A generation ago, novels by Dan Jenkins and Peter Gent ripped the facade off the National Football League, revealing it to be a carnival of booze, drugs, sex, gambling and corporate shenanigans. Jenkins' "Semi-Tough" did this for fun. Its exuberant prose and Texas irreverence set the tone for much American sportswriting to come, and, regrettably, for jock-shock talk radio as well.
Gent's "North Dallas Forty" had a more serious purpose. It aimed to expose how players were exploited, pumped full of painkillers and sent out to play at the risk of career-ending injuries. But it proved less influential, for three reasons. Moral indignation on behalf of the little guy was commonplace in Gent's era--much more so than it is now--and as a result, the story was not as shocking or humorous as Jenkins'. Second, NFL players were about to start making so much money that nobody would feel sorry for them again.
Third, as Mike Lupica's narrator, Jack Molloy, points out in "Bump and Run," pro football isn't about the game anymore, or the big men who play it, but "about the owners, and the revenue streams. . . . It was owners who wanted the whole thing to be about them, general managers who wanted the same thing. And coaches. And the cockroaches passing themselves off as agents."
So it's no surprise, if we consider "Bump and Run" an update of "Semi-Tough," that the focus has shifted from the locker room to the luxury boxes upstairs. Molloy isn't a runner or a passer; he's a rich kid gone semi-bad who unexpectedly inherits the fictional New York Hawks when his father dies.
In Las Vegas, known as "the Jammer," the 35-year-old Molloy has been the "go-to guy" for a mobbed-up casino mogul, Billy Grace, seeing to it that high rollers and celebrities were supplied with show tickets, tee times and parties stocked with "do-me girls" of their choice. He thinks he knows all the angles, all the depths of depravity to which human beings can sink. He's wrong.
Nobody, it seems, wants Molloy to run the Hawks--not his stepmother, Kitty, who is being courted by "dot-com" billionaire Allen Getz; not his younger siblings, "demon-seed twins" Babs and Kenny, who inherited the non-football half of the franchise; not the brainy and beautiful team president, Liz Holton; not the control-freak coach or the "twinks" of the media or the majority of his fellow owners, who fear that Molloy will further smudge the NFL's image.
To keep the team, Molloy needs to line up enough owners' votes by season's end. And he wants to win the Super Bowl in what looks like the fade-out year for his ex-UCLA teammate, quarterback Bubba Royal. Molloy's first two moves as Hawks owner seem to put the second goal out of reach. He fires the coach and he refuses to meet the contract demands of star receiver A.T.M. (Automatic Touchdown Maker) Moore, who holds out for the first 10 games.
Lupica, a New York Daily News columnist and a regular on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters," knows pro football. His quick summary of the economics of owning a franchise is especially illuminating. This is his fourth novel, and he knows how to keep the story moving, though it's fairly predictable. Molloy and his mentor, Grace, will prove morally superior to the opposition because of, not in spite of, their Vegas experience. Molloy will, in fact, turn out to be a very good guy indeed, though his Jammer skills will come in handy before the end.
"The NFL definitely won't be amused," one of the blurbs for "Bump and Run" says, but why not? It's a funny novel but funny in the same way Jenkins' was. It tells us nothing new, challenges no pieties, as Gent's did. All the real people Lupica mentions--from Al Davis to Pat Summerall--are good guys. All the bad guys are fictional. This book doesn't make us believe the NFL needs cleaning up; it confirms our belief that the NFL is a hell of a party. If only we could be invited too.