Friday, July 21, 2023

Review: The Big Time (2023)

By Michael MacCambridge

Attention must be paid, as the saying goes, when Michael MacCambridge has a new book out. 

The veteran author and editor has a good-sized string of success stories to his credit over the years. He's written "America's Game," "Chuck Noll" and - one of my personal favorites - "The Franchise," a history of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Now MacCambridge takes on a bigger subject: sports in the '70s. "The Big Time" is thorough, well done and interesting ... as usual.

Take it from someone who was there, the Seventies were a time that shaped the modern world of sports. After a couple of generations in which sports were a connected series of mom-and-pop operations, a pair of developments changed everything. 

The first involves the relationship between the players and their bosses. That covers a variety of areas, but two in particular come to mind. The first is the legal ground rules for leagues in the form of collective bargaining. Through a variety of ways, the players started to have more of a say in determining their professional future. Free agency arrived in baseball in 1976, and that led to an explosion of interest and money for all concerned - as opposed to the gloom and doom predicted by owners at the time. The other major sports eventually followed along, usually after some painful moments in the courts. The days of "you'll play where we tell you to play, and you'll take the money we want you to have" were over for good.

Part two of that concept involves African Americans. Keep in mind that even in the late 1960s, the national championship team in college football did not have a Black player on its roster. There were a few Black players who had started at quarterback or middle linebacker - supposedly the most cerebral positions on the roster. There were no African American head coaches or managers. Muhammad Ali started the decade as something of an outcast; he finished it as an American hero. The list goes on from there, but you get the idea. Progress was slow, and it's still too slow in many ways, but at least change had begun.

The other development involved women. In some cases, women weren't allowed to participate at all in certain athletics. It was believed that it wasn't feminine, and/or that strenuous physical activity would somehow damage some delicate body parts. When they did get to play some sports, they were decidedly second-class citizens. In tennis, for example, the prize-money distribution was terribly imbalanced. 

Title IX changed all of that, of course. Suddenly, universities had to achieve something close to parity in athletic opportunities by gender. Billie Jean King led that fight in many ways, and not just in tennis. You can still hear the screaming by administrators from that era, and it gets more tone-deaf as the days go by. The funny part is that once women started playing sports, they started watching sports of all types as well ... increasing the fan base, and thus raising revenues, in the process. The administrators didn't mind that part. 

There is a lot of ground to be covered here, and MacCambridge can't spend too much time in terms of pages hitting all of it. So the book is something of a survey of the landscape in the decade. The big events are covered - the King-Riggs tennis match, the Seitz decision on baseball free agency, Monday Night Football, the rise and fall of some new leagues, etc. MacCambridge covers them well enough to get the points across. The author also has found plenty of interesting little moments and facts to drop into the conversation that are quite fresh today and add some perspective to the discussion. 

I found the story of the AIAW to be particularly interesting, as it has been undercovered over the years. That was the group that banded together to start competitions to determine champions in certain women's sports, most notably basketball. It wasn't easy. Eventually, the idea was swallowed up by the NCAA - which probably was inevitable. It wasn't the idealist result that the AIAW hoped to achieve, but it was progress. 

Some of the material here will be familiar to those who lived through it or who have read about those key moments. Others on the young side may be a difficult sell. But those in the sweet spot of the group that wants to learn about the turning points in the story of "How did we get here?" (thank you, David Byrne), "The Big Time" will work just fine.

Four stars

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