The easy answer, of course, is that sports in America fell from grace a long time ago, and there is no need to get ourselves in a dither because, really now, it's all just more of the same. There is much truth in this, too. In 1869, the very year that Princeton and Rutgers inaugurated intercollegiate football, a game between the two schools was canceled because the faculties feared overemphasis. Professional baseball players were unionized a century ago, threatening strikes and delighting in the formation of a new league that would, it was hoped, undermine the autocracy of entrenched owners and overthrow the despotic pay scale. By the turn of the century the President of the United States himself was decrying the abuses of college sport, and The New York Times was editorializing about the "twin evils" in American culture: lynching and football. No gambling scandal of recent vintage has caused such disillusionment as the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain 't so.
Sports back then were racist and rude; athletes were often drunks and scoundrels who were frequently denied admission to respectable society. Money passed under the table to ersatz amateurs, and most athletes were assumed to be blockheads. Fans were hooligans, the arena no place for a decent woman or a fainthearted visiting team.
Today, there is nothing more tedious than our pitiful whinings about how we no longer possess sports heroes; the fact is, the stars of yesteryear were not nearly so familiar or renowned as the journeymen of today. Whose heroes? Sports were generally parochial and not braided into the broad culture; actors got the endorsements and the respect that athletes get today. Ex-quarterbacks and small forwards simply did not loom as presidential contenders.
So to suggest that sports have somehow lost either their innocence or their glory since television cameras started pointing their way is pixilation. And yet.... And yet, there is no question that society has come to be disillusioned with sports today, even as it celebrates sports all the more. As the numbers sitting in attendance at the stadiums and before the television sets increase, so do the misgivings. There is an itch about sports we cannot scratch. What is different from the grousing we used to do is that nowadays we don't so much complain about sports as we feel regret, even grief, about them. That is because sports unearth memories of youth as music does a first kiss...or at least like a romantic melody one associates with that moment. Only there is a major difference. Music, for best example, has essentially become a product, one created specifically to change for each cohort of teenagers, so that they might have something of their very own to take with them down all their days. Sports are different. You can say: Sorry, I don't like heavy metal, but I have here my big-band records. But you can't say: Since I still like the Brooklyn Dodgers, I'm going to stick with them instead of the Mets this season.
December 23, 1985
Yet, no matter how many things about sports adults may lament today, I don't think that children are any more upset by sports than children ever were. I think children are just as much in awe of and in love with sports as they ever have been. You have to grow up to get mad at sports—and that's because only when we grow up do we find out that sports are flawed.
Part of the disenchantment, obviously, is caused by the public glare in which all our institutions exist today. It sure was a lot nicer when we knew only the batting averages—and not who takes drugs and who beats his wife and who's homosexual or even, who, you know, mumbles like a blankety-blank Cro-Magnon, you know. You bet it was easier to be a hero in the Good Old Days.
But, I would submit, it vastly overstates the case to argue that the disaffection with sports derives, ipso facto, from its greater exposure. Rather, the distrust of sports today arises not so much from what we see more clearly than it does from the ambiguities and the contradictions that we simply can't fathom. You see, while sports may never have been pure, they were simple. The same 16 franchises made up major league baseball for half a century. What other business could make such a claim for stability? Everything stood still. Sports had a pecking order, with major league baseball clearly first, college football a distant second, then boxing, horse racing, golf, tennis, and so on down the list. Somebody once asked Paul Gallico why he left sportswriting. "February," he replied. There were no sports in February. Sports were dependable. Sports were verity. I would even contend—and not facetiously—that the geographical dislocation of the Braves and then of the Browns and the A's and (above all) the Dodgers and Giants created an emotional turbulence in a portion of the population that was nearly on the order of, say, women getting the vote or school segregation being declared unconstitutional.
In sports, even the rules that were broken and the mistakes that were made were predictable. Nobody expected athletes to go to class or boxing promoters to go to church. Of course some colleges would cheat. Play enough games, and a few would be fixed. Every now and then a star would drink himself out of the game. And, yes, the press was expected to be rather cozy in not divulging such matters.
