Namath: A Biography, by Mark Kriegel, Viking, 512 pages, $27.95
September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies, and Racial Integration, by William C. Kashatus, Penn State University Press, 280 pages, $26.95
The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, by Oscar Robertson, 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.
But there were two forks in the road--race and victory--that sent the men spiraling down different paths: Namath toward the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an indelible spot in the nation's pop history; Allen to the ignominy reserved for surly ingrates thought to have squandered their massive potential. Namath was white, devilishly charming, and had an accessibly average build; Allen was black, shyly brooding, and sported baseball's most imposing physique. Namath will forever be remembered for leading his team to a huge upset victory in Super Bowl III in 1969 after issuing a brazen guarantee; if Allen is remembered at all, it will be for his role in the most infamous late-season collapse in Major League history--when the 1964 Phillies blew a six-game lead with 12 to play.
Coming out of Pennsylvania, there was little doubt which of the two was destined to be a screw-up: Namath. Joe, the grandson of Hungarian immigrants, was already such a notorious partier and pool hustler as a teen that even the never-say-a-bad-word-about-our-kids local sportswriter felt forced to pen a story addressing rumors that the Hungarian Howitzer "sawed a cow in half in the auditorium of the high school, punched a pregnant woman, punched a school administrator, bombed school board members' houses, poured gasoline on a fifth grader and set him afire, [and] threw eggs at Richard Nixon." And that was before Namath, who had Harlem Globetrotter?style skills on the hardwood, walked off court in the middle of a varsity basketball game to protest his coach's old-fashioned pass first, never dunk dogma. His grades were never any good, and he flubbed the SATs so badly (scoring below 740) that he couldn't get into the University of Maryland, whose football program was geared toward grooming quarterbacks. Instead, mostly through inattention (and his mother's insistence that he attend college rather than accept a $50,000 signing bonus to play pro baseball), Namath headed down South in 1961 to the University of Alabama, home of the legendary ball-busting coach Bear Bryant, who almost never called pass plays.
In Tuscaloosa the flashy Northerner lived in close proximity to civil rights history as it unfolded. Coach Bryant's close personal friend George Wallace was elected governor in 1962 on a campaign of "Segregation Forever." (The Crimson Tide would not field a black varsity player until 1971.) At a time when deadly riots were being set off all over the South by the mere fact of black students' attempting to attend a university, Namath was "no more than twenty feet from where Governor Wallace stood, theatrically, at the entrance of Foster Auditorium" to protest Vivian Malone's breaking of the University of Alabama's color barrier. Though the quarterback and Malone were friendly, Namath author Kriegel, a former sports columnist for the New York Daily News, insists "there is nothing to suggest that Namath ever questioned Bryant on the issue of race….He belonged to no movement. He was a kid playing football."
Dick Allen did not have the choice to opt out of racial politics. In 1963, at the age of 20, the shy Northerner became the first professional black baseball player in Arkansas history, suiting up for Little Rock, the new Triple-A affiliate of the Phillies, who had signed Allen out of high school. The Phillies had their own troubled racial past--they were the last National League team to integrate, in 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers --and by all accounts did little to prepare young Richie for the verbal brutality of Southern racism in his last stop before the big leagues.
On his first day at the ballpark, Allen was greeted with signs saying "NIGGER GO HOME," had to watch the famously segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and found a death threat on his car windshield after the game. "Between innings, coming in from the outfield to the dugout, I would hear the voices--'Hey, Chocolate Drop' or 'Watch your back, nigger,'" Allen recalled in his 1989 autobiography Crash. The local paper wrote things like "he performs…with the typical loose all-out exuberance of his race." The discrimination in Little Rock, Kashatus explains, left Allen understandably "bitter and distrustful of the Phillies organization."
But unlike the bitter, eventually lionized black superstars of the generation just previous--Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Jim Brown--Allen had the financial clout to do something besides swallow his anger and smolder. His initial signing bonus of $70,000 was the largest ever given to a black baseball player. (Robinson, 15 years earlier, received a miserly $3,500.) Since the Phillies had been terrible since 1950, Allen did not fear losing his job. "I guess being the star black player for the Phillies also made me a threat to white people, especially since I said what was on my mind," Allen tells Kashatus. "They weren't used to that."
