Bursting the Sports Bubble

bubble-pop-01Who else remembers the days when sports and athletes were just that; a game and larger than life players. Growing up and memorizing our favorite players’ statistics from the back of their trading cards. Arguing over what quarterback you want to lead your team, debating who would win in a one-on-one match-up on in basketball. Seeing feats of athleticism and being in awe because you have never run that fast or jumped that high even in your dreams. Being a kid and throwing the ball against our front porch stairs or shooting the puck against the garage door, imagining we were our favorite players. The mysticism of the professional athlete. The allure of playing professional sports.

POP!!! Then it’s gone. No more bubble keeping all of the dreams, feelings, allure intact. We no longer memorize players stats from cards but memorize their contract numbers. We don’t argue about who the greatest quarterback is now without pondering how much they benefited from their grip of the ball. A one-on-one match-up on the court has become more about who has more Twitter followers. The wonder of seeing someone shatter a world record is delayed until the blood tests come back to see if it was accomplished legitimately. A fan can’t even watch the NFL draft and discuss who their team should take without factoring in their 40-yard time, bench press, and amount of times they have been arrested.

I am not sure at what point in my life the bubble burst. I am still a sports fan of course, but the constant news of franchises moving, players arrested, cheating, and hold outs seems to have become more of the story than the actual scores of the games. Watch the next sport cast, and tell me how soon before a story about something off the field appears.

Call me old, make fun of my romanticism of sports but I long for the days back when reporters wrote stories, not just reported facts or the latest rumor. Take a look at any of the classic sports writers that covered the games during the early to mid centuries. Look at Grantland Rice, Fred Russell, or my favorite Bob Broeg (one of my favorite books I’ve ever read was Broeg’s Memories of a Hall of Fame Sportswriter). Instead of such picturesque and memorable prose like Rice’s story about the University of Notre Dame football…

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”

…we get sports writers arguing and yelling on television (Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless) making absurd claims such as that a 52-year old Michael Jordan can beat LeBron James in a one-on-one game today. Stories are no longer developed and told by sportswriters. It is now about being the first to break the story, reporting has become TMZ rather than story telling.

And yes I know the old way of reporting stories portrayed the players as larger than life. But that’s what I miss. I miss that innocence. I miss being able to just watch a superior athlete demonstrate their skill in a way that I could never do. I remember watching episodes of Home Run Derby, a show originally run in 1960, just to see players like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays because I wasn’t alive when they played. Now the annual All-Star Home Run Derby has become a cartoonish show with clichés and hashtags. I don’t care if it was simple, I don’t care that we have more access to athletes today.

Sure the classic sports writers and broadcasters may not have told the full story of players but it was still well known that Ty Cobb was a Hall of Fame A**hole. The mythos surrounding players of that time is gone. Would reporters today still write about Stan Musial the same way reporters did in the 40’s-60’s? Or would he be too boring, too nice and swept under the rug and disregarded like Tim Duncan has been? Still I don’t think it is the way sports is covered today that simply led to this bubble burst. Their methods may have changed but so has the game itself.

There have always been contract holdouts as I was growing up, I know that is part of the game. But seeing a player hold out just one year after signing a four-year deal (Michael Bennett) hammers home the point, it’s about the money. Speaking of money. No longer is attendance even important for professional franchises. Nope, NFL teams can pick up and move simply because their revenue stream is not at full potential due to lack of parking lot ownership or entertainment buildings surrounding their stadium.

And the biggest story this week in the sports world, FIFA, is about nothing but the money. Countries paying off FIFA officials to have the rights to host the World Cup. Something that has been well-known by the public and has finally been brought to the courts, and yet the organization re-elects the man who has presided over the entire mess for the last 17 years. What?

Cheating of course is not limited to just officials and hosting rights. No, cheating remains in the game itself and apparently that is okay too. Yes sports has always had cheating inside the game, from stick-em to spit balls. Even back in my “dream” days of the games, cheating happened. But as society changed, focusing on ethical choices, shouldn’t sports change as well?

No longer should it matter if the players feel the infractions don’t make that big of a difference in the game, the infractions are against the rule book. I am tired of a pitcher saying they need a better grip on the ball. I’m pretty sure pitchers younger than them with less talent are able to hold onto the ball. If they can’t, then change your pitching grip. Did people forget that athletes are the same ones that never reported steroids in the game, uppers in the 70’s, constantly used stick-em on their hands, use extended sticks in hockey. I find it sad that we can’t count on the players themselves to regulate their own game. 

The players are playing in one world, the sports world where anything is done to win or gain an edge. But that realm is gone. The world where it is just about winning is no more. Now it’s about how you win, what you do on and off the field. The games are no longer limited to what we see on our television sets, listen to on the radio, or see in person. Sports is a full life of its own, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sports has become so large, they are no longer just a game; they are now a part of society. And as a part of society they abide by societal rules, ethics, oh and money.

I now realize that the bubble where my sports mythos was kept tight and safe was burst by sports itself. The growth of the game killed the lore. When leagues decided money was more important than the game, choosing business plans over tradition; they burst that bubble. You can’t blame sports for wanting to grow their games. Money is a great thing and you should always get what you can, but greed is a dangerous thing. When you start sacrificing integrity; when schools move across country to join  a more prominent conference; when cheating is only important when the public says so; you start poking holes in that dream bubble. And unfortunately just as with any dream, once it is gone; there is no coming back.

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