Locker-Room Liberty

Athletes who helped shape our times and the economic freedom that enabled them.

Namath: A Biography, by Mark Kriegel, New York: Viking, 512 pages, $27.95

September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration, by Willia href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1579547648/reasonmagazineA/">The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, by Oscar Robertson, New York: Rodale, 342 pages, $24.95

The 1970s have experienced a remarkable national rehabilitation. The long-derided Me Decade, which produced such cultural bummers as radical-chic terrorism, The Love Boat, and Raquel Welch disco records, is now routinely celebrated as a creative golden era for film, television, music, literature, and more.

Peter Biskind's 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls cemented the now-conventional wisdom that early-'70s mavericks such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola saved Hollywood with a burst of wild-eyed innovation. Rolling Stone's recent list of the top 500 albums of all time contained a whopping 190 from the decade the magazine once tried to wash its hands of. TV, even while being bitterly satirized in films such as Network, spent the '70s blowing through genre restrictions and political stereotypes with shows such as All in the Family, The Rockford Files, and Soap. A generation's journalistic lions--Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Tom Wolfe, recent suicide Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam--produced their best nonfiction work during the era of leisure suits, sideburns, and price controls.

As the arts breached new boundaries and identities, so did society at large, unleashing onto the world an explosion of casual sex, drug use, marginal political movements, and experimental living arrangements. Looking back a quarter of a century later, people have usually chalked up the era's famous restlessness and individualism to external stimuli: Watergate, FM radio, the bloody end to the Vietnam War, a general hangover from the tumultuous 1960s.

But another, less-acknowledged corner of the culture has long deserved more credit for encouraging individual freak flags to fly: the wide and wild world of sports. Operating in a subculture far more socially conservative than those surrounding the professional arts, athletes of the mid-to-late '60s and '70s forced their reluctant and occasionally hostile audiences to confront issues of race, war, and free expression, and we are all better for their efforts.

Muhammad Ali opposed Vietnam and the military draft years before it was cool, while encouraging a generation of kids to give themselves new names and manipulate the formerly all-powerful media. Three decades before metrosexual was a word, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath shocked male football fans by parading around in mink coats, posing as an "Olivetti Girl" in a sexually charged typewriter ad, and filming commercials for pantyhose. Knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton ripped the lid off of professional baseball's Ward Cleaver packaging with his pussy-and-pills 1970 memoir Ball Four; two years later Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich became the most famous wife swappers in the country. Bill Walton convinced the notoriously square UCLA coach John Wooden that smoking dope and attending Grateful Dead shows could be every bit as crucial to the legendary motivator's "Pyramid of Success" as hard work and respecting your teammates (provided you could still shoot 21 for 22 in the NCAA finals). And just about every star of the time had to grapple on a daily basis, in full view of the newly national television audience, with America's combustible conflict between black and white.

In a single generation--between John Kennedy's assassination and the fall of Saigon--the archetype for the pro athlete was transformed from lantern-jawed Midwesterners like Mickey Mantle to pot-gobbling longhairs like Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Earthbound sidemen like Bob Cousy found their game passed over by skywalking soloists like Dr. J. The era of Johnny Unitas buzz-cuts and Jackie Robinson no-comments was replaced by athletes who looked, played, and spoke however they damn well pleased, injecting creativity and innovation on the field while puncturing mythologies and ditching racist baggage outside the stadium walls.

A key and under-credited reason for this social deregulation of sports had to do with the economics of the games. In 1960 professional athletes in the three major sports (Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League) were literally owned by their teams, like race horses, for as long as and on whatever terms the teams wanted. This was known in baseball as the "reserve clause" (and in the other two sports as the "option clause"), and for generations owners had successfully convinced Congress that the clause's competition-suppressing impact should not be considered an antitrust violation, because sports weren't businesses (despite the teams' often vast profits). As a result, if players didn't like their contracts, all they could do was complain to the press or quit, and in the latter case no other team could hire them away.

This system came under sustained attack from the players of all three sports in the mid-1960s, coinciding almost perfectly with their newfound willingness to speak and act out. By 1976, after long and bloody fights, athletes had finally won the right to become free agents, able to sign new contracts with any team after their current deals expired. Combined with the explosion of live satellite television and the short-lived presence of competing professional leagues in basketball and football, the fight for free agency jacked up salaries more than tenfold and put more swagger in the players' steps.

The direct link between economic freedom and unfettered self-expression is the unarticulated subtext of the many biographies of stars from this era. Mark Kriegel's widely praised Namath and William Kashatus' September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies and Racial Integration dig up example after example of contractual bargaining power enabling truly free speech, which in turn thrilled, challenged, and outraged the public and the press. This theme is even more explicit when the athletes tell their own tales, as in basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson's The Big O.

Without his record-breaking $400,000 contract--made possible only by the brief, competitive presence of the American Football League--Joe Namath might never have bent genders, hosted his own weirdo talk show (in which a typical episode included Truman Capote and boxer Rocky Graziano talking with sportswriter Dick Schaap about the Vietnam War while swilling booze in coffee cups), or eloquently defended his God-given right to get wasted whenever the hell he pleased. Without hard-fought financial security, Phillies slugger Dick Allen probably wouldn't have had the confidence to bark back against the foul racism and violent hostility he faced in Little Rock and then Philadelphia. (And without that notorious Philly experience, black St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood might have accepted his 1969 trade for Allen, rather than challenge the reserve clause all the way up to the Supreme Court, indirectly ushering in the era of free agency.)

On the field, the newly confident self-expression manifested itself not just in the decade's extravagant facial hair and afros, but also in the style and quality of play. In the NBA, the heavily coached, collegiate tactics of pick-and-rolls and two-handed set shots gave way to Daryl Dawkins' backboard-shattering Chocolate Thunder dunks, Pistol Pete Maravich's inspired improvisations, and a thrilling style of up-tempo fast-break basketball. In baseball, the exciting stolen base play came back from the dead; half-deranged characters like Thurman Munson and Billy Martin snarled their way to championships, and pitchers like Luis Tiant and Mark "the Bird" Fidrych converted physical eccentricity into remarkable success.

But the players' truly lasting impact may have been on society as a whole. One of the first hit rap singles ever was "Basketball" by Kurtis Blow. A generation of kids grew up wanting not only to hit like Mickey Mantle but to dress like Walt Frazier, dance like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, wear their hair like Oscar Gamble, pontificate like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and ride Harleys like John Matuzak. Rebels had taken over the house of squares, and you no longer needed to drop out to tune in. You could just as easily be an All-American.

Joe Namath and Dick Allen have had astonishingly similar lives, like the black and white sides of the same coin. Both were born in small Pennsylvania factory towns, Allen in 1942, Namath in 1943. Both came from broken homes with adoring, disciplinary mothers (as did Oscar Robertson). Namath and Allen were legendary three-sport high school athletes who led their teams to state championships in sports different from the ones they would play professionally. Both would go on to sign their sport's richest contracts, flirt with championships at a tender age, alienate their teammates with selfish and outrageous behavior, win MVP awards, retire and then unretire, draw the wrath of Richard Nixon, and degenerate into paranoid alcoholism, each in roughly the same order.

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