Downhill From Here History and TV ratings may be telling us that our major sports are in an irreversible slide

February 26, 2001

Who can forget Laverne Fator, the famous jockey who in 1919
signed a breathtaking $15,000 contract to ride for Rancocas,
then the most fabled stable in the Sport of Kings? Answer: Most
everyone can (and did) forget the Hall of Fame jockey, and the
Rancocas stable, and horse racing in general, to say nothing of
boxing (which once entertained millions of TV viewers every
Friday night) and the Indianapolis 500 (which from the '50s
through the '80s was a fixture on the cover of this magazine)
and countless other famous sporting events and sportsmen whose
hour came and went. Their memory daily recedes from our
collective consciousness, an ever-weakening radio signal that
will one day vanish altogether.

Is that what's beginning to happen with our three major
professional sports, whose television ratings have been in
decline for years? (Since 1997, for instance, the postseason
Nielsens for the NFL have dropped about 10%, baseball's are down
28% and those for the NBA have fallen 29%.) Is it possible that
all the standard explanations for this decline--more channels,
more entertainment options, more ways of "accessing" sports
through new media--disguise a larger truth: That big-time pro
sports, a phenomenon scarcely more than 100 years old, will prove
to have the life cycle of the gall midge, which achieves
adulthood in morning and is dead by midday?

Which is to say: Will sports one day be history?

Or put another way: Will sports one day be History, with a
capital H? Will people 100 years from now remember more than two
or three of the countless athletes and events that now seem so
integral to our civilization? Today, a mere four months removed
from last baseball season, I can't immediately recall a single
game--not one--from the regular season, during which 2,428 were
played, many of which I attended.

They say journalism is the first draft of history. What they
don't say is that it's usually the only draft: Future
scholars--even those studying forensic pathology--will have little
reason to revisit and expound upon microfiched accounts of last
Thursday's Warriors-Grizzlies game.

Yet athletes and coaches blithely talk all the time about making
history. "We're playing for history," Tampa Bay defensive end
Chidi Ahanotu said of the Buccaneers at the start of last season.
Five years before that (to choose an example at random),
forward-guard Boo Purdom of UC Riverside said upon making the
Division II basketball finals, "We're going down in history." Six
years before that, Rod Strickland, a New York Knicks guard at the
time, said of his team's 21st consecutive home victory, "We're
going down in history." And so on and so on and so on.

The fact is, none of these men are going down in history. Almost
nobody does. In the 1,109-page Penguin History of the World,
precisely five sentences are devoted to sports--two of them to the
ancient practice of bull-leaping. While the 20th century is
somewhat fresher in our minds (it's only been over, technically
speaking, for six weeks now), History has already begun to trim
its roster.

Take a look at the dictionary: See which athletes have literally
become household words. In the fourth edition of Webster's--among
the timeless explorers, artists, inventors and statesmen--are a
mere dozen 20th-century sports figures. Four of them are baseball
players: Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson.
Three of them are boxers: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Rocky
Marciano. The others are Babe Didrikson, Ben Hogan, Jesse Owens,
Knute Rockne and Jim Thorpe. That's it: nobody from basketball,
hockey, tennis or auto racing. There's a shoemaker (one who makes
shoes) but no Shoemaker, a spitz (variety of Pomeranian dog) but
no Spitz, Pele's hair (fine filaments of volcanic glass) but no
Pele. History is ruthless come cut-down day.

So, in our current reference books, Jordan is a nation, not an
athlete. Perhaps, as decades pass, that will change, and
professional basketball will thrive, and its players really will
"make history."

Or perhaps not. Perhaps a latter-day Charlton Heston, pursued by
jackbooted apes on horseback, will stumble on the statue of MJ
that stood outside the United Center--right arm rising out of the
sand of some beach, basketball held high, like Lady Liberty's
lamp: The only relic remaining of a long-lost civilization.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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