concerning regional foodstuffs.

In this book I wanted to avoid the diehard’s what-if—the one where the answer is, “Some other team or player would have won.” That may be true, but it doesn’t excite the imagination. Neither am I interested in the other common what-if, the one where the fan rewrites the script for a key play. Sports fans love this sort of thing. We want to what-if our favorite teams or athletes over the obstacles that felled them in real life. I get it. It’s human. I can’t tell you how I yearned to what-if St. John’s over Patrick Ewing in the 1985 Final Four, but simply turning a loser into a victor, or redoing a draft pick, or correcting a blown call did not seem like the best use of this magical institution of the what-if. Rather, I chose to propose hypotheticals that sparked the imagination, that opened the door to a hidden history or set off a plausible chain reaction we might not even have considered.

As I went about soliciting contributions and debating what would make good topics, some trends emerged.

Baseball proved to be the sport that provided the most fertile ground. There are a few reasons for that. One, it has been around the longest, and has been well chronicled along the way. Two, writers usually like baseball. Three, baseball is the sport that most embraces the sort of whimsy at the heart of any what-if. To ask “What if?” also has the whiff of nostalgia about it, and nostalgia drives baseball as surely as ethanol drives Indy cars or oats drive horse racing.

Football, though the most popular game in America, and a favorite of mine, did not inspire granular what-ifs. Our contributors were more compelled to address football as a phenomenon rather than football as fodder for rewriting on the play-by-play level. Former Denver Broncos player Nate Jackson attempts a rewrite of the rules of football, and Jason Gay attempts a rewrite of the American weekend without football. I was eager to see if anyone would attempt to rewrite entire dynasties, and to that end Steve Kornacki does a nice job of thwarting the Belichick-Brady dynasty. But there were a couple of what-ifs left unpursued. In 1960 Tom Landry was offered head coaching jobs for both the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers, but it was hard to imagine a scenario where he would cast his lot with the upstart AFL. I also thought there might be interesting bookend what-ifs to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynastic run in the 1970s. What if the Immaculate Reception in 1972 had been ruled an incompletion? No definitive angle of that play exists, after all. Similarly, what if Oilers receiver Mike Renfro’s catch in the corner of the end zone against the Steelers in the 1979 AFC title game had been ruled inbounds? There, a definitive angle did exist, and it showed that the referees had incorrectly ruled it an incompletion.

The problem with these questions is that the answers do not reverberate beyond the narrow context of the games themselves. Broader history is not implicated. In 1972 the Pittsburgh Steelers did beat the Oakland Raiders, but no matter how much help Franco Harris got from the Father, Son, and Myron Cope, neither they nor any other team were going to get past the undefeated Dolphins that season. As for the 1979 play, yes, that one catch would have tied the AFC Championship Game in the third quarter. And then what? Who’s to say the Oilers ever would have taken the lead or prevented the Steelers from doing so? The Steel Curtain held Earl Campbell to seventeen yards on fifteen carries that day. And even if the Chuck Noll Steelers had faltered, they go down as having won three Super Bowls. Still dynastic, if somewhat less fantastic.

So if those particular potential what-ifs do not make the cut, what does? I believe a good what-if has to fall into one of a few categories. It has to:

a) posit a plausible counterfactual and tease out the implications of said counterfactual. Ideally, along the way, other ruptures occur, which in themselves rewrite reality as we currently know it;

b) provide an opportunity to delve into a history that we perhaps didn’t know about, but should. This history should have a compelling connection to the present. Claude Johnson’s essay, “What If Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton’s Pass Hadn’t Gone Awry?”—the longest essay in the book—does this expertly;

c) examine a sporting event that had a great impact on society and explore ways the event might have been rewritten, and in doing so reshaped society;

d) answer a what-if question that has long been posed, and come up with an interesting or authoritative answer. Or both, as is the case with Neil Paine’s look at the worst NBA injuries and Ben Lindbergh’s examination of drug testing in baseball;

e) be funny.

A what-if, done well, need not provide a definitive answer to the question. The fun is in the asking. Questions are fundamental to the fan experience: “How do you not foul there?” “What was he thinking?” “Why would you make that trade?” “Did you even know how many timeouts you had?”

As I write these words I sit a few blocks from Brooklyn’s Old Stone House, where brave troops from Maryland fought the British so that by dawn General Washington could deftly use the fog as a blanket. I never think about that. A few blocks in the other direction is the Barclays Center, where one can see the Washington Wizards puncture a foggy Nets defense with three-pointers. I constantly think about the Nets’ ineptitude and begrudge the trade that sent a series of top picks to the Boston Celtics for an aged Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Why? Why the obsession with one counterfactual but the neglect of the other? Why do I take my basic freedoms for granted while engaging in hypotheticals about adults in matching outfits who play games?

