The Grantland Top Five: Absurd ’80s Posters, Tiger-as-Hermit, and the Rest of the Week in Sports and Culture
1. The Costacos brothers, poster artists, 1980s
A few years ago, I interviewed Jim McMahon in the lobby of a Connecticut casino. He was perched on a cherry-red motorized scooter, simultaneously drinking beer, trailing a muddy river of tobacco juice into a Coca-Cola bottle, and canoodling with a woman whose relationship to him was entirely unclear. We talked largely about his past, about his status as one of the first athletes to embrace the cultural hedonism of the 1980s, as a post-punk rebel who wanted nothing more than to argue with Mike Ditka and urinate in doorways in the French Quarter. McMahon appeared to be living the same life he did when he was in his early 20s, traveling from one celebrity golf tournament to the next in search of a good time; I would not have been surprised if he had a former heavyweight champion and a zoo animal stashed in his suite upstairs. He was an image frozen in time, and I’m not going to lie: I kind of dug him for it.
Back in 1986, after the Chicago Bears’ ritual disemboweling of Tony Eason in Super Bowl XX, McMahon fell hard into celebrity. His goal was to make enough money in football that he wouldn’t ever have to work a real job, and so he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, endorsed sugar water and paintball guns and processed sandwich spread, and wrote a best-selling book that mostly sniped at the bureaucrats who signed his paycheck. He also posed in leather for a picture with a live bear cub, a setup that was the brainchild of two brothers, Tock and John Costacos, who owned a T-shirt business in Washington state. The brothers had printed similarly gauche posters of regional stars like Kenny Easley and Lester Hayes and were now aiming to take their business to a national audience; once they had McMahon, they figured, they could get anyone. Their plan worked better than they could have imagined. This shot, headlined MAD MAC: THE GRID WARRIOR, led to dozens more, a wildly popular collection which, when viewed as a whole, evokes the same peculiar cocktail of nostalgia and shame I felt when speaking to McMahon himself.
Until at least the end of July, thanks largely to curator Adam Shopkorn, much of the Costacos brothers’ best work is on display at Salon 94 Freemans, an art gallery on New York’s Lower East Side. And while Shopkorn felt obligated to class up the room with some basketball posters that controversial neo-pop kitsch artist Jeff Koons “appropriated” from Nike in the early 1980s, it is the Costacos brothers’ work that is the focus: Walls filled with pastel-colored Reagan-era kitsch, with athletes vamping and preening, dressed up in Blues Brothers suits (McGwire, Canseco: THE BASH BROTHERS) and mailman uniforms (Karl Malone: SPECIAL DELIVERY) and oiled up and shirtless and wearing nothing but a fur loincloth (Mark Gastineau in MARKAN THE BARBARIAN, although this is not the most homoerotic image in the collection. That would be the poster of Jim Everett with his offensive linemen, in which Everett is referred to — for no reason I can discern — as “GENERAL BLADE” and Tom Newberry, looking like a bouncer at an Amsterdam fetish club, totes a giant yellow bomb with the words “SAN FRAN” shrieking across the front. In Irv Pankey’s eyes, there is a shuddering veil of regret worthy of a Richard Avedon portrait.).
There is camp value in this exhibit, but there is also a surprising amount of weight to these images: In them we can sense the burgeoning idea of the individual athlete as celebrity/pop star, the nascent packaging of brands, the lead-in to the live-action Nike superhero commercials that built Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson into screen characters and propelled us all the way forward to The Decision. The title of the exhibit is “For The Kids,” but even that isn’t as facile as it seems, now that those kids have grown up and appropriated many of the same ideas. Marketing has become a more subtle art, and it is difficult to fathom Vince Wilfork posing unironically in a loincloth, but in many ways, we are frozen in Jim McMahon’s America. And if you don’t believe me, ask Alex Rodriguez, a man in constant search of self-definition, who toured this exhibit and (according to Shopkorn) asked, “Why aren’t they doing these anymore? These are awesome.”
2. Tiger Woods, bearded ascetic, Jupiter, Fla.
It’s getting real now: Our man is skipping out on his job and cultivating facial hair, which means we are approximately 18 months from the moment when Tiger Woods is photographed stacking spelt flour at a food co-op.
3. Roy Williams, NFL wide receiver, Dallas, Texas
4. Kerry Collins, quarterback, N/A
Collins retired this week, which, considering that I happened to graduate from the same college at around the same time, and considering that he once (rightfully) mocked me in a pizza parlor after I got wildly intoxicated on sambuca, seals both of our journeys from misbegotten youth into adulthood. And while we’re here, I would like to note that Collins has more passing yards than Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, Phil Simms, Steve Young, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, and Troy Aikman. If he had won the 2000 Super Bowl with the Giants, and then made the Super Bowl with the 2008 Titans, he would be a borderline Hall of Famer. As it is, he has to be considered as the most underrated decent-to-very-good quarterback of the past 15 years.
5. Oh God: Book II, dir: Gilbert Cates, Warner Bros., 1980
Showing in regular rotation on the HBO Family channel. Inexplicably viewed by me in such quantity as a child that the catchphrase THINK GOD sometimes drifts into my head when I am pinned to the doors of an overcrowded subway train. There is a moment in this slice of anti-science agitprop in which a child literally gets brainwashed by the Lord, but there are also scenes in which George Burns magically appears in the restrooms of Chinese restaurants and outruns a pair of highway patrolmen on a tandem motorcycle. So spiritually, I guess it breaks even.