Michael Weinreb wrote an excellent book titled “Bigger Than The Game.” For the book he looked at how the sports world that we know today was formed, or at least how it was heavily influenced by the culture of the 1980s.
Just the thesis of “Bigger Than The Game” is very interesting. Anytime that a writer is willing to look at sports from a different angle he should be applauded. Sports and society are hardly ever blended together for the topic of a book. Sure, they are often combined but they lean one way or the other (the majority of the time to a very large extent). This book hits both sides with equal intensity.
Weinreb also does it simultaneously. This adds to the difficulty. It is easier to focus on one topic then segue to the next. Weinreb should get great credit for this. Not only does he show that he is skillful but there is an added benefit to the reader. It makes for a much more interesting read.
Of course, there will always be critics. I loved the idea of the book and think that Weinreb surpassed even high expectations with his in-depth writing. However, if somebody didn’t like the book that is fine by me. Everybody can form their own opinions. That being said, I have a problem with one critic of the book. That critic is Jonathan Yardley.
Yardley came down hard on the book in his review for The Washington Post. Yardley is respected as a book critic but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to his criticism of the book in question.
As said, anybody can come to their own conclusions. That is if they deal with the facts and have valid criticisms. Yardley fails on a lot of thoughts that he questions Weinreb on.
Right away Yardley goes after Weinreb. He shows a bitterness towards Weinreb’s youth. This is identical to the way that Charles Pierce attacked Bill Simmons after reviewing Simmons’ recent book. Yardley sarcastically says that Weinreb should be forgiven for not knowing an apparent truth because he would have been too young to even know it in the first place. However, the time that Yardley is talking about is the basis for Weinreb’s book.
Just off this fact you can tell that Yardley has it out for Weinreb. He is not critiquing the book but instead insisting that he has greater knowledge than Weinreb just based on age. That is just the start of things to come. Yardley is getting warmed up before he really starts throwing the heat.
Yardley says that Weinreb “belabors” a point about Ronald Reagan to “wretched excess.” What Yardley fails to grasp is the fact that Weinreb believes this to be an important point in the whole scheme of things. Of course, then, it makes sense that Weinreb would focus so heavily on this. He didn’t just focus on sports within the book. Because he included politics and general societal attitudes he had to delve into this. Otherwise, the point might have gone over the head of the average football fan. Then he would have been criticized for not explaining himself.
Even though Yardley falls short on this, he gets even more extreme and makes less sense with his next issue with the book. He says that Weinreb didn’t pick the right athletes to make his major point in the book. Yardley clearly missed something here. He says that Michael Jordan was more of an example of what Weinreb was trying to describe than any of the athletes that were profiled.
However, he shows that he didn’t see the book for what it was by something he wrote at the end of the particular paragraph. He calls the players in the book an “exaggeration of reality.” That was what I thought Weinreb was getting at. The players he profiled were an exaggeration of how good they really were. That was the connection to Reagan. Did Yardley miss this? It was fake optimism epitomized. Weinreb couldn’t have picked better examples for this.
I never like when a sports guy is criticized by a non-sports guy. Sure they can be based on writing but not on ideas and actual sports knowledge. I say that because Weinreb shows his smarts when it comes to professional athletes. Yardley can’t stand up to him in that department. Anybody, even if they hate sports, will point to Michael Jordan as the greatest for any sports category.
Yardley probably doesn’t have a great sports IQ so he just throws Jordan into any debate involving athletic influence. Yardley goes with the easy target in Jordan. It should be mentioned that Yardley went to UNC (the same school as Jordan). Weinreb had an even better idea for his book and actually had to dig. Everybody has written about Jordan. That would be a boring book. Weinreb had a fresh idea and, I believe, hit it perfectly with evidence.
Showing that he is not a genius in the sports department, Yardley continues that there have been other “outlandish personalities” in sports (before and after the 80s) so he concludes that the guys profiled were nothing different. He is wrong here as well. Each of the players that he cites were different in their own way.
Barry Bonds, a guy that he makes as an example, is not in the same class as Jim McMahon or Brian Bosworth. The attitude that Weinreb is trying to get across is personified by those two. Yeah, there have always been characters but the 80s saw guys that ushered in a different attitude that has carried through to today.
Yardley also states that money was the big change from the 80s. He is correct to a point. The 80s did bring in money but I would argue that character was the biggest aspect. Joe Namath was the most controversial athlete until the 80s. Then these guys washed him away with what they did. Also, the 90s in fact were the decade where money became the big issue. Athletes salaries jumped by great amounts then. Look at any pro sport and you’ll see that. Yardley is correct for once when he says that college athletics lost its integrity a great deal in the 80s.
Yardley shows a bias at the end by saying that Reagan should not be blamed for the whole shift in attitude. You might remember that he was the one who said that Weinreb focused far too long on this point. If Yardley read his review he would have seen that contradiction. He calls it a “stretch” but that was the reason Weinreb tried to get that point across so intently.
That is the major problem with Yardley: He only takes known facts as valid arguments. Weinreb probably knew he wasn’t just laying out a book with already known information. Therefore he had to connect the dots. It took time and unconventional thinking.
Yardley, on the other hand, thinks only in absolutes. For example, Jordan was the greatest basketball player ever so he must have been the most influential. Also, Yardley probably thought Reagan was the greatest president ever because he was known to be so optimistic. Weinreb dug the open fields that nobody else bothered to and found the truths.