The reason the seamier side of sports could be winked at was that, essentially, sports were over in the corner. Sports were brandy and cigars after dinner. A large part of their charm was that they knew their place. But what has happened to sports in the post-World War II era is that while they have assumed a larger role in society, nobody has the foggiest idea what that role should be. When sports were clubbier, when they were the boys' night out, they had definition and character. Today, sports in America belong to all America, just as business and religion and politics do, and when you get to that point they become too amorphous to belong to anyone.
There is this singular fact about American society: So many lines have been broken down, so much blurring has gone on, that we are deregionalized to the point where Atlanta might as well be Seattle, where everybody talks like the six o'clock news, where everybody names their children Jason and Jennifer. Yet paradoxically, at the same time this drift toward uniformity has been taking place, we are faced with more and more choices.
And somewhere along the line sports became just another choice. Probably the two worst phrases ever to enter the sporting lexicon are wild card and entertainment dollar. Go on, name me anything worse. It was one thing when Bill Veeck said, well, people who come to the ball park ought to have reasonably clean rest rooms and maybe some fireworks now and again—even if they don't know the difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball. But that path has led sports to the lipstick counter, where there are 54 shades of red. The idea that sports are just another lipstick—in there competing with movies, discos, casinos, and sushi bars—does violence to the most important elements of sports, which is caring and cheering, and root, root, root for the home team.
Critics of the current wrestling boom account for the phenomenon by explaining that wrestling has gone show biz. Perhaps. But more, I would say, wrestling has succeeded because, in creating those characters who appear grotesque and obvious to nonbelievers, it has given those who do believe, who do care, reason to care more. Who is a purer and sweeter fan—the fellow who buys a ticket because he loves to see Sgt. Slaughter break heads, or the fellow who comes out to the park with an expense-account ticket because it's Resin Bag Nite?
Mainstream sports in America today fail to provide the comfort and nourishment that go with belonging. To play off sociologist David Riesman's classic term, fans today are part of the lonely stadium. One answer to the inevitable question—What's wrong with sports?—is that they are cold and confounding. So fans have grown confused about the basic elements of sports, about competition and commitment. Not even victory makes sense anymore. Let's examine some of these fundamentals.
It was decades ago that Vince Lombardi allegedly said, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Revisionist historians have long since proved 1) Lombardi wasn't the first man in sports to utter that sentiment, and 2) he didn't mean it quite so harshly as it sounds. No matter. The important thing is that back then the bluntness of Lombardi's words shocked many Americans. But today, after years of moralists parroting the contention that we place too much emphasis on winning, the bald truth is that victory in America may actually be less important than it ever has been.
Games don't count nearly as much as they used to. First, there are simply too many of them. Second, it is accepted that players just can't get up for all these games. And third, why should they? Everybody makes the playoffs; everybody gets to a bowl; everybody makes the NCAAs; everybody makes the Tournaments of Champions; everybody gets more chances. They say that sports mirror our society. In this country, sports have come foremost to mirror our judicial system. Games appear to be litigated more than contested, and leagues are courts of appeals. Every defeat is followed by a retrial.
Let us consider last season's NCAA basketball championship. Now understand, Villanova played by the rules and won fair and square, won dramatically, courageously and popularly. Cinderella Team. (See also: wild card and entertainment dollar.) But what did Villanova's victory signify? George-town had lost twice in the so-called regular season, Villa-nova had lost nine times. Georgetown had beaten Villanova twice; Georgetown had won the conference tourney; Villanova had lost it, decisively. From any fair and rational point of view, Georgetown was facing triple jeopardy.
This happens all the time in a system that rewards mediocrity as a way of defending the integrity of the entertainment dollar. No wonder the poor fan is baffled. Coaches, players, colleges and pro teams will lie, cheat, steal, dispense and take drugs, pay and pocket the most outlandish remuneration—all in the name of victory. But then, all too often, real achievement goes unrewarded and triumph is capriciously gained.
