Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the 80's Created the Modern Athlete by Michael Weinreb
Gotham Books 2010.
Bigger than the Game is an outstanding treatise on the self-aggrandizement of the modern athlete. The author chose the year 1986 as somewhat of a watershed year. 1986 saw Bo Jackson play two professional sports; a steroid laden and overrated linebacker at the University of Oklahoma, Brian Bozworth, become the face of the college football; the cocaine induced death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias; and the crowning of the Chicago Bears as NFL champions behind the brash quarterback Jim McMahon, the outspoken coach Mike Ditka, and everyone's darling 330-plus pounder, William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
The theme of this book is how the modern athlete in the media age has become bigger than the sports they play. It's about narcissist self promotion, the breakdown of the team concept where there is only "I" rather than "we." Or, as the dust jacket says, it was "the era when athletes evolved from humble and honest to brash and branded." There is certainly a little hyperbole to this description as there are scores of athletes in all eras that fit this mold, but there was not a 24 hour news cycle and the Internet for the greatest superstars to rise to such fame (or infamy).
After reading this book, it is evident that we should have predicted the steroid scandals that have wracked baseball, track and field, and cycling; the despicable display of self adulation in the Lebron James reality TV hype surrounding his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers; the sniping between superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal; the Iverson-type athletes with great talent that can't seem to find a way to play for anything other than themselves, thus never fulfilling championship potential; the criminality of college athletes with the University of Miami football team being Exhibit A and B; and even the tiresome retirement saga of Brett Favre. Maybe it didn't all start in 1986, but the stories the author tells are a prelude of what came after.
The book centers mainly on four athletes with ESPN and the advent of 24 hour sports coverage in the foreground of the revolution. First, Jim McMahon, the "punky QB" in the clunky title, is a fascinating case of self promotion and thumbing his nose at authority, especially because he readily admits that he did and does care. He went to Brigham Young University for one thing and one thing only: to start at quarterback for the football team.
He didn't attend to get an education or graduate, and he certainly didn't go for any religious purposes. In fact, he almost openly flaunted the rules, drinking and carousing his way through a solid college career. And then, with the Bears, he was the unorthodox quarterback who defied and fought with his coach, thumbed his nose at NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, but was winner. And that's all that mattered.
Brian Bozworth, the self-admitted steroid laden Oklahoma Sooners linebacker spent much of his college career trying to gain attention. He sported a Mohawk, constantly taking his helmet off to play to the cameras. That, paired with his brash mouth, made him one of the faces of college football. Of course, he was a high draft pick in the NFL and was a complete bust. Bozworth built an image that had little substance, other than steroids behind it. I will never forget the game where Bo Jackson ran over "The Boz" on national television.
And perhaps the saddest story is the untimely cocaine induced death of Len Bias. Weinreb completely dispatches all the myths surround Bias's death. It was clear from who he hung out with and those who knew and talked about him that he was not a first time cocaine user, but appears to have at least been an occasional, recreational user of the drug. After being drafted by the Boston Celtics he went on a cocaine binge that killed him. Len Bias may have been a great player, but a certain myth built up around his innocence, suggesting even naivety, that doesn't stand up in reality.
Bo Jackson is mostly a foil to all this. Jackson was a quiet, mostly unassuming personality who chose baseball over football but ultimately decided he wanted to play both, and did. His rise to fame from a poor, rural childhood was marked by a shyness and lack of desire for the spotlight. But he parlayed his fame into endorsement opportunities long after his untimely retirement from sports because of an unfortunate, freaky hip injury. The ability to be a relevant marketing personality long after his career was over could have only happened in a burgeoning electronic era.
Despite the unfortunate choice of title, this book is very readable and bring back memories for those whose formative years were the mid-1980s. While ultimately the theme of the book is a darker one, for better or worse, we live in the era that might not have started exactly in 1986, but certainly that year is as good as any to point to the beginning of the aggrandizement of the modern athlete.