The Crackle Wonders: Michael Weinreb

Justin August 3, 2010 1

We’ve done a number of interviews on this site over the past couple of years or so.  We’ve spoken to former pro athletes, reporter, noted authors, sports writing legends and Pulitzer Prize winners. The subject of today’s interview, though, is the best we’ve ever had.

Michael Weinreb’s new book, “Bigger than the Game,” tackles a topic that’s near and dear to this site’s heart. The book tracks the rise of pro athlete as pop culture figure during the 1980’s, while making some detours into politics, the drug war and cable television.

And, frankly, his answers make us want to hang out with him. He just seems like a really cool guy.

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SCP: The book pinpoints 1986 as the fulcrum for when sports and pop culture shifted. Why that year?

MW: I grew up a college football fan—more specifically, a Penn State football fan—and I remember being obsessed by this good-versus-evil dichotomy between Penn State and Oklahoma when they played for the national championship at the beginning of ’86. And then the same thing happened, times ten, with Penn State and Miami at the beginning of ‘87. And so I started looking back at that time, and what that whole “good-versus-evil” trope was really about, and how completely insane it all was. I wrote a story about that Penn State-Miami game (which is still the highest-rated college football game ever) for ESPN.com. And I realized this time was essentially the cultural peak of the eighties: Reagan is at his most popular in late ’85 and early ’86, and then by the end of the year it all starts crashing down—the Challenger explodes, and Len Bias dies, and crack becomes a national panic, and Iran Contra goes public, and Wall Street implodes, and then the president starts forgetting everything. So I wanted to write a book about sports amid that subtext, and in turn describe that whole absurd eighties ethos and how so much of it carried over into today. And those months, from late ’85 to early ’87, seemed like the moment when a lot of these modern concepts set in with mainstream America, along with Falco and Mama’s Family.

SCP: You say Ronald Reagan was the perfect president for the times. Why? If he had lost to Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale would there have never been the The Boz?

MW: I don’t think sports exist in a vacuum. They’re as deeply affected by the overarching culture as anything else, and that whole Reaganomics anti-government/self-reliance line of reasoning fit perfectly with someone like Boz or Jim McMahon, who seemed to be purposely defying authority for the express purpose of succeeding in capitalistic terms, or with someone like Bo Jackson, who seemed determined to prove that he could do thingsd differently and still succeed, or someone like Len Bias, who dreamed of getting rich by playing basketball. So yeah, I have to imagine if Mondale had won, things would be very different. I’d probably be writing a biography of Tommy Kramer.

SCP: You set up Joe Paterno as the old school against Barry Switzer as the wave of the future. Well, Paterno’s still around and Switzer’s long gone. Should we read anything into that? Was the “new school” simply more disposable?

MW: Actually, I think it’s just the opposite. Paterno is the anomaly, and he grows more and more anomalous as he gets older and older and older and older. Sometimes I wonder if that’s one of the reasons he refuses to quit—because he still believes he can somehow change the culture. Of course it’s not going to happen; I mean, this is kind of a surface example, but the only coaches who wear ties on the sideline are coaches who are expressly paying tribute to Paterno. I’ll bet there’s not a single coach in America beside Paterno who would vote to reinstate freshman ineligibility if it came up for a vote tomorrow. The best player at the most successful college program of the decade managed to get his parents a house, and his coach either didn’t know or didn’t care. I mean, that’s pretty Switzeresque. In the long run, new school always wins. These days, it seems like kind of a miracle if Penn State or Notre Dame ever gets a BCS berth.

SCP: There’s a picture of Bo Jackson on the cover of your book. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover, but, frankly, I would have picked it up after seeing that picture no matter what it was about. So, 25 years later, why does Bo Jackson still remain such an alluring figure to me and people of my generation?

MW: It’s weird how often Bo kind of pops up in the background. He cuts across all strata. I was just reading an interview with a member of the band Sleigh Bells, and he’s obsessed with Bo Jackson, too. (The Tecmo Bo thing didn’t hurt his legacy, either.) I think what people forget (if they’re my age or older), or don’t realize (if they’re younger), is that for a time Bo Jackson was probably one of the five most famous people in America. The “Bo Knows” frenzy was absurd. It completely eclipsed Michael Jordan. The guy who came up with that campaign told me he used to see vendors selling bootleg T-shirts with the phrase “Bo Knows Your Mother.” The fucking New Yorker did a “Bo Knows” parody. Everybody loved Bo back then because he represented possiblity; he was the closest thing (beside maybe Reagan himself) that we had to a living myth—he climbed walls, and broke bats over his knee, and literally outran 11 guys on a football field, and bowled over The Boz and his obnoxious facade–and he came along at a time when advertisers and marketers were just learning to amplify mythology through the media.

SCP: Can you point back to 1986 to explain what’s going on with LeBron this summer?

MW: A friend of mine had a theory that the athletes of LeBron’s generation care more about succeeding as brands than they do about succeeding as athletes. That may be true, and you could see the seeds of it back then. When I talked to Bo Jackson, he told me he was thinking as a businessman, even back then; Jim McMahon admits that he wanted to capitalize on his fame so he could make enough money never to have to work a real job. And he hasn’t. Len Bias had taken out a loan to buy a new car before he even signed a pro contract. And maybe, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with that. Everybody wants to compare LeBron to Jordan, but what if Jordan (and Kobe) are the once-in-a-generation exceptions to the rule? What if, 98 percent of the time, the brand matters more than the game? What if getting absurdly rich and being absurdly famous is the real endgame for LeBron, and a championship is just a nice way to amplify those other things?

If we had the ability to conceptualize something like “The Decision” 25 years ago, somebody would have done it. The weird part of the LeBron thing is not the television show; it’s the questions about what happened in that Boston series, and why he seemed to purposefully stick it to a city that already had a serious inferiority complex.

SCP: Chuck Klosterman has a blurb on the back cover. He’s also discussed your book on his Twitter page. Can you explain why writers like you, Klosterman and Bill Simmons have decided to write so extensively on the role of sports as an indicator of the greater conditions of society? Did writers of previous generations tackle the same subjects?

MW: Well, I’ve been engaged in perpetual argument with Chuck since about 1997, so I suppose at least a few of these ideas generated from discussions we’ve had over various iterations of the NCAA Football video game (he has an inexplicable tendency to throw to the fullback; he’s like the Bob Devaney of the XBox). As talented as Chuck is, and as Simmons is—and as much as they’ve generated their own unique voices—I don’t think we’re the first to examine sports in this way. I think we all owe a debt to David Halberstam, because he was a serious writer who wrote books that put sports in a social context. If you read David Maraniss or Mark Kriegel or Michael Lewis or Michael Rosenberg’s War As They Knew It, I think they do the same thing. The two best things ESPN has ever done are the 30 for 30 series and SportsCentury, because they’re both ostensibly about sports, but they’re really about America.

SCP: Debbie Gibson or Tiffany? (Don’t say Tiffany)

MW: If I may revert to modernity: Ke$ha. Because, like, what if we are the aliens?

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