This new attitude about victory has, I'm sure, been greatly advanced by the favored modes of sports betting. Today in America gambling on sports is pernicious, and whatever one thinks about this generally, it is surely the case that certain types of wagering are worse than others.
First, the racetrack. The old-fashioned horseplayer was, in many respects, a gentleman and a scholar. He studied the Form, knew his craft and carefully calculated his choices. Of course, the breed included some who lost control and bet the baby's medicine money on a longshot in a $3,500 maiden claiming, but we could accept a certain random degeneracy. Today, most of the habitués of racetracks and betting parlors are numbers players. Not even the Kentucky Derby is permitted to be a pure betting vehicle. Horses no longer win. It is all exactas, quinellas, trifectas, Pick Sixes, wheels and boxes. The jackpot mentality prevails. You can lose, lose, lose because if ever you win, as in the NCAA or the NBA, you win big. Cinderella Bettor.
However much that kind of betting has affected horse racing, it is nowhere as insidious as the primary team-sport wager: the point spread. That is a poisonous device that has eroded our minds into thinking that there are really two games out there: the one played and the one handicapped. On the most obvious level, from CCNY and LIU and Bradley and Kentucky right on down to Boston College and Tulane, it has encouraged fixes. You're not losing, son, you're just shaving a few points. Less apparent, the point spread has fostered the impression that a victory of sorts can be gained even in defeat. Well, we beat the spread.
Many newspapers in the country have turned their sports sections into tout sheets. They not only print the spread, but some also go so far as to run additional standings that list a team's record against the spread. The week before the Super Bowl is invariably reduced to a discussion of the spread, to the exclusion of most other issues. While baseball is no less threatened by drugs and their attendant dangers than football and basketball are, it would appear to be intrinsically a more secure game simply because baseball betting rarely involves the point spread.
Our games have become more professional, and that's not necessarily bad, no matter how the traditionalists may moan. But what is bad for sports is that they have become so vocational. That's where the fun has gone out of it.
Again, for the fan, there are so many contradictions. In simpler times, an athlete was not perceived as someone apart from the rest of us. He was, generally, one of the boys, just like you and me, only a guy who happened to be better at catching a ball and throwing it, at running or jumping or whatever. Most of the best athletes, the ones who would eventually become All-Americas or pros in one sport, had fun participating in several sports as they grew up. The three-sport star was the true American sports hero. There was no rush to specialize. But today, even in elementary school, the best athletes are encouraged to channel their skills into one narrow vein. Thus, from an early age, the good athlete becomes a sort of vestal virgin, removed from society at large, saved for a particular sport.
The worst of this is that no one is ever really allowed to enjoy the experience of being good. The high school star is judged not for what he does in high school but for where he might be able to play in college. The top college player is never primarily a college player; he is, instead, athletic livestock being fattened up for the pros. The rookie pro does well mainly so that he'll have more leverage when he becomes a free agent. And, of course, the highest goal to which any athlete can aspire is to be a color man on TV.
The sad thing about Doug Flutie—and poor Donald Trump never understood this—is that he peaked too soon. Flutie created expectations at the college level that he cannot possibly fulfill in the pros. If he should become a serviceable pro quarterback—or even a bona fide star—it will not be enough. Trump paid for a 22-year-old has-been.
Our system siphons the thrill of accomplishment out of a kid by constantly measuring him against a nearly impossible future standard. The high school valedictorian is praised for his immediate achievement; so is the best piano player in the class, the best poet, the prettiest girl and the handsomest boy. But we do not allow our young athletes the pleasure of the present triumph.
Of course, this does produce results. I believe a major reason American athletes do so well on the international stage is that they are taught that this is the only real arena. The kid from Athens, Ga. must win everything to win anything. In this regard we altogether resemble Communist athletes.
Probably the worst thing that television has done to sports in this country is to nationalize them to such an extent that there are no small successes. Being a conference champion now is, more literally, to be only a national runner-up.