And boy, could Dick Allen swing the bat (which, at 42 ounces, was the heaviest in baseball). His rookie season was by far the best in the last century of baseball. Playing in all 162 games, he batted .318 with 29 home runs and 91 runs batted in, leading the National League in runs, triples, extra-base hits, and total bases, and finishing among the top seven in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, doubles, homers, and walks. Allen's career numbers (.292 lifetime average, 351 home runs), while impressive, have been dulled over time by the coincidence that his career (1963?77) coincided precisely with baseball's lowest-scoring period since the pre-1920 Dead Ball era. When adjusted for historical context, Allen's offense per 162 games is among the top 20 in baseball history, according to leading analysts such as Bill James.
But unlike Namath--or at least, unlike Namath in his one famous game--Allen lost when it counted. Kashatus, a Philadelphia historian and baseball author, was a childhood fan of that star-crossed 1964 team, and his book picks up pace when describing the game-to-game September meltdown engineered by the intense young Phillies manager Gene Mauch.
Unluckily for Kashatus, the Richie Allen, '64 Phillies, and racial integration of his subtitle did not converge tidily enough to explain the "September swoon." Allen played great that year despite some shoddy defense (he committed 41 errors at third base, a total that has only been topped once since) and was mostly a good citizen. Philadelphia race relations did tear apart the city--riots near the ballpark on August 28 eventually claimed two lives and destroyed 600 businesses--but racial strife didn't seem to affect the team much until years later. The Phillies collapsed in 1964 because of injuries, bad luck, and managerial panic.
The famously vocal and unforgiving Philadelphia fans began looking for a scapegoat to blame for the slow 1960s decline of a once-promising young team, whose bench included such future stars as Ferguson Jenkins and Alex Johnson. In his second season, Richie Allen volunteered for the job by punching his largest white teammate in the head and complying with his manager's fine-backed order not to explain his side of the story.
Baseball's reserve clause was even more odious than the option clauses of the NBA and NFL, because players who retired were still owned by their former teams, while in the other two sports they could sign new deals after waiting one year. As Phillies catcher Clay Dalrymple explains simply to Kashatus, "Management owned you in those days." And baseball didn't have an upstart competitive league driving up salaries through bidding wars. The average baseball salary in 1966 was $16,000, or just around double the average American salary (in 2005, the average baseball salary is higher than $2.5 million, or $450,000 in 1966 dollars). Many clubs of the time (though not the Phillies) "wrote clauses into the contracts of their black players forbidding them to 'participate in any freedom marches.'" Negotiating leverage was limited to holding out for more money (a tactic available mostly to stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale), making a stink in the generally unsympathetic press, or simply walking away from baseball.
In 1965 a career path already diverted by bigotry and failure took its decisive turn as Dick Allen raced into the batting cage before a game and knocked down slugger Frank Thomas with a left hook to the jaw. Thomas, known for antagonizing his teammates, had repeatedly taunted Allen by calling him either "Richie X" or "Muhammad Clay" (accounts differ). Thomas, a huge man at the end of his career, got up and whacked Allen's shoulder with his bat. After that day's game, Thomas was dropped from the team, and manager Mauch threatened Allen with a $2,500 fine--12.5 percent of his $20,000 salary--if he spoke about the incident to the press.
This threat, which Allen had no right to appeal, became a publicity death sentence when Mauch told reporters, "I had to choose between a thirty-six-year-old veteran who was hitting .250 and a twenty-three-year-old power hitter who was hitting .348, the kind of player you see once in a lifetime." Mauch, who had a testy relationship with his black players, had already been irritated by his star's increasingly prima donna?like behavior, while Allen mistakenly thought the controversy would blow over.
From that moment on, Allen's life in Philadelphia was hell. Fans threw so many bottles and batteries at his head that he wore a batting helmet in the field, earning the nickname Crash. Every year he would hold out for more money, sign huge contracts (he was a skilled negotiator), and demand daily to be traded, a request that took five excruciating years to be met. He began showing up at the park drunk, smoking cigarettes in the dugout, earning suspensions, and scratching out messages like "boo" in the infield dirt. When he was finally traded for Curt Flood in 1969 he said: "It was like a form of slavery. Once you step out of bounds they'll do everything possible to destroy your soul." He could still hit the cover off the baseball, but he was missing 20 to 40 games a year due to suspensions and injuries.
Allen's painful tenure in Philadelphia and his trade to St. Louis sparked the legal fight that indirectly changed the face of pro sports. Flood, a marvelous player in his own right, refused the trade at least partly because of Allen's experience, challenging the reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court in 1974. Although he lost, the owners' winning argument contained a loophole that allowed the clause's fate to be decided in collective bargaining with the Players Union, where it was finally negotiated out of existence the next year. By then, fat television contracts and the skilled arm twisting of union president Marvin Miller had already ratcheted up salaries exponentially, and the individualistic expression that 1970s baseball became famous for was in full flower.
