I grew up in Northeast Ohio, which explains a lot about my attitude toward sports. Once upon a time, I was a fairly ardent fan of a variety of sports. I, of course, watched Ohio State on TV every Saturday, and the Browns every Sunday. And we had a great, though mostly hopeless local college team in a variety of sports at Mount Union College. I liked to listen to baseball on the radio. I listened to Joe Tate on the radio as the Cavaliers were first horrible in the 70s, and then really good in the 90s, but always destined to finish second in their division behind Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. We, in our small town America, patriotic way, liked to watch the Olympics every four years and listen to Jim McKay talk about obscure sports like the luge and rowing. I took it as a way to see the variety and splendor of the world to watch those rare occasional excerpts from the Americas Cup, or the Tour de France, or the World Cup.
But for me, personally, those days are long gone. I've been more and more pissed off at the sporting world for years, and finally, last year, I swore off following any sport at all. And despite several previous attempts to do so and failing, which my wife perpetually teased me about, she's fairly surprised to see that this time, yes, I'm serious. No more sports. No more following the old team I used to love when they suddenly put together a 10 game winning streak. No more following that fabulous championship run. I've had enough. For that reason, since I'm a year or more away from paying attention to the particulars in any sport, my specific examples in this article may be a bit older and perhaps not up-to-the-second in timeliness, but the trends are ongoing and I'm absolutely certain that they've only gotten worse in the past year.
So why did I swear off of sports? Part of it was the long, painful experiences of the average sports fan from that part of the country. Our teams seemed to be particularly cursed, or doomed, or fated, or whatever the hell it is that causes them to fail at the most painful time and in the most spectacularly humiliating ways possible. But my disgust goes beyond that. It's probably partially because of those experiences, but it's not only those. Even if you did not have the misfortune to be a Cleveland Browns fan, I would think most people would admit that there are some seriously screwed up things about the way sports work now. They present the worst aspects of human nature, writ large on a diamond-vision screen and in 30 second clips on SportsCenter. The worst things about the way human beings treat one another and treat themselves are visible in every sport, on every channel, in every season, every day of the year.
These are the 14 things that are seriously wrong with the way sports are these days. I'm sure many of these things have been true about sports forever, in one form or another, and certainly true in other human endeavors, but they're just so much bigger and worse in sports in these early years of the 21st century.
1. The arrogant athletes
I probably don't really need to explain this in much detail. Mostly, it's just one of the more visible instances of the impact of income inequality. Many, but of course not all, athletes in professional sports have a huge income, and a huge ego to go with it. We live in a culture that is ever more increasingly becoming one where the winners take almost everything. And the fans are generally not in the same class. But whether its monetarily based or not, every community that includes athletes has learned in recent years that the athletes get special treatment. High school football players are often the kings of the school. College athletes in the big money sports are often given special 'jock' classes to make it easier for them to maintain grade point average. Many professional players live in gated communities and drive cars with tinted windows and dine in private clubs. That's not to say they're that much different from the club owners who pay them, by the way . . .
2. The arrogant owners
The best example of this is the expectation . . not the negotiation, but the *expectation* that a community should pay hundreds of millions of dollars to tear down a perfectly good sports arena and build a bigger one with more 'sky boxes' or whatever for the team owner. And if the city doesn't do this, then he has little choice but to move the team to Charlotte (or whatever other city will pay the sports franchise tax.) To own a sports franchise, it used to be considered a community minded thing to do. Yeah, sports team owners were always wealthy, but the prices have risen to the point where, in most cities, you need an out of town billionaire to buy the team in order to keep it around. And once there, what the hell do they care about the city of XYZ? In college sports, the team 'owner' is effectively the coach. It really is *his* team. And there's almost no single room more filled with concentrated arrogance in any state than the major college's head football or basketball coach's office. And every couple of years, the arrogant owners and arrogant athletes get together and shut down the entire sport so they can negotiate their next round of multi-million dollar collective pay agreements.
