The sports bubble
For much of the past three months it seemed the great sports industrial complex had no defense against its inevitable crumbling except that greatest of trump cards: For all the dysfunctions and harbingers, the money kept pouring in.
The games today are different. The feel is different. The dynamic is different, even if the final few minutes of a Ravens-49ers Super Bowl or Kansas-Memphis championship game were as equally taut as Cowboys-Steelers when the Super Bowl was rising to power, or North Carolina-Georgetown when the NCAA transformed itself into something bigger than UCLA. Because of various strains, if sport has not reached its tipping point, then it is in the throes of serious transition.
Money has prevented the NFL from seeing proof of its dangers, from acknowledging the incongruence of 4,000 former players suing the game that made them famous to the safety rhetoric of its $30 million commissioner and his propaganda machine. They can't all just be cash-strapped opportunists, Deion Sanders.
Money has allowed Lance Armstrong to attempt to justify his impressive pyramid of lies, even as he exists in disgrace, stripped of titles won with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.
Money has allowed college football and basketball to look nonsensical as conferences dissolve and familiarity disintegrates. The matchups no longer reflect geographical continuity, and schools have forsaken many of the rivalries and relationships and premises that built their multimillion-dollar athletic departments.
Money allows soccer and tennis to avoid what may very well be a devastating truth: that match-fixing is perhaps even more prevalent than performance enhancers. It allows the NHL to believe that it is relevant even though its greatest franchise -- the 24-time Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens -- has been reduced to a mid-market afterthought.
Money allows the NBA to ignore the fact that a third of its teams exist in an underclass. Despite more than half of the league (16 of 30 teams) qualifying for the playoffs every year, 11 teams have either won no playoff series or gotten past the first round just once in the last 10 years. The Washington Wizards have made it past the first round exactly once in the last 30 years.
Money allows baseball to ignore its own underclass (despite new World Series winners each year, three teams haven't made the playoffs in more than 19 years, and seven haven't won a division title in at least 10 years), as well as its own paradox of playing the longest regular season while simultaneously favoring an increasingly random tournament played in the worst conditions to determine its champion.
Like most bubbles, money provided the perfect blinders against all of the other warning signs, provided the faux cloak of invincibility -- that is, until the money wanes and the bubble finally bursts. There is no statute that demands football be the most popular game in America, or that it even be played at all. To prior generations, horse racing, the World Series, the Olympics and heavyweight boxing were once the most important games in town. The NFL, whether or not it will say it publicly, is collectively bracing for an on-field death, an event that appears increasingly more likely.
Much of the dynamic is generational; sports, like politics and life, morph into something less recognizable for people after a certain age. Reminiscing about the Patrick Ewing-Pearl Washington Georgetown-Syracuse is one thing. Concluding that the preservation of the Big East is essential to the survival of college basketball is quite another. It is the old-timers lamenting the end of Harvard-Yale football as a national event, or telling the kids that if they wanted to know boxing, forget Mike Tyson, they really needed to see Sugar Ray Robinson fight, refusing to accept that time is doing nothing more than simply moving forward. It is also to allow time and nostalgia to fill one's nose with succulent, false aromas.
The truth is that there is no fairness, in life or capitalism or sports. The underclasses have always existed in sports, and while it is true that the Royals, Pirates and Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs going on two decades, it is also true that the Philadelphia Athletics went 13 straight seasons from 1934 to 1946 without even being .500.
What is different, however, is the sober recognition that the industry is more exposed, no different than the way the office of the presidency was exposed to the public following Watergate, or the realization that America isn't always, in every case, the good guy. The comforting blankets of myths are no longer there to keep the naive warm.
To follow sports today is to be unprotected, to accept the competition as complicated and often cynical, driven by profits and greed and ego, which fans watch in return for terrific shows of on-court athleticism and drama. It also requires fans to be smarter, to realize that the Pirates may not have a chance today, but that the Yankees were ten times more dominant from 1920-64 than they are today, that the power of the 1944-79 Canadiens, like that of the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, stemmed from the inequality of the playing field. Those teams were given, by the rules, distinct advantages that ensured their excellence. Those dynasties shaped the history of the game, but fairness was never part of the story.
To follow sports today is to accept that there is not, nor was there ever, a moral argument that could be made for the "student-athlete." College coaches are corrupted by accepting million-dollar salaries while not fighting for compensation of their players. College-level players have always been exploited; in Bill Russell's day, in Bill Walton's day, as well as in Kyrie Irving's. It requires fans to understand that salary caps exist for one reason and one reason only: for owners to control costs and keep more revenues for themselves and less for the players. If an argument can be made connecting parity and a salary cap, a greater one can be made for good, smart management and success in the standings. Maybe the Pirates and Wizards and Royals themselves are the problem.
Part of this unsettling isn't the change, but the reason for it. The dissolution of the Big East has always felt murky and unnecessary when viewed through the clear glass of a backboard, just like attempting to explain why Colorado, which sits east of the Rockies, plays football in the Pac-12, a conference that once had an "8" in its name. The cynicism of the money grab is the turnoff, seemingly at the expense of other valuable qualities, but it is nothing new. It is simply more aggressive, more naked, without the comforting wink toward concepts like integrity and honor and sportsmanship. These concepts may have once existed, and perhaps the real lament is the recognition not that the dollar has won, but that its victory was inevitable.
The result is a clash of values. The leagues and conferences have sold an industry based on the myth of fairness even though, for example, the Red Sox payroll dwarfs that of the Marlins. They have sold unscripted, even, live competition, the concept of the "level playing field," although the University of Kentucky (which has a chef in the private dorm for its basketball players) can recruit in ways that Butler cannot. They have sold pure athletic competition as vital to the nation even as athletes show up on the lists of wellness clinics and shady doctors, but deny using PEDs, often even after they are suspended for a positive test.
They have sold sports, in a land of capitalism and imbalance and segregation as the one place where merit (my best against yours) was supposed to be the only thing that mattered. Yet at least one player at the most recent NFL combine said teams asked directly about sexual orientation. The result is a narrative (teams might not accept a gay player) no different than yesterday, when white baseball pitchers supposedly wouldn't accept signs from a black catcher. Roy Campanella, Johnny Roseboro and Elston Howard were pretty good, and so were the pitchers they caught, including Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford, putting a lie to that earlier bigotry, much like some confident young man someday will to the NFL's. The world changed, but it didn't collapse. The layers have been exposed, as have the hypocrisies.
Following sports today also requires that the public make certain deals with itself, and that the public be willing to allow its heroes to be sacrificed for its entertainment, just as surely as those heroes are willing to sacrifice themselves for money and glory. Watching Bernard Pollard demolish Stevan Ridley during the AFC Championship Game was to be indirectly complicit in the collision. Watching that hit, for any mature fan, was to know the fate of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, to know what the game is and to accept being a willing participant in the death sport.
The growing business and declining simplicity of sports, the industrialized selling, will not be universally accepted. People grow and have kids and other interests and suddenly, shockingly, life so gets in the way that they can no longer name every coach in the Big Ten. Or, as happens during periods of great change, some fans will choose to opt out, deciding that college basketball is supposed to mean St. John's-Syracuse and Maryland-North Carolina, just as some of the old-timers found baseball less appealing following the free-agent era, when it was clear that teams would not remain together for years, and players would leave. Some will discard their yellow wristbands, just as in the 1970s and 1980s some of the old guard grew tired of George Steinbrenner buying players and Lou Whitaker arriving in a stretch limo during a work stoppage. It was all a myth, anyway, the same wheel, just inflated with more money heading down a different path, trying to avoid a blowout.
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