Turning Childhood Memories into Formidable Reporting:
A Q&A with Michael Weinreb
In Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete, author Michael Weinreb examines the rise of the media savvy athlete, using four superstar athletes from that era (Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Jim McMahon, and Len Bias) to frame his narrative.
It’s not so much a sports book as a fine piece of cultural reporting, which is a giant reason why I wanted to interview Weinreb. It’s his second compelling non-fiction book that just happens to be about sports. His first effort, Game of Kings, was an insightful, award-winning look at a championship high school chess team from New York.
In this interview (conducted via e-mail) Weinreb talks eloquently and thoughtfully about the evolution of the modern athlete, the evolution of sports writing, and offers suggestions for sports books that any reader will love.
Bigger Than the Game is available for sale now.
Pete Croatto: How did this idea for Bigger Than the Game come about, and what made you decide to focus your narrative on Bosworth, Jackson, McMahon, and Bias?
Michael Weinreb: It grew out of my formative years in the 1980s. I was thirteen years old in 1986, and I was a Penn State football fan, and Penn State played twice for the national championship, once at the beginning of ’86 and once on the second day of ’87. They were an extremely straight-laced program, and the teams they played were not, and so when they played Oklahoma and then Miami, the games were sold as these match-ups [of] good versus evil. So I wanted to go back and re-explore those games, and then I started exploring the culture at large, and the uniqueness of that era—Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is Good” speech, and Just Say No, and the zenith of ’80s excess and individualism. I wanted to find a few characters who embodied that era and its mythology, all of whom represented excess in different ways, shapes, or forms. A lot of the literature I really loved when I was younger were books about that era—Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero City, Bonfire of the Vanities—and so I suppose I kind of wanted to write the sports version of that.
PC: The one thing that strikes me is that none of these men—with the exception of Bias, who died so young—ever became consistent all-stars. With that said, do you think it’s difficult for someone to be a superstar athlete and a media superstar?
MW: Not necessarily. I did make that decision, to write about people who didn’t quite live up to their potential, somewhat consciously; I think one of the consequences of that era was that we were veering into new territory, in terms of the way athletes marketed and branded themselves, in the way they were seen by the media and the public at large, and so I wanted to pick people who were especially impacted by the moment. In many cases, you could argue that this tendency toward excess—both literal and figurative--helped lead to their downfall.
PC: With the media presence even greater now than it was 1985 and 1986, is the line blurring between those two designations? To wit, I feel that a lot people know Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco more from their TV presence than from what they’ve done on a football field. Is that good or bad?
MW: This could just be the nostalgia talking, but there was a level of innocence to things that isn’t there now. Everything is so much more calculated now; I think Chad [Ochocinco] is essentially a harmless goofball, but he just seems so focused on creating an image that it seems kind of hollow. I think that’s what happened with LeBron [James], and, in some sense, with Tiger [Woods]—when you try so hard to carefully manage and control your public persona, and then something happens that dispels that image, people are going to realize that what you gave us was pretty paper-thin in the first place.
PC: Do you think people are ever going to get fed up with this media saturation (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, sports websites, TV channels) regarding today’s pro athletes?
MW: They’ll get fed up with it when the rest of us get fed up with it. Considering that I watch at least fourteen hours of football most weekends, I suppose I’m as much of a hypocrite as anyone else if I say it’s purely a bad thing.
PC:: You mentioned in the book that you relied a lot on back issues of Sports Illustrated for your research. In doing that, what were some of the changes you saw in the magazine now and how it is today?
MW: Well, obviously, there are a lot more long-form pieces and lengthy analysis than what you might see today. The writing staff is pretty legendary; this was [Rick] Reilly at his best, Gary Smith finding his voice, Bill Nack, Curry Kirkpatrick, etc. There are also more stories about pheasant hunting. And the men in the cigarette ads have an astounding amount of body hair. Though I do think SI has had a bit of renaissance in the past few years. I think they’ve gone back to what they do best, which is telling stories. Hopefully, there’s still a place for that.
PC: Did the evolution you depict in the book—Nike and ESPN and the birth of the media-savvy athlete—change sportswriting for the better or the worse?
MW: In general, for the worse, but it’s hard to know how much of that is due to the changes I write about—the shifting relationship of athlete and media, for instance—and how much is due to the evolution of media itself. Then again, I think in some ways sportswriting is the same as it’s ever been—it has the best pure writing you’ll find anywhere, and the absolute worst. The median may have been dragged down slightly, due to lack of space and the marginalization of print journalism, but the best stuff, in SI and GQ and ESPN.com and elsewhere, is still pretty great.
PC: One thing the book reminded me of was how much of an impact Len Bias’s death had in terms of drug legislation and scaring a nation straight. (I was eight at the time and not a basketball fan, so it didn’t really affect me.) Can you tell me how it affected you and your friends at the time?
MW: I write in the book about being thirteen years old, and hearing that Len Bias had done cocaine for the first time (which is apparently not true). From then on, whenever I thought about cocaine, whenever I heard about cocaine, I thought about Len Bias. He became a totem in the War on Drugs, and people thought he did crack cocaine (even though there’s no evidence he did), and this led to mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine usage, which were far more punitive than for powder cocaine, a disparity that is just now being rectified. His death became a really powerful myth, and the question is whether that mythology—like so much of Reagan-era mythology—was a positive or negative thing.
PC: Your first published book was a short story collection (Girl Boy Etc.). Do you have any plans to return to the genre, and are there any similarities in writing fiction and nonfiction?
MW: I would love to, but fiction doesn’t pay very well, and it’s really, really hard, so I want to find something that I’m committed to. I don’t know how many similarities there are, except that both use words—I feel like creating your own world in your own head seems like such an incredible burden that it’s intimidated the hell out of me for the past several years. If I can get past that block, I’d love to write a novel. It just takes so much confidence.
PC: For people who aren’t sports fans per se, why would they enjoy Bigger Than the Game?
MW: My hope is to write sports books that are really more about popular culture than they are about sports. There are great swaths of this book that have little or nothing to do with sports at all. One of my heroes is David Halberstam, because he wrote about sports in the same way he wrote about history or war or journalism. That’s what I wanted to do here. This is a book about American culture and media (and even politics, a little) more than it is a book about sports.
PC: Aside from Game of Kings (a great read by the way) what are three sports books that you think any reader would enjoy?
MW: There are some obvious choices, but I’ll choose a few that some people might not already know:
The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey: Maybe the best of those “year in the life of a team books.” A major inspiration for Kings.
War As They Knew It, by Michael Rosenberg: A study of the rivalry between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, and one of the few sports books I’ve read in recent years that actually incorporates history and cultural studies.
A False Spring, by Pat Jordan: I don’t particularly like baseball that much anymore, but this is one of the best books about failure I’ve ever read.
PC: Now that this book is finished what are your plans? Are you working on any book ideas now?
MW: I think I might have one more sports-ish book in me. Then I plan to start writing a novel about an angst-ridden teenage goblin.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.