Emboldened by the money, ballplayers began to get freaky. Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD. Gaylord Perry let everyone know he was throwing a spitball. Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley, a shrewd huckster, cashed in on the counterculture by offering his talented players bonuses to grow luxurious mustaches and accept outlandish nicknames like "Catfish" Hunter and "Vida" Blue. After winning three consecutive World Series, however, the cheapskate A's owner lost his team through free agency, and rebel players like Reggie Jackson went on to charge up several other contentious (and successful) clubhouses. What started out as a decade belonging to the clean-shaven, dress-coded Cincinnati Reds ended up with the free-spirited, sartorially splendiferous We-Are-Family Pittsburgh Pirates, whose championship club disintegrated into a spiral of cocaine abuse.
What Curt Flood was to baseball--the name on the lawsuit that helped change his sport--Oscar Robertson was to basketball. And The Big O also changed the game by the way he played. Robertson v. NBA, while much less ballyhooed than Flood's futile fight, was actually more effective. As head of the Players Union (which he presided over for 10 years), Robertson challenged the legality of the option clause, arguing that it represented a conspiracy to restrain competition for labor. The NBA finally settled in 1976, two years after Robertson retired, eliminating the option clause and creating free agency. This agreement--and not Robertson's triple-double 1961?62 season (when he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists), or his 1971 championship with the Milwaukee Bucks--is the crowning chapter in The Big O. "I am so proud of what we accomplished," he writes. "Years of struggle were justified, generations of players vindicated."
Robertson, like Dick Allen, was in the 'tweener generation of black athletes: between stoic barrier breakers like Bill Russell and economically and culturally liberated free spirits like Julius Erving. He was sensitive enough to recognize that racism was an anti-American outrage, proud enough never to accept it, and financially successful enough to live out his autumn years in the same town that once treated him so shabbily.
Robertson was born in small-town Tennessee and grew up a quiet and serious kid in the black part of Indianapolis. "In those days," he writes, "if you were black, you were told you weren't smart. You were bad. You were inferior." Still, he was mostly insulated from it, until basketball took him to places most black folk didn't usually go. "Oh sure, racism was present in my life, but it was sort of like polluted air," he says. "I inhaled it and did not realize the damage it was doing." He attended segregated Crispus Attucks High School, a memory he treasures; lost in the playoffs his sophomore year to the small-town Milan team immortalized by the movie Hoosiers; and then won the state championship as a junior. Even then, the experience was bittersweet: He noticed right away that the parade route through downtown Indianapolis went through different neighborhoods than Milan's did. "It is hard to forgive them for this," he writes. "I try, but I can't." Attucks went undefeated his senior year, repeating as champion, and Robertson was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball, then the most prestigious high school award in the country.
By that time he had already endured numerous death threats, seen his star opponents billed as the Great White Hope, and watched his talented older brother's career get screwed by white coaches. "Although I am not writing this book to relate every injustice I've suffered," he says, "it's simply impossible to tell my story without talking about race." In college Robertson desegregated the University of Cincinnati's basketball team, and was one of the first-ever blacks to attend the school. "I was a shy country boy, and the last role I was ready for was a barrier breaker," he writes. Yet that's exactly how his life would play out. Whenever he was faced with indignities such as having to sleep in a different dormitory from his white teammates, he would leverage his star status by threatening to quit if it ever happened again.
He was College Player of the Year as a sophomore and helped lead a historic 1960 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Rome. As an NBA rookie drafted by the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), Robertson broke several barriers in his first contract negotiation by using the leverage of threatening to play instead for the Harlem Globetrotters. Although agents were banned back then, he was represented by a lawyer, who negotiated unprecedented clauses preventing a trade without his consent and giving him a percentage of ticket sales.
Conditions for other players were still lousy: no health insurance, no pension, no money for exhibition games. Robertson became president of the NBA Players Union and filed suit to challenge the option clause. Meanwhile a new television contract, plus the appearance of the rival ABA, meant salaries started to take off, and with them individualism.
"Creativity became a more distinct part of the game," Robertson writes. "The ABA's reputation as an outlaw, playground league had its role in opening up the game….Now there was a new breed."
Robertson, though schooled in basketball fundamentals, was part of that new breed simply by virtue of being six feet, five inches tall yet able to play point guard. He played like Earvin Johnson two decades before Magic entered the league, averaging a triple-double over a five-year period before the phrase had even been invented. Time magazine made him the cover boy for an article about how the game was changing for the better. "I represented a step forward in the game's evolution," he writes.
