Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: Bigger Than the Game

Michael Weinreb's Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete is a capsule look at the iconic athletes of the mid-1980's: Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Jim McMahon, Len Bias (focusing on his untimely death), and those Miami Hurricanes teams that faced first a Bosworth-less Oklahoma Sooners team and then a more traditional Penn State team in consecutive bowl games. The stories are all relatively familiar, to a greater or lesser degree, but Weinreb does a good job of relating them and even when I knew a story well, my attention never wavered. Unusually for a sports book, it's well-written and has an index, bibliography, and sufficient endnotes to look up a quote if you bother; I noticed only one error, when the co-author of McMahon's autobiography is identified on consecutive pages as Don Pierson and Bob Verdi (it was Verdi).

The problem, though, is I never thought Weinreb's book lived up to its subtitle. The modalities of fame may have changed, but to the extent that any of the athletes in the book were uniquely famous, Weinreb doesn't really show it. Rather, the book works best as a nostalgia trip. Like Weinreb, I was born in the 1970's (though he was born toward the beginning of the decade and me toward the end) and came of age in the 80's, and had memories of varying degrees of clarity about the figures in the book. In that context, I greatly enjoyed it, and if you're interested in a mid-1980's nostalgia trip, then I will commend Bigger Than the Game to you. If you have no interest in the time period, though, even in a well-done look, then you should feel no regret if you give Weinreb's work a pass.

UPDATE (9/15/10 2031 CT): Link I should have had in the original post: Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post. I didn't find the Reagan stuff as heavy-handed as Yardley did, and that kind of thing normally does bother me. Yardley's point is that the 80's were when the big money sports culture really took off is quite apt, and there's room for a book about that at the professional level (the Sperber books mentioned by Yardley are on my "to read, eventually" list).

UPDATE #2 (9/16/10 2248 CT): A couple more links: Weinreb's website and blog, plus an interview with Gelf Magazine.

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