I think the answer lies in the very nature of sports, and how they give us a space to indulge in mental rewrites and the opportunity to wish away the bad things without paying the psychological costs of clinically being in denial. It’s fundamental to the escapism of sports. Under cover of the conditional mood, we flee the confines of history, like Washington’s troops into the early morning mists.


What If Muhammad Ali Had Gotten His Draft Deferment?

Leigh Montville

The hearing took place away from the spotlight that usually followed Muhammad Ali wherever he went. The site was a courtroom in the United States Post Office, Court House and Custom House, a five-story limestone building that covered a city block at Broadway and Sixth Street in Louisville, Kentucky. The date was August 23, 1966. The mood was reserved.

No reporters or spectators were allowed. Ali was accompanied by his mother, his father, two character witnesses, and his new lawyer. They appeared in front of retired judge Lawrence Grauman as requested. The histrionics of the previous six months—begun when the twenty-four-year-old heavyweight champion of the world said, “I don’t have no personal quarrel with those Viet Congs”—were replaced by quiet explanation.

This was business. Serious business.

“I never understood why the so-called Negroes had to turn their cheeks and have to take all the punishment while everyone else defends themselves and fought back,” Ali told the judge first, describing the seeds of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. “I never understood why our people were the first fired and the last hired. I never understood why when I went to the Olympics in Rome, Italy, and won the gold medal for great America and I couldn’t go in a downtown restaurant in Louisville.”

The hearing was to consider his application as a conscientious objector to military service for the Vietnam War. Every CO applicant had the right to plead his case before a specially appointed judge. Grauman, retired, a sixty-six-year-old legal scholar in Louisville, white, a member of local society, known more in his judicial career as a strong disciplinarian than for any civil rights decisions, was appointed to hear Ali’s case.

The background was that members of the Nation of Islam historically had refused to fight in “white man’s wars.” The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the religion, had served four years in jail for refusing to fight in World War II. Now there was this war. Ali, a member of the NOI, did not want to be drafted.

The issue originally had been moot because he flunked the written test twice when he was eighteen years old. This resulted in a 4-F classification as unfit for service. In the following six years, however, the war had escalated, which brought a larger need for young American bodies. The Army recently had lowered the passing grade for the written test. Ali’s score now was acceptable.

Notified on February 17, 1966, that he was reclassified to 1-A, he stood on a lawn in Miami, Florida, and told America how unfairly he thought he was being treated, how his position as heavyweight champion was more important than any position he might occupy in any war effort. He sounded self-centered and cocky. Religion was not mentioned. A day later he said the words about the Viet Cong. America was not happy with any of this.

His fight in Chicago against Ernie Terrell quickly was canceled. Politicians denounced him. Promoters across the country refused to schedule a bout domestically. He was forced to fight once in Toronto, twice in England. His next scheduled title defense was against Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt, Germany. The message was clear: If a fighter would not fight for America, he could not fight in America. The irony seemed obvious to the general public. Ali said this was nothing new.

“I have, I would say, caught more hell for being a Muslim, even before the Army talk came up,” he said, religion now the major part of his argument. “With my wife [whom he divorced] and boxing, and the movie rights that I turned down… and I have done all this before the Army came up and it’s just not saying that I would not participate in war, but we actually believe it and feel it.”

The hearing lasted three and a half hours. The government case was contained in a lengthy report from the FBI. There were no government witnesses. Ali’s testimony, restrained but forceful, dominated the proceedings. He was guided by his lawyer, Hayden Covington. Hired only a week before the hearing, Covington was a specialist in these kinds of cases and had defended countless Jehovah’s Witnesses in conscientious objector situations. Judge Grauman asked questions at the end.

“It would be disrespect for the American government to say what happened,” Ali told reporters as he left the building. He added that the hearing “was run just like I was in a courtroom.”

Ali went to Germany a week later to fight Mildenberger, a bout that ended with a technical knockout in the twelfth round after the challenger was dropped to the canvas three times and cut badly around the eyes. Judge Grauman went home to 3939 Napanee Road in Louisville with a 129-page transcript of the hearing to make his decision, which he did in two weeks, sending his recommendation to the U.S. Justice Department in Washington.

The results were not made public until two months later, on November 25, 1966. They were contained in a letter the Justice Department sent to Local Board No. 47, Ali’s draft board in Louisville.

Grauman had ruled in favor of the champ. The white disciplinarian southern judge recommended that a Conscientious Objector classification should be granted. This was the upset of upsets. Ali’s quiet words had worked. Covington’s questions had worked. The hearing was a grand success.

Except the hearing didn’t matter.

Grauman’s decision didn’t matter.

The Justice Department rejected the judge’s recommendation. Its letter to Local Board 47 recommended that Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, should—indeed—be classified 1-A and subject to the draft. The draft board’s decision was pro forma, following the Justice Department’s direction. Ali was not only eligible for the service but was at the top of the list.

