If you grew up in the 1980s or appreciate anything about sports, then or now, Michael Weinreb’s Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz and the Punky QB and How the ‘80s Created the Modern Athlete is an undeniable must read. With a backdrop of our rising consumer culture and Reagan America, Weinreb threads together the stories of Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Len Bias and Jim McMahon.
Weinreb, a staff writer for Grantland.com, also wrote Kings of New York, an awarding-winning book about Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School chess team, the best squad in the country.
In the following interview, Weinreb talks about reconstructing realities that belie sports myths. He talks about the birth of today’s pre-packaged athletic superstars and the cynical eyes through which sports are viewed.
Jerry Barca: What did you set out to do with this book?
Michael Weinreb: It kind of morphed and changed as I was going along. I had written a story for ESPN about the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, which wound up being the subject of one of the last chapters. Then I started looking back at that time period, the year 1986, and was fascinated by everything that was going on in sports then.
It was partly because of my age at that point, but there was also a lot going on culturally and in society that tied into what was going on in sports. I realized the different ties between what was going on in the culture and even what was going on politically with Ronald Reagan and the way that he impacted the culture itself.
I was trying that David Halberstam trick of tying together sports and society and figuring out how each influenced the other during an era. I was also trying to give people, who were maybe younger than me or who didn’t pay as close attention as I did, a sense of how all these things tied together and how they relate to the culture that we exist in today.
JB: As I was reading, I was thinking, this is like an ESPN Films 30 for 30 in book form.
MW: During that era, people were just sort of starting to notice, “Wow, there is a lot of scandal in sports and all these unsavory things.” 30 for 30 had a lot of those stories and those kinds of moments. The 30 for 30 films are great, but I hope there’s still a way that writing can get across these stories that’s just different from what any sort of documentary can do. That’s the last advantage we have left as writers: we can still tell a story in a different way than any filmmaker can.
JB: I thought your writing on the Nike Air Jordans coming on the scene was great:
“In the brief and occasionally sordid history of the industry known as sports marketing, there is a before and after, and those sneakers mark the demarcation between the archaic and the contemporary, between black-and-white and living color.”
What you wrote about there is striking and it is striking in a medium that only shows up in the written form. Is there a particular flourish or flow that you’re happy with or that you want to point to in the book?
MW: It was interesting to try to reconstruct what happened to Bias that night he died. To go through all the various conflicting reports and to talk to some people and to try to reconstruct all of that because there was so much mythology mixed in there with whatever the truth was.
It is always interesting to look at something that’s become a myth and to be able to deconstruct it and break it down. Bo Jackson was the same way. It’s a theme throughout. I mention it in the epigram. It is from that George Pelecanos novel (The Sweet Forever). It’s actually a quote from the John Wayne movie: “When the legend becomes fact print the legend.” That’s what the ‘80s basically were, this return to the old fashioned mythology under Reagan.
That was what I wanted to frame the book, this mythical time period where everything has become a legend. I wanted to get beyond that to a sense of what was really going on back then and look at how it contrasts and compares with the way we remember it.
Does that make sense?
JB: Yeah. I want to spend time on this mythology. It’s interesting. In the Grantland Rice times, the hero-making in sports journalism was there and it was a match for what society wanted. Then in the ‘80s these guys were punks and rebellious. They were, as you accurately put it, a “fuck you” to the establishment in many ways; but yet, they were still embraced.
MW: Bosworth is the best example of that because here’s a smart guy who basically tried to create his own mythology. It wound up backfiring on him eventually. He has that quote where he says, “I created a monster;” where he just couldn’t handle this personality he’d basically fabricated for himself. I don’t think any of these guys really had any sense of how big they would become.
I don’t think Bo could have imagined that the myth surrounding him would become as big as it did. Bias too, obviously in death, has become this mythological figure. So none of them really understood exactly how modern media worked or how modern culture worked.
We were all just starting to figure that out. Sports marketing, like we talked about, basically didn’t exist before this time period. So all these guys were all adjusting to it on the fly; whereas now, they all try to fit their way into this system that we have.
JB: Previous to this time there were endorsements. Mickey Mantle did Ovaltine. But Ovaltine used what was already there as Mickey Mantle. In the ‘80s, marketing drove the narrative of these characters.
MW: Right. Exactly, exactly. Mickey Mantle, his character had already been understood and was created by himself. Now, it is almost created through this marketing machine.
JB: I miss it. I miss those 1980s characters. There’s no doubt that sports marketing is still a growing and billion-dollar industry. But, to me, the characters aren’t the same any more. Why do you think that is?
MW: It’s just come to the point where we get the sense these guys are trying to construct their image. Whereas back then, it was still happening – in a way it was still happening organically; and it was still fresh and new. We had never seen anybody like Bo come along, first of all as an athlete but also as a marketing icon.
