Jonathan Yardley

Michael Weinreb's book on 1980s athletes, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 29, 2010

BIGGER THAN THE GAME

Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete

By Michael Weinreb

Gotham. 338 pp. $26

This is a book about the emergence of "the modern age of American sports," but Michael Weinreb begins it by insisting that "everything goes back to a young man fashioning tall tales of athletic glory." He was Ronald Wilson Reagan, who as just about everyone knows began his extraordinary career in the 1930s as a radio broadcaster for station WHO in Des Moines, doing play-by-play accounts of baseball and football games "he could witness only in his own mind." He was fed sketchy information about the games by telegraph wire and made up the details on his own, and he "would later say that those four years at WHO, immersed in the mythology of American sports, were some of the most pleasant of his entire life."

For the rest of that life Reagan saw sport through a rose-tinted haze because of that experience, so it is no small irony that sport took on new and diametrically different dimensions when he was in the White House. It was a period when the country's view of itself underwent considerable change in large measure due to his own influence. Weinreb writes:

"He swept into office [in 1981] on an agenda of optimism, promising to cut taxes and to liberate the marketplace from excessive regulation, from the undue burdens of a government and the pervasive sense of pessimism that had, in the previous decades, proved a drag on the American dream. He was the first president to embrace the imagery of television, utilizing his gifts as an actor, modulating his voice and his expression to match the gravity of the moment, harnessing the power of the medium. And yet his visage hearkened back to the America of Frank Merriwell and Dizzy Dean, to the days when sports were a simple pastime, to a time when a lone voice emanating from a radio could carry across the farms and plains of the Midwest."

Of course it was not Reagan but John F. Kennedy who was "the first president to embrace the imagery of television," but since Weinreb was a mere eight years old when the Reagan years began he can, perhaps, be forgiven for his apparent belief that this is when history itself began. In any case, his larger point, though he belabors it to wretched excess, has some validity: It was during the Reagan years, with their passionate embrace of a sentimental and nostalgic view of the American past, that American sport broke away from its past and entered a new era of "unrepentant" individualism in which team spirit and fair play counted far less than the "celebrity persona" of the individual athlete and in which big money became the be-all and end-all.

To illustrate this change, Weinreb explores the stories of four athletes whom he regards as emblematic of the times: Jim McMahon, the quarterback of the Chicago Bears who became "the representative of the American id, the Ambassador of Arrogance"; Bo Jackson, the preternaturally gifted multi-sport star who, "in an era of spiritual materialism . . . had not allowed money to cloud his judgment"; Brian Bosworth, the linebacker for the University of Oklahoma who, notwithstanding his outlandish hairdo and behavior, "was an unrepentant capitalist, an opportunist seeking out stardom"; and Len Bias, the brilliant basketball player for the University of Maryland who died of an overdose of cocaine one day after signing a fat contract with the Boston Celtics, in the process becoming "a totem for all the excesses and social injustices of the 1980s."

These case histories are not quite so cut and dried as Weinreb believes them to be, but each, in its own way, points to the emphasis on "opportunism and self-reliance" rather than collective achievement that became pervasive during the 1980s, the echoes of which certainly are still felt today. Sport was big at the decade's beginning but huge by the time it ended. Just before the decade began, a tiny cable television operation that called itself Entertainment and Sports Programming Network "beamed itself to two million potential viewers from a half-finished studio in a little Connecticut town: by decade's end ESPN was well on the way to becoming the giant of sports broadcasting, a money machine of unprecedented dimensions. By the same token in 1984 "a revolutionary new basketball shoe" was introduced by a little-known company called Nike; soon thereafter the company signed a rookie pro basketball player to a contract, and . . . you know the rest.

I would argue that more than any of the four players at the center of Weinreb's story, it was Jordan who became the decade's emblematic athlete, embodying as he did individual brilliance, championship play and ruthless commercial exploitation. It may be true of Jim McMahon that "his overarching philosophy of human existence was that he really didn't give a damn what anyone thought," of Bo Jackson that he was showtime personified, of Brian Bosworth that he "was perhaps the most self-aware of all these media creations sprouting up in locker rooms across America" and of Len Bias that he was both a prime example of the exploitation of athletes (especially black ones) by big-time universities and a poster boy for the rising drug culture -- all of this probably is true to one degree or another, but collectively they are an exaggeration of reality.

The biggest and most important change in American sports during the 1980s was not the emergence of a few outlandish personalities -- there have been those before and since, from Dizzy Dean and Jimmy Piersall to Barry Bonds and Chad Ochocinco -- but the rise of the big-money culture. Though sports money had gotten significant by the end of the 1970s, it was greatly eclipsed in the years that followed not merely by the sums themselves but by the cynicism with which they were amassed by players, owners, agents and everyone involved in the system. The salaries paid to professional athletes became so inflated that it's difficult to see how ordinary fans managed to identify with them, but somehow they did. Far worse was the descent of big-time college athletics into a cesspool of greed and exploitation.

James Bias, Len's father, hit it on the head: "M-o-n-e-y. That's what it's all about. It's all about making money for the university. It's not about athletes. It's not about athletes and how you feel about them." This subject has been far more comprehensively covered, though, in two books by Murray Sperber -- "College Sports, Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. the University" (1990), and "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education" (2001) -- which, judging by his bibliography and notes, Weinreb has not read. That's too bad, for familiarity with Sperber's extensive examination of the corruption of college athletics would have strengthened Weinreb's discussion of the subject.

In general if not in all specifics, though, Weinreb's points are well taken. Blaming it all on Ronald Reagan is a stretch, to put it mildly, but he played a large role in encouraging the development of a culture that happily rewards people who are splashy, self-assertive and self-aggrandizing. But just don't think in terms of a few flamboyant jocks whose mouths are bigger than their talents. Think Hollywood. Think Wall Street. Think just about anything you like, because it's all around us.


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