The course was now set. The unpopular draft resister was on the way to becoming the most famous athlete who ever lived. The Greatest of All Time.

And so, we begin…

What if the decision by Judge Grauman was stamped and approved by the Justice Department? How easy would that have been? Approval was the norm in most CO cases, the judge’s decision routinely ratified. What if the Justice Department followed procedure instead of a political animus against the outspoken famous black man and Muslim? What if Muhammad Ali were allowed to simply go ahead with his business? What if?

One minor change, a bit of clerical work, was all that was needed. How different would his story have been? That was the important question. Would there even have been a story? That’s an even bigger question.

The stretch of time between Grauman’s decision and Ali’s eventual acquittal by the United States Supreme Court on June 28, 1971, covered more than four and a half years. Ali was inactive for more than three and a half of those years, his titles stripped, his passport revoked when he refused to step forward to take the oath to join the Army on April 28, 1967.

In most appraisals of his career, great laments are heard about how he was forced to miss all that time in the middle of his prime. What if he had been allowed to keep fighting when he was young and seemingly invincible, a heavyweight with speed that no one had ever seen in a ring? How many more victories might he have accumulated? How much more history could he have made?

A better argument can be made in the other direction. What if he hadn’t lost that time? Those missing years were what defined his career, what made his life so different from all the other boxers who came along before or have come along since. How could he have been the Greatest of All Time, the icon of icons, an important figure in politics and art and everyday life if he had plugged along on a normal athletic arc? How could he have been Muhammad Ali if he simply… boxed?

Blessed with speed, strength, and charisma, Ali worked to achieve great mastery of the skills of his sport. But it was this ordeal, these troubles, that made him everything he became.


If he had not been banned from boxing, his voice would have been silenced. Oh, maybe not silenced, because he surely was a vocal man, but his words would not have meant nearly as much. He would not have been the rebel, the aggrieved party, the perpetual squeaky wheel.

When he could not fight, he found that a way to make a living was to visit college campuses, where he gave speeches to students. This was his major source of income. He became probably the most accessible athlete of the twentieth century. If you were a student at the time, you had a chance to see Ali in person somewhere near your school and you probably did.

Armed with boilerplate speeches that preached the doctrine of the Nation of Islam, hardened by question-and-answer sessions at each stop, he was a one-man evangelical tour. He was funny sometimes, but serious most of the time. He said things that athletes never had said, certainly not black athletes. He riled emotions, stirred the national pot.

“Man, I go places where only the professors went before,” he told Dave Kindred of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Harvard. UCLA. California State. Tennessee State. Me, a boxer. I’m doing this.

“I give them hour and a half lectures. Like ‘The Negro Must Clean Himself Up Before Anyone Will Respect Us.’ And on how we should treat our women. Women are the fields that grow nations.”

He also talked about the separation of races, the NOI dream of a black society away from the white devils. (He said he didn’t vote, but would vote for George Wallace for president if he did.) He talked against interracial couples. He talked against the white man’s war. He talked about black pride, talked about how black people should live in black neighborhoods and spend their money with black merchants and go to black colleges.

This was heavy stuff. There was no real affinity for the civil rights struggles that were taking place led by Dr. Martin Luther King. There was no real affinity with the anti-draft movement that grew daily as kids burned their draft cards and took over the offices of college presidents. The debates started by his points of view were noisy in the moment—he was booed at more than one stop, challenged pretty much everywhere—but the impression he left was more important than the words.

He was Ali! He was the Champ! He was a famous black man, young, strong, challenging authority. That was what counted. That was the bedrock of his future image. He stood up. He fought for his rights. These were the sixties. He fought for himself. That was the image that remained.

It would not have existed if he had not been banned from boxing.


His career would have chugged along the usual set of tracks if allowed to continue uninterrupted. At the time when Grauman’s decision became public, Ali already had returned to the U.S. market, defeating Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the Houston Astrodome. He was preparing to fight Ernie Terrell, the opponent from that canceled bout in Chicago, also at the Astrodome. The European fights, shown on American television, broadcaster Howard Cosell providing friendly commentary, had softened American resistance. People might buy tickets to boo Ali now, but they would buy tickets.

That situation would have stayed the same if he were a conscientious objector. He could have fought and fought and fought. The problem was that there really wasn’t anyone left for him to fight. He already had cruised through the major heavyweight contenders, knocking them off in a rush as he worried about his future. If he had continued to fight, he would have had to cruise through the field again and yet again.

His big fight at the end of his enforced layoff, the first fight against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, was set up by Ali’s absence. Frazier had arrived on the scene, climbed through the same contenders Ali had beaten, and established himself as the alternative heavyweight champion. The attraction of two heavyweight champions in the ring at the same time, both unbeaten, was irresistible. This was the biggest sports event anyone could remember.

