A collaboration between one of our finest sportswriters, New York Times columnist Lipsyte, and one of the premier academic sports historians, Levine (Michigan State Univ.), tracing the history of American sport through the lives of 16 of its most important icons. It ought to be a blockbuster. It isn't. The basis for a six-part series to air this fall on TBS, Idols, at its best, is studded with insights into the awkward relationship between sport and commerce, an all too increasingly friendly embrace that is beginning to look like a death grip. By retelling the familiar stories of 16 sports heroes and heroines, the authors trace the growth of that embrace while also charting changing American attitudes toward African-Americans and women. American sport is powered, they argue, by ""twin engines . . . money and macho,"" from the last bare-knuckle championship on the North American continent, in which the great John L. Sullivan outlasted Jake Kilrain, to Martina Navratilova's farewell to Wimbledon. The book deals intelligently with the class, race, and gender barriers that are as thoroughly imbricated in sport as in the rest of society and offers some useful correctives to many legends (not merely the self-consciously silly posturings of the ""Win one for the Gipper"" speech but, more important, the real nature of George Gipp's football-mercenary career at Notre Dame). But Lipsyte and Levine often are forced to oversimplify both sports and political history in an effort to shoehorn more material into their essays, and the choice of the profile as vehicle proves unsatisfying, with many judgments that would make sense in a broader context reading like a parody of political correctness when placed in these TV-sized capsules. Lipsyte and Levine mesh well together, and it would be great to see them write a real, comprehensive social history of American sport.