Moreover, there is utter confusion in the matter of financial reward. It is no coincidence that the public generally believes that our pros make too much money and our synthetic amateurs (college players) not enough. Pros and amateurs can no longer be distinguished from each other because they're both on the same networks and subjected to the same hype.
By the same token, in this world of gladiators, what is wrong with taking pills or injections or putting somebody else's blood inside you if that will help you win? The early and total devotion to a sport encourages the advance-at-any-cost syndrome. Blood doping or anabolic steroids are just like spring football or lifting weights.
Surely, not even Avery Brundage could have denied that sports are entertainment. On the other hand, it is certainly not valid to claim that sports are the same as other forms of entertainment. The prime difference has to do with loyalty. Now, to be sure, there are devoted fans of Clint Eastwood who will buy tickets for whatever dreadful movie he makes. The continuing success of soap operas or rock stars is based on a devout following. But sports go beyond that with the home team, the favorite player, the favorite sport. Sports involve, or should involve, a rooting interest.
At one time sports fans were loyal to a fault. The same penurious owners owned the same teams, which were peopled by players who were, as the rhetoric had it, slaves. At the college level, players were a homogeneous and indigenous lot, the boys next door.
All of this has been turned on its ear. One of the most successful franchises of our generation, the Boston Celtics, has had four owners in the past seven years. A man from Skokie bought the Baltimore Colts and jerked Johnny Unitas's franchise to Indianapolis. Professional players vow they owe no allegiance to anything or anyone unless it is specified in the fine print. Why is it that so many of the blue-chip college recruits are from out of state and show up on campus driving new Trans Ams?
It was one thing when our homegrown sports star was drunk and disorderly or got caught with his hand in the till or his bare bottom in the sorority house. It's quite another thing when the same human frailties are exhibited by some transient. The fabric of belonging that makes a devout fan feel as if he is an honorary member of the team has been frayed. It is hard to forgive, harder still to love, a stranger.
In this context, it would be naive, even evasive, to ignore the impact of the black athlete, especially on those two college sports that are horribly, candidly identified as "revenue sports," i.e., football and basketball. At one time the issue of race in sports was simply what it was everywhere else, one of discrimination. Now the situation is altogether different. In our major team sports, specifically the two that give many schools and colleges their greatest recognition, black players predominate.
It is worth pondering how this situation has affected the white attitude. In very round figures, we have a situation where 12% of the population is contributing 70% of the best players to the NBA and the NFL. This means that the chances of a white schoolboy reaching the heights in basketball or football are many times poorer than that of a black youngster. What does this do to the white psyche—to that athletic component of the American Dream? On the surface, whites denigrate themselves for their slowness and inability to levitate, the debilitating "white man's disease." But is it also possible to postulate that the rowdiness, even the violence, that has increased in stadiums—and most times committed by young white men—may be partially explained by the fact that these young whites feel the same frustrations and disenfranchisement within the sports arena that young blacks feel outside of it?
What the preponderance of black athletes in such spotlighted sports does for the black community may also be damaging, because it encourages young blacks to invest their hopes in sports. University of California sociology professor Harry Edwards has pointed out that the total number of blacks who earn a living in sports is perhaps 2,500. That includes everyone—from stable grooms to O.J. Simpson and Ralph Sampson. Better you should play the lottery. Beyond that is the fact that many college coaches recruit academically unprepared black students as athletes and then hide them in joke curricula—Theory of Volleyball I, Advanced Television Dialing. The athletes not only become academic throwaways when they don't make the pros, but they often also present a dim and dull aspect to the public, thereby perpetuating the impression that blacks are dumb.
When colleges first started recruiting black athletes, you would often hear such comments from whites (sometimes from coaches) as, "That Indian boy of ours gets whiter the closer he gets to the goal line," or "My colored boy can beat your nigger." Today, black athletes are viewed by some white coaches and fans as a necessary evil one must endure to stay competitive. It was one thing when the white boy next door could be squeezed into State U because he could throw a football, even if he couldn't quite get the knack of algebra. That was family. Some old alum would look out for the boy and make sure he got a job when he was done playing. The attitude toward black athletes tends to be more cynical. To many white alumni and boosters, the alma mater is represented by mercenaries, black supermen who can leap and run but who really aren't much like us. A band of black Hessians carries the banner for the university, while not really being a part of it.