Ali fought two warm-up bouts and, bam, came head-to-head with Frazier. Frank Sinatra took pictures for Life magazine. Woody Allen, Marcello Mastroianni, Ted Kennedy, Diana Ross, and Miles Davis were there. Hugh Hefner and Col. Harlan Sanders were there. Everybody was there.

If Ali had not missed so much time, none of this would have existed. Frazier would not have been the heavyweight champion. The curiosity would not have existed. Maybe Frazier would have waited this long to fight Ali, but probably not. The match would have happened earlier, simply due to popular demand. Would Frazier have won that fight against a younger, faster Ali, as he did at the Garden, establishing the basis for the next two fights in the famous trilogy? Would Ali have been as easy to hit?

Possibly not. Probably not.


The rest of Ali’s career would have been perfunctory, simply about boxing. He would have made noise, no doubt, showman that he was, but it wouldn’t have been the same important noise. The bite, the edge, would have been gone.

The Ali who America largely grew to respect as time passed in his suspension and as resistance to the war grew larger and larger wouldn’t exist. He would have been another name on the 1970s scorecard, another name on the sports page. The Ali who became beloved after his career ended, the valiant figure struck early by Parkinson’s, the soft-talking, slow-moving symbol of fire and resistance, wouldn’t exist. He would have been another used-up athlete, his condition a shame but far from unique.

He wouldn’t have captivated Zaire, wouldn’t have captivated the world with his rope-a-dope, comeback win over George Foreman. The Thrilla in Manila would not have been nearly so thrilling. The other fights—the trilogy with Ken Norton, the collisions with no-names like Chuck Wepner, Joe Bugner, and Ron Lyle, even the loss and then win against Leon Spinks—would not have contained the same drama, the idea that you should see this man now, today, because he was part of history.

Would he have been the choice to light the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta if he hadn’t been banned from his sport? Would he have been so memorable, standing on that platform, familiar and vulnerable, above the crowd?

It was the U.S. Justice Department—strange as it seemed—that handed him his chance for immortality. Not that they deserved more credit than did the heavy bag, or barbell, or some other millstone that a fighter could turn into a sharpening stone. And it was Ali who took the opportunity. He grew far bigger than the squared-off section of life that he was supposed to occupy. If the idea was to punish him for his beliefs, it failed badly. The time away from boxing was the most important time of all. He flourished because of it. He grew his legend, expanded his influence. He became different, so different from any other athlete in American history.

An irony arrived as his fight with the draft board neared its conclusion. When his case finally reached the Supreme Court in the spring of 1971, the first vote did not go well for him. With only eight members of the court voting because Justice Thurgood Marshall had recused himself, the decision was 5–3 to uphold Ali’s conviction. He was going to be sent to prison for five years and fined $10,000. The majority and minority opinions had to be typed and the public had to be notified, and he would be gone.

Justice John Harlan was assigned to write the majority opinion and he passed the job on to his law clerks. The clerks, younger, more aligned with Ali’s thought about the war, found passages in Nation of Islam literature that bolstered his request for a CO exemption. What to do? They presented these passages to Harlan and argued for acquittal, and to the surprise of everyone, the justice changed his mind.


  • "What if you didn't read UPON FURTHER REVIEW? You'd miss a lot of mind-blowing fun. But why take the chance? Read it. You'll laugh. You'll learn. You'll impress your friends. There hasn't been a sure winner like this book since Mike Tyson beat Buster Douglas."—Jonathan Eig, author of Ali: A Life and Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig
  • "The inevitable plight of sports fans is longing for what might have been. Retrospective analysis -- and wistful reimagining -- is what gets them through the night. UPON FURTHER REVIEW teems with such moonlit fantastical -- and a ravishing counterfactual revelation: sportswriters, the proud and embittered few, are actually a delightful bunch of goofball romantics."—Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was A Spy and Collision Low Crossers
  • "Enlightening and entertaining, Pesca's collection of hypothetical sports outcomes gives sports fans much food for thought."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Intriguing...thought provoking...delightful."—The Washington Post
  • "This is sports escapism brought to new and entertaining heights."—Kirkus
  • "A thought-provoking venture into sports' road-not-taken possibilities."—Booklist

On Sale
Mar 26, 2019
Page Count
320 pages

Mike Pesca

About the Author

Mike Pesca is the host of the daily podcast The Gist. For ten years he was a reporter for NPR, where he primarily covered sports. He has covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Series of Poker, and the Westminster Dog Show. In addition to hosting the NPR News quiz Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, his work has been featured on This American Life, Radiolab, and Inside the NFL, as well as in Baseball Prospectus and Basketball Prospectus.

He is the winner of two Edward R. Murrow awards, one for his coverage of high school football, another for his analysis of the monetary value of Crackerjacks being mentioned in the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He was a two-time winner of the Emory University Intramural Softball Official of the Year.

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