Our Sports Culture Suffers Self-Inflicted Wounds
Long ago and far away, the arrival of November used to really fire up the sports fan in me.
With memories of my beloved Orioles still lingering, the afterglow of the World Series was palpable and the heart of football season was fast upon us. Moreover, college hoops would be cranking up shortly and I could look forward to cold winter nights ahead with my ear pressed to a transistor radio listening to the Heels do battle and Woody Durham excitedly calling the action.
My sports heroes were Arnold Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Dean Smith, more or less in that order. A famous Greek philosopher warned that mortals should never meet their heroes because they will invariably disappoint you. And yet, as a working journalist, I actually got to know all three of mine and they proved to be remarkable gentlemen and sterling ambassadors of their sports.
But something has changed in me, perhaps even died. Or maybe sports themselves have changed. I can't think of an active professional sports star who embodies the grace, class and unpretentious charm of a Palmer, Robinson or Smith.
Nowadays all professional sports and paid athletes, in fact, seem depressingly the same: over-hyped, over-blown, seriously over-compensated, charmless egomaniacs who basically need to check a GPS or their agent to determine what city they're playing for this season.
The last emperors of ancient Rome, it's worth noting, mounted bigger and more extravagant gladiatorial events and "sporting" spectacles even as their empire's civil life and institutions crumbled and the Huns crept ever-closer to the gates. Check Gibbon, if you doubt this. Blood sports, he noted long before Marx appropriated the phrase, are the most effective opiate of the masses - our secular religion.
The Roberts Effect
Television and money have done the most damage to the appeal and integrity of professional and amateur sports alike by transforming them into bottom-line businesses that lack anything resembling heart and soul. How much of this summer's wall-to-wall Olympic coverage by ruthlessly self-promoting NBC did you catch? According to the final numbers, the vast majority of Americans tuned into a weight-loss reality show than bothered to check-out the closing ceremonies of perhaps the most numbingly boring Summer Olympics in history. Talk about a living metaphor.
Half a century ago, Masters founder Clifford Roberts warned Arnold Palmer after he won his second green jacket that the one thing that could destroy America's love of sports in general - and golf in particular - was too much money and corporate domination of the game. He argued that if money became the primary attraction of the game, players would lose their respect for the fans and fans would begin to drift away.
All you have to do is look at what really happened to professional golf during the decade of Tigermania to see the Roberts Effect, as I call it, on the broader game. Tiger's historic mega-deals guaranteed he owned the Tiger-share of all TV coverage, producing a chilling effect on the quality of his competition and a one-man, media-fueled domination of the game that sent purses, fees, prices and egos soaring until the first stout economic headwind caused the industry to collapse like a two-dollar beach chair.
Even before that, however, golf was in decline owing to factors Roberts - a Wall Street banker, no less - had sagely foreseen.
The Tiger Effect
Between Arnold's banner year in 1960 (when he captured both the Masters and his only U.S. Open) and Tiger's first year on Tour, golf participation in America soared to unprecedented heights, fueled by a stream of popular players and a game that was in reach of middle class America, yielding the most robust golf boom in history. By one estimate 23 million Americans took up the game.
Since Tiger captured his first major title in 1997, on the other hand, the Roberts Effect took hold. While industry revenues soared on the strength of a crazed construction boom in upscale golf courses and soaring equipment costs, more people actually abandoned the game than took up playing it. Despite the malarkey put out by networks that Tiger was attracting new fans to the game in record numbers, spiking any time he was in a televised event, any honest TV executive will tell you the numbers were not only trending down generally but tainted by the fact that the "new fans" were largely fickle sports-addicted couch potatoes - not loyal golf nuts.
Tiger's excruciatingly public fall from grace three years ago possessed all the elements of classical Greek tragedy, a boy falling from the sun, yet it perfectly symbolized the Roberts Effect as Wall Street collapsed under the weight of its own financial greed and the mirroring golf industry went into a death spiral.