Those Nike commercials were new. The Jordan iconography was all new. The notion of a team like the ’85 Bears was relatively new. Now, it’s all been recycled over and over again. And it’s so carefully constructed, and there’s so much thought given to how it is going to play and how it is going to be reflected in the media. It doesn’t have that same freshness. Maybe for young people it does? Maybe we’re just being nostalgic? Maybe in 20 years we’re all going to feel the same way about Lebron?
JB: I don’t know if we’ll sit around and be nostalgic about Peyton Manning rooting for a guy to “slice that meat” in those Master Card commercials. Back then, when you watched those Nike ads, you wanted to go run or workout.
MW: There’s also just so much cynicism now. The Internet basically breeds cynicism. Something like Deadspin, which serves its purpose, is there to demythologize everything. We’re just much more cynical as a culture and that has a lot to do with it, too. But back then it was Reagan and “embrace optimism.”
JB: How much of a role do you think capitalism has played in how these sort of pre-packaged athletes, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods – before his fall – are presented to us?
MW: That probably has everything to do with it. The reason these guys do this and construct an image is in order to make money. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any reason to do it. That’s something that was birthed in the ‘80s. A lot of these guys realized how sports and capitalism intertwined, and that by embracing these images you can have a pretty lucrative career. Someone like Bo Jackson is interesting because he did that for a few years. He basically admits that he did it for the express purpose of making money and supporting his family. Once he did that, he retired and sort of disappeared. Now, he lives this quiet life in suburban Chicago. A lot of people don’t even know he lives there. Jim McMahon was the same way. He had the attitude of “I’m going to get everything while I can get it. Who knows how long this is going to last, so I’m going to take what I can get.” For them it probably seemed crazy that it was happening; whereas now guys almost expect it.
JB: One of the interesting points about the people you focus on in the book is that their careers were cut short. Bias with cocaine. Bo, Bosworth and McMahon by injuries. And with Bo and McMahon they may always be legendary, but they’ll never be in the Hall of Fame. We only got to see these guys for a very brief period.
MW: In a way, with Bo it almost adds to his myth. There is this question of was he the greatest athlete we’ve ever seen? Could he have been a Hall of Famer in two sports? To think of a guy who could play baseball and football at that level at the same time is remarkable. I know Deion Sanders did it, but Deion Sanders is not the same figure. Deion Sanders is kind of a poser. He was a great football player. He wasn’t a very physical football player. He felt like that next iteration of guys who were embracing the marketing because he knew what it could do for him. It felt a lot more created with him.
With McMahon it is interesting because people associate him with that one team. He did play a long time in the NFL (15 seasons). He was just a backup for a long time, partly because he was so beaten up in those two years he did play. Since the book has come out it is even sadder because now he is saying he is losing his memory and all that head-injury stuff is starting to affect him.
The reason I chose those guys is because they had this incredibly quick ascendance and then they flamed out for one reason or another. As much as we remember for this goofy, ridiculous era, there was this bit of sadness to it as well.
JB: I want to talk about how you close the book. The high school girl asks Len Bias’ mom if she knew her son was doing drugs. You write: “The mother inhales, exhales, then responds. ‘It’s been said it was his first time,’ she says.” Why did you choose to use that?
MW: It gets at that mythology that we’re talking about. Especially with Bias everybody wants to embrace that stuff. With Bias there was a lot of stuff that I had no idea about what really happened that never got out because it was held down by this idea that he had to represent something larger. He had to become a sort of martyr. Then the question is: Is that a tragedy or the best way for his legacy to be carried on? I don’t know. It’s complicated.
If people think Len Bias did cocaine one time and died, like I did as a kid, and it scared them away from doing cocaine, is that such a bad thing if it’s not the truth? That’s what I wanted to get at. Here are these stories and these myths of different guys. Is it better to embrace the myth in some cases?
JB: I think we want the myth.
MW: It’s easier to embrace the myth. We need the stories to carry us through. We want good stories and myths are usually the best kind of stories. But there’s always a lot more complexity behind them than what we realize.
JB: When an athlete does something spectacular do you think the myth arises when we collapse that athletic feat with making it mean he must also be a great guy?
MW: We do that with everybody and everything and we still do that today. I was listening to a panel discussion at a journalism conference and it was about Jim Tressel. It was bunch of writers and they were talking about how extremely nice Tressel had been to them personally and how he had done nice things for them. It colored their judgment when they had to cover the story of him covering up improprieties at Ohio State. People are a lot more complicated than what their public image is.
Tiger Woods is the same way. We branded him as one type of person. Obviously, it was a pretty simplistic impression. Then we found out that the person that we – and Nike – branded him as really wasn’t who he was at all. It happens all the time.
Mostly our job as writers and journalists is to get beyond that and tell nuanced stories about who these people were and are.