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Unfortunately, country's economic woes impact sports, too


I am wrong. Let me say that up front. Normally, I like to challenge readers -- studies show that the average reader needs at least six paragraphs to discover I am wrong. This time I'm telling you in the first sentence.

The economy is collapsing on the world of sports, and this bothers me far more than it should. I am wrong, because the grim news is really faux-grim. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Players Association president DeMaurice Smith are circling each other on a sumo mat and pounding their enormous chests. NBA owners want to get rid of long-term contracts and probably cut the value of maximum contracts. But these are just fights between billionaires and millionaires, and they should not bother me.

Well-known, productive major league players like Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon are struggling to convince teams to pay them a few million bucks. Both the NFL and the NBA might shut down in 2011. The ramifications of this are staggering. Would Jack Nicholson put on a parka and sit behind the glass at an L.A. Kings game? The lack of fantasy football business would make the banking meltdown seem like the closing of a general store.

The nation's economic woes are seeping into every aspect of our sporting universe. It has gotten to the point where I read that Lindsey Vonn might not ski in the Olympics because of an injured shin, and my first thought is that maybe she can't afford health insurance.

A sports recession -- like sports heartbreak or sports celebration or sports anything, really -- is a cartoon version of the real thing. It shouldn't matter. There is no good reason to get upset about the empty seats at a Milwaukee Bucks game or baseball teams slashing payroll when good people are struggling to pay their rent and feed their kids.

I understand that. If anything, the populist within me should feel good that the economy is affecting the world of sports. Can't afford to drink Cristal on your private jet? NOW YOU KNOW HOW WE FEEL ... SORT OF.

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And yet ... for some reason, the shrinking sports economy just adds to recession depression. It took me a while to figure out why. Part of it, of course, is that we need the diversion of sports more in bad times than in good, and the idea of a fall without NFL Sundays is not a happy one.

But there is something else, too: Sports are supposed to be trouble-free. Americans want to believe in Happily Ever After -- that you can get the girl (or guy) and the beautiful home with the manicured lawn and then the credits roll. I think we have come to like the absurd fantasyland of sports.

The insane amount of money in sports somehow makes it even more of a fantasyland. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong about that too. But I think most sports fans are past the point where they can be outraged by how much money athletes make. If you want to be a sports fan, you have to make your peace with it. The numbers are so far gone that it just seems like Monopoly to us: you could be amazed when a mediocre shooting guard made $300,000 and angry when a lousy cornerback made $3 million, but when Eric Byrnes signs for $30 million, that can't possibly be real money, so why worry about it?

To many modern fans, a sports contract can only be huge in relation to other contracts. Generally speaking, Texas Rangers fans were not upset that Alex Rodriguez signed for $252 million because he is just an entertainer; they were upset because it kept the team from signing other talented players.

(Side note: how lucky is A-Rod? In 2000, he signed that famous $252 million deal with Texas, obliterating the American team-sports record. Then salaries contracted and nobody else has approached it since. Then, after the 2007 season, as the baseball economy was peaking, Rodriguez opted out and signed a $275 million extension. Then the economy collapsed. He would never get that deal today -- not even from the Yankees. It's too bad it's just Monopoly money.)

So many things are better for sports fans now than they were 30 or 50 years ago -- cable TV and internet highlights and high-definition and unreadable Twitter feeds, if you're into that kind of thing. But in many ways, sports fans have given so much over the years. We have given into higher ticket prices and waves of advertising and reduced and controlled media access and millionaires charging kids for autographs; we have tried not to dwell on steroid use and Tim Donaghy.

Sports are still supposed to be the place we go to get away. It's a shame that our economic problems follow us there. At least, it feels like a shame to me. But as I said: I'm wrong.