Fortunately, the real game of golf has a long history of surviving World Wars and economic depressions and always found a way back to its proper level among the people who love it most. On a brighter note, with Tiger on the sidelines, a new generation of young stars who seem surprisingly humble and even accessible to fans are growing the galleries of the PGA Tour once again. Organizations like The First Tee and its brilliant campaign to bring 10 million kids to the game may even spread the seeds of a genuine grassroots revival. And if a humbler and wiser Tiger can continue his rise from the ashes, all the better.
The College Crucible
But pro golf is hardly alone in terms of losing its soul and compromising its virtue for an unholy buck.
Last week's announcement that cyclist icon Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles is merely the latest body blow to the integrity of cycling and sports in general. Not only did cycling's governing body blithely overlook rampant doping during the years of Lance-o-mania, but the US Postal Service evidently wound up sponsoring nothing short of a mobile drug cartel.
Just weeks ago, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was sent away for 60 years for sexually molesting 10 boys over a 15 year period, erasing the legacy of legendary head coach Joe Paterno in one fell swoop, and nearly taking down a proud football nation with it.
What giants tumble next? What modern-day Icarus will spiral back to earth from the sun?
Seemingly to a slightly less corrosive degree, though no less worrisome, the stream of revelations coming out of UNC's embattled sports culture - the latest has a star footballer plagiarizing the work of an 11-year-old - does nothing to suggest the scandals will cease anytime soon.
Not as long as the Roberts Effect rolls on.
For example, what does the current media-made orgy over collegiate conference realignments say about the integrity and future appeal of college athletics in general - a system, it's clear, where money is the primary motivation and teams are valued not on the strengths of their traditions and rivalries and size of fan support, but rather - laughably - the size of their designated TV markets.
Next year Conference USA teams Southern Methodist and Houston are jumping to the Big East along with Central Florida and Memphis, eager to be part of a Big East Conference that is reportedly putting itself back together after defections of its own members to the ACC and negotiating a mega-TV deal that will rival anything God told Moses on Mount Sinai.
Last week, SMU and Houston played at Ford Stadium in Dallas, the nation's fifth largest TV market, barely attracting 16,000 fans who watched Houston lose 72-42. Over in Orlando, meanwhile, the country's 19th TV market, Central Florida played future Big East powerhouse Memphis before a SRO crowd estimated at slightly more than 20,000 - though sources on hand say it was actually a third less than that. Central Florida is a school already under suspension for prior NCAA violations, and recently filed an appeal to the toothless NCAA on a more recent set major violations.
Whew. Follow all of that?
Not Ready to Give Up
I do (though barely) because, for better or worse, I still love watching a college football game where the vast majority of players will never get anywhere near a professional team. For most of the young men suiting to play this weekend or next, a few moments of glory before the home folks will be summits of their athletic careers.
In the interest of full discloser, this weekend my wife and I will travel down to my alma mater East Carolina rooting on our purple-clad Pirates against the Navy Midshipmen, ironically playing for a lucrative bowl berth the same week stories surfaced that ECU is being considered for an invitation to also join the reconstituted Big East.
Oh, how I've loved these football weekends in the middle autumn, and it seems obvious to most observers why East Carolina would be a great addition to the Big East. Its fans are fanatical and fill a 50,000-seat stadium nearly every home game - which, incidentally, would make it the top drawing school in the Big East if fan support rather than some illusory TV market juju was the real criteria for admission.
Like the presidential contest that increasingly takes on the language and tone of a TV football game, we'll just have to wait and see on all this. Meanwhile, the kid who loved Arnold, Brooks and Dean just wishes we had a few more football weekends to dress up in the old school colors, slip away and yell our silly heads off.
Do live and enthusiastic fans mean more than TV money? It's not hard to imagine what crusty old Cliff Roberts would say about all of this.
I'm just not ready to let go of it - or give up on the virtues of the game - just yet.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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