He represented a huge step forward in the evolution of the sport's business as well, winning the fight for free agency, which paved the way for basketball to become a global juggernaut in the 1980s. In just a generation, players went from being petrified of speaking their minds--"No owner was going to have on his team an outspoken black man making political statements," Robertson writes. "My career would be over; it was that simple"--to cutting rap albums, supporting Muslim organizations, and writing books about race in America.
By then, a lifetime full of race- and union-based slings and arrows had caused Robertson to see plots behind most every setback, making his name nearly synonymous with bitter whenever he's mentioned on ESPN. But while this feeling bubbles up in The Big O, so does his evident pleasure at owning a series of businesses in Cincinnati and helping a new generation play and live how they see fit.
Sadly, the most carefree and expressive player of the three biographies, Joe Namath, is the one who has become the most pathetic. Dick Allen, almost unbelievably, eventually forgave everybody (including himself) and has become a popular fan liaison in Philadelphia. Broadway Joe, however, is a national laughingstock after drunkenly trying to paw a female ESPN sideline reporter on national TV in December 2003.
Of the three books, Namath is by far the most ambitious in scope and therefore ultimately the most frustrating, because author Kriegel tries to get inside the head of a spectacular flameout without having any access to his subject. (Namath's brutish consigliere, Jimmy Walsh, demanded "a financial relationship and editorial control.") Along the way, though, Kriegel brings terrific insight into the perfect confluence of Namath's roguish charm, the dawn of sport's television era, and the carnival-barker creation of the American Football League, led in part by Jets owner (and former legendary MCA talent scout) Sonny Werblin.
Namath, who won only two postseason games in his career, nevertheless continues to parlay his famous Super Bowl III performance into a lifetime of paid speaking gigs and a generation's good will. As a groundbreaking, society-shaping vaudeville act, he has few equals in the world of sport. He was the first major star to rake in major endorsement income, he opened several nightclubs ("Bachelors III" being the most famous), consorted with mobsters (precipitating his first major "retirement," when the NFL balked at his behavior), starred in movies, showed up at the Academy Awards with Raquel Welch on his arm, hosted his own talk show, smoked pot in public, railed constantly against "hypocrisy," and ended up on Richard Nixon's enemies list, for starters. Bizarrely, and wonderfully, he became universally beloved for his extravagant antics and style, eventually filming children's commercials for Ovaltine that proved wildly popular.
But the constant conflicts such an in-your-face celebrity lifestyle demanded--with the press, his teammates, and a parade of females--exacted a toll we can only begin to imagine. Or maybe the screw-up just rode a lucky streak for two decades before regressing back to the mean.
Whatever the explanation, Namath, like Robertson and Allen, left his sport, and society, forever changed by his free-spirited behavior. With enough money in the bank to walk away from football whenever he pleased, Broadway Joe refused to participate in the wink-and-nod double life of athletes and sportswriters past and demonstrated that there was no inconsistency between recreational drug use and success, between rebellion and honesty, and between brash freestyling and victory on the playing field.
It's fashionable now to disparage the effects of the free labor market on professional sports. Steroids, $100 million salaries, bodyguards, and thuggish behavior make athletes seem more distant and monstrous than ever. The play, too, has changed; with such powerful financial incentives and a global talent pool, it's far easier for the best physical specimens to find the professional leagues and much harder for less athletic specialists to compete against them. Tellingly (and humorously), Namath, Allen, and Robertson all criticize the unpolished arrogance of the modern athlete, just as they were criticized before. It's easy to chalk up the bitterness to the usual back-in-my-day romanticism that attaches to every sport.
But there is arguably another nostalgia at play. When athletes suddenly had the financial freedom to become known for their nonsporting activities and beliefs--when the U.S. Olympic team raised black-power fists on the medal podium in 1968, when Ali rapped about the Vietcong to Howard Cosell, when people solicited Namath's opinion about? Nixon --there was a novelty to both the expression and the new television medium that transmitted it. As with anything new, the interest came in a noticeable burst, then subsided. We are no longer shocked or thrilled that an athlete has an opinion about the presidential election. But at the time, if the brutes on the playing field could suddenly have political or even sartorial relevance, why couldn't college students or factory workers or 12-year-old boys? To lament Joe Namath's fall from grace is to mourn the passing of a time when his transgressions made everything seem fresh and possible, not staid and played. We probably don't need professional athletes to break boundaries for us any more, but we should give a moment's gratitude to those who did.