It is no accident that the commercial explosion of intercollegiate sports has coincided with the increase in the number of black athletes. Cynical alumni, boosters, administrators and coaches are able to justify the preponderance of blacks in school uniforms so long as those players help turn a buck for the institution. In racial terms, that is what revenue sports have come to mean.
Where we make our mistake in dealing with the evils of college sports is to constantly speak of de-emphasis. We might as well try to remove sex and violence from television. You can't put the genie back in the bottle. College sports have been overemphasized for nearly a century, ever since Walter Camp made Yale our first football factory. It is a uniquely American phenomenon, the spoonful of sugar that makes the educational medicine go down. Indeed, it is even possible to argue that the high visibility and continuing popularity of school sports in America have been vital in building our educational system. What should concern us is the growing perception that college sports are a pox on all college education, that they are a spreading infection, poisoning anything they touch. Most of us now routinely assume that any college president must be either a fool or a knave.
Still, we are not really bereft of heroes in sports today. What we are missing is something to be heroic about. You can't become a hero the same way you can become a Dallas Maverick or a Cincinnati Bengal, merely by putting on a new uniform. The athletes who attained the status of hero in the past represented something more than just themselves.
For example, in the first couple of decades of this century, before the Great War, before we grew up, the closest thing to a true sports idol may have been Christy Mathewson, the well-mannered college boy who showed he could go to Gotham and mow down the toughs at their own game. Perhaps an even more timely hero was Hobey Baker of Princeton, Frank Merriwell incarnate, gentleman sportsman, superstar in two sports, intrepid air cavalier over France, the embodiment of all that sports was supposed to mean.
They were followed by the Roaring '20s, America on a toot, bestride the world—and above everyone there loomed the irrepressible Babe Ruth, Lindbergh in pinstripes. And there were the other largers-than-life: the Manassa Mauler and the Galloping Ghost, the patrician Mr. Bobby Jones and Man o' War. After World War II, never was there a better representative of the times than Jackie Robinson. Then the '50s, prosperity and babies and suburbs: Unitas, who symbolized the crystallization of the NFL; Bill Russell, who changed his whole sport; Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed the highest mountain; Arnold Palmer, who charged unafraid—peacetime generals all of them, solidly in command. And after them, the '60s: Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King (and, to a lesser extent, Broadway Joe)—antiheroes in a time that sought that sort of model.
Curiously, until now, only the woeful '30s lacked a symbol in sports. There were Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, of course, but mainly for their kind. They were a bit too soon. And so was Babe Didrikson. In fact, if there was one sports hero for the Depression, it was probably Sonja Henie, a forerunner of other Olympians, the one who first showed that you could cash in a gold medal at the bank.
But today? Does anyone in sports stand above the crowd? Not likely. Whatever heroism can put up with, it can't suffer parity. And sports has been taken over, merged, blurred and homogenized into everything else. In the past the whole idea of sports was that they were good precisely because they were different from all the other cultural flotsam. Sports were idiosyncratic and unashamed that they were peculiar. They had their own rules. And they were full of clearcut winners and losers. The rewards for success weren't just monetary, and sometimes not monetary at all. Loyalty was unambiguous.
It was only as sports expanded to accommodate a larger portion of society that society decided it had to impose on them its own dubious regulations. In many respects this was necessary and good, but in the process, a great deal was lost. Many Americans are still wandering about, vaguely lost, at this strange point where sentiment and cynicism intersect, not quite knowing where they are or what it is they miss. For a long time now, the effort has been made to incorporate sports into the larger, imperfect world. Wouldn't it be nice if, somehow, sports could separate themselves and become something unique again, something that improves the world, rather than something that is soiled by the world?