Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Demise Of Pro Sports

     The four major team sports are going to Hell simultaneously. For several decades Americans have enjoyed professional team sports as a refreshing diversion from mundane cares. Yet today, at a time when the promotion of pro sports has reached pain-threshold levels and the amount of money annually invested in American pro sports franchises and their associated industries approaches $1 trillion, we’re turning away from them in droves. Clearly, it’s time for the subject and its trends to receive appropriately Curmudgeonly attention.

     Sports originated from the play impulse that mated to our aggressive natures, subordinated them, and transformed them into ways to compete that don’t involve bloodshed. Team sports were “put to work” to teach cooperation and constructive competition to the young. In this we see the reason that amateur sports were for so long esteemed above professional sports: the ideal was to play “for love of the game,” for its “may the best man win” axiom and for its implicit moral-ethical lessons.

     How far we have fallen! Today’s team sports are essentially indistinguishable from the bloody spectacles of the panem et circenses era of the Roman Coliseum. Even ice hockey, for a long time the epitome of rough-yet-sportsmanlike competition, has deteriorated.

     Our current foofaurauw over pro athletes’ open displays of contempt for the nation, its anthem, and its flag are mere symptoms. To find the disease, we must look deeper.

     To those of you who don’t share my enthusiasm for ice hockey: my sincere apologies (you Philistines), but my survey of the deterioration will begin with a figure few will remember and many will not recognize at all: former New York Rangers general manager Craig Patrick.

     I recall vividly a televised interview Patrick gave to Rangers’ play-by-play announcer Jim Gordon. Gordon asked Patrick, who as the team’s GM was heavily involved in player recruitment, what sort of recruits he favored. Perhaps Gordon expected a litany of vital on-ice skills the Rangers needed. He didn’t get it. Patrick surprised him (and no doubt much of the TV audience) by saying that character was paramount: He said that he looked for players with “the kind of character we want.” Moreover, he meant it exactly as would any ordinary person. His selections of players for the Rangers to sign testified to his sincerity. This, during the era of ever intensifying on-ice brutality exemplified and dominated by the “Broad Street Bullies:” the Philadelphia Flyers.

     Then as now, ice hockey was the least profitable of the four major pro sports. Many NHL franchises operated at the break-even or lose-a-little level. Yet for decades it had been a curious mix of punishing physical play and great gentility. Indeed, for a long time there was an informal rule that in a match between teams A and B, if both of team A’s goalies were to suffer disabling injuries during play, team B was required to lend its backup goalie to team A for the remainder of the game. Moreover, the “borrowed” goalie was expected to play his best...and on the occasions when the “rule” was invoked, that was exactly the case.

     Talk about sportsmanship! Can you imagine anything like that happening in a pro team sport today? Nevertheless, it was so. The sport often derided as “gang warfare with clubs” (“I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out”) was the one that exhibited the highest imaginable standards of may-the-best-man-win good grace.

     But change was on the way. Sports-oriented cable channels were emerging. They needed content and were willing to pay for it. The content that would command the highest advertising revenues would command the largest fee to its providers, and the advertisers favored winners. The paradoxically brutal yet graceful sport of ice hockey began to shed its prior character in favor of a “Winning Is Everything” ethic. In this it trailed the other pro sports, though only by a decade or so.

     The flood of money into pro sports made possible by the nationwide embrace of television caused them to put winning above all other considerations. But when winning is everything, character cannot be allowed to stand in the way. An athlete with superior (if only barely) skills would be valued over an athlete with superior character. An athlete willing to brutalize or cheat to enhance his on-field performance would be preferred to an athlete with scruples who insists upon obeying the rules of the sport. Those who rallied to the new ethic, the Rafael Palmeiros and Jack Tatums, multiplied and grew rich. The exceptions, the Hobey Bakers and Grant Hills, dwindled.

     Where money is plentiful, we will always find persons who value money above all things. Where the way to great wealth is brutality and dishonesty, there will be those who pursue it with those tools. Where brutality and dishonesty are tolerated for the profits they bring, they will become prevalent.

     But good character is of a single weave. The man of good character doesn’t brutalize, cheat, or show contempt for the nation that makes it possible for him to become wealthy. Thus, we should not be surprised that a growing number of pro athletes display brutality and dishonesty and a lack of respect for the United States and its symbols.

     Yes, there’s a backlash in progress. Viewers disgusted with contemporary pro athletes’ various faults are “tuning out” of pro sports. The recently televised Monday Night Football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams was held in a largely empty stadium, and was watched by a relatively small television audience. The message was not lost on those who track such things.

     Still, audience disaffiliation takes time to work. We must not expect a swift turnaround in the state of affairs. Baseball players continue to “juice.” Football players continue to commit conspicuous off-the-field crimes. Basketball players continue to father bastards. Hockey players are growing more violent by the season. And there are disparagers of the nation in all four sports.

     What of amateur sports? Do they even exist today, except as veneers over covert pay-to-play arrangements that violate the meaning of the word? If so, are they gaining an audience, or are they being treated as meaningless and uninteresting “because there’s no money in it?”

     Stay tuned.

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