We got a chance to check out the new release “Bigger Than the Game,” by Michael Weinreb, a very good new book about the players of the 1980’s that made the games as big as they are today. We also had a chance to ask Michael some questions about the book – which can be ordered by clicking HERE.
Here’s our interview with the books author Michael Weinreb:
1. What made you decide to write a book around the athletes of the 1980’s?
A couple of things: First off, those were my formative years, so for some reason all my memories of that era seem particularly sharp and full of emotion. But I think maybe there’s a reason for that—I think the athletes of that era were the first to really embrace the camera and the spotlight. The rise of companies like ESPN and Nike allowed for a new kind of personality to arise, and so you had the ’85 Bears, and you had Brian Bosworth, and you had Air Jordan and Bo Knows. It was all about excess, and there’s nothing more fun than writing about excess. No one had really looked at the era through the lens of sports. So I guess I kind of wanted to write a sports-heavy version of Bonfire of the Vanities or Wall Street.
2. Was there a particular player of the 1980’s that caught your eye when writing the book?
There were several: Bo Jackson is a focal figure, in part because his story had never been told in-depth outside of his own autobiogrpahy, and also because he’s such a fascinating character. There were a couple of years in the late ‘80s where Bo was the most famous athlete in the world, and he’s probably the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century—at least, he was the first to do all these unbelievable things on camera. And he wanted to do it all, which is such a metaphor for the age; and then he got hurt and retire and just faded into mythology.
I also really enjoyed tracing the story of Jim McMahon, because he was essentially the catalyst of that ’85 Bears team, which is one of those cultural moments we’d never witnessed before and probably won’t ever witness again, because the ideas of sports marketing and imagery were just begining to be widely understood. And McMahon was just such an organic, authentic punk, who became a star because he fit into that MTV ethic.
3. Do you think the death of Len Bias woke up players in terms of drug use among athletes?
In a way, I suppose it did (as did the death of Don Rogers a week later). In a way, it woke up a lot of America, for better or for worse—Bias’s death also caused a bit of an overreaction in terms of drug laws passed by the federal government and media perception of the crack epidemic. In terms of athletes, I think drug testing probably had a big impact, too, and just the end of cocaine as a glamor drug; but it did seem like Bias was another guy whose mythology—even though it’s been exaggerated over the years, as I explore in the book—probably did affect an entire generation. Then again, steroid use started up around this same time, which raised a whole other ethical quandary. So there’s always something.
4. How did ESPN change the way America looked at Pro and college Athletes?
Once SportsCenter started to hit its stride in the mid-80s, I think it changed a lot of things. It changed our perception of athletes, since we were able to see them on a daily basis; and it changed athletes perceptions of themselves, because they were now able to play toward the SportsCenter highlights and the nicknames and everything else. Without all this television exposure, sports would be completely different today. Athletes would behave differently. Fans would behave differently. It’s addictive for athletes, and it’s addictive for us. If someone told me they’d pay me several hundred thousand dollars to go back to watching one or two football games a week, I don’t know if I could do it.
5. Did you have a favorite Athlete in the 1980’s? Did that opinion change after writing the book?
Well, I was a Penn State football fan, and I write about Penn State as kind of the polar opposite of everything that happened in that era. Specifically, a quarterback named John Shaffer, who lost only one game in his college career but was otherwise incredibly ordinary. Shaffer once hurt his shoulder giving a high-five. I kind of loved that as a contrast to, say, Brian Bosworth, whose whole schtick was about embracing excess.
I also loved Randall Cunningham, though I didn’t get a chance to write about him. I think he and Bo Jackson both brought a style and verve to pro football that was almost unprecedented.
6. Now that you look back, what player do you think had the biggest impact on the 1980’s?
In the long term, it’s Jordan. Everyone else is a distant second. But I do think that within the moment, Bo Jackson had a pretty huge impact on the future, too. I mean, his Tecmo Bowl character alone deserves a book.