3. The violent fans
This may not be worse now than it ever has been in the past, but it is an ongoing embarrassment for anyone who claims to be a fan of sport. English and Turkish soccer fans. Fans of pro and college football teams hurling batteries out of the end zone stands at the opposing team players. Fans of rural Brazilian soccer teams getting into a fight with the 20 year old referee and BEHEADING him! And then there are those two dads along the sidelines of their son's Saturday soccer match who get into a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether or not that was an offside play.
4. The hypocritical piety of "Amateur Athletics"
The NCAA, especially when it concerns football and basketball, is such a bunch of double-talking, greedy, narcissistic bastards, it's amazing that the ground doesn't open up beneath them so they can fall straight into Hell without even bothering to die first. They are raking in BILLIONS promoting the sports on their campuses, paying their coaches millions of dollars in the big programs, and players and teams are getting punished with serious penalties for agreeing to take payment for a few signatures on jerseys. Players, many of whom come from very poor families, are asked to play sports in which serious injuries are ever more likely for anyone who plays more than a few games, and to take NO pay. And, oh, by the way, don't look over here as we launch a network showing just our own league's games because the deal we all had with ESPN for $600 million over five years wasn't lucrative enough, and don't mention the $400 per hour lawyers we hire to shut down anyone who might mention the name of our mascot in a non-sanctioned forum. And then you have the organizations that once claimed some sort of high status due to their idealized worship of amateur athletics, who've completely sold out to multi-national sponsors and brought in pro athletes to compete against true amateurs, but who still wish to wear the mantle of 'pure competition'. Speaking of which . . .
5. The International Olympic Committee and its national offshoots
The real disgrace of the Olympics doesn't occur due to the huge cost of hosting the games, which often fall on cities and nations that really can't afford it (Greece, I'm lookin' at you.) but rather eight or twelve years before that, when the committee of fatcats from the IOC shows up in the various towns competing for the games. And suddenly the children of those committee members get a new car, or their wife gets a lucrative job offer, or it's just simple money trading hands. Mostly, though, they're more careful than that . . .it's just thousand dollar meals in ultra resorts, meeting national celebrities from the wanna-be-host nation and getting limousine'd around the region for a month at a time.
6. The Winning at All Costs mentality
Healthy competition is a good thing. We, as a species, stretch ourselves and often amaze ourselves at what we can accomplish when we are competing against one another. But in sport, as in business, it is getting out of hand. We see it every four years when we wring our hands over how young the gymnasts or figure skaters are and how they may be missing a childhood. But it's true in every sport these days. To get to the top, you can't really have a job. You need to work so many hours and push hard enough to risk permanent injury for years on end to reach the winner's circle. And let's face it, if you're not on the top, why bother? And don't let anybody fool you, this attitude is officially sanctioned. The organizations running things, the athletes themselves, the public watching, they all seem to think this is the right way to go about things. And then they seemed shocked when people take drugs to improve their chances of winning. "I'm shocked, SHOCKED . . . to see that doping is going on in here!"
7. The over weaning hubris of the SEC
I mention the SEC, particularly in football, but don't get me wrong, it's true for pretty much every large sports subdivision of major sport. It's summed up by "My group of randomly grouped teams is better than your group of randomly grouped teams and you're an idiot for thinking otherwise." But to be fair, nobody embodies this spirit better than your friendly neighborhood South Eastern Conference NCAA football fan. The really insidious thing about this is that the attitudes of the group, especially when there's some truth to the differential between random sports division at any given time, drives the greater attitudes of the greater population, which causes resources to go to the successful, which causes greater successes, which attracts more money, which then entrenches the unfair advantages of the successful. I call it the New York Yankees effect. Who gets the money? The winners, that's who. So who's going to win next year? Those with the best resources and the most money. There's nothing more soulless than being a New York Yankees fan, or a fan of one of the perpetual top 25 NCAA football teams. (Or of Manchester United, or Barcelona, or Real Madrid.) The English Premier League is a study-in-motion of this effect. Fall out of the league and you're toast. It's self perpetuating.
8. $100 Millionaire Footballers with Model wives
Pretty people of the world, unite! And then have pretty babies and sell the rights to your family game night as a reality show. Some professional athletes do attempt to do good works, and some of them even manage to not be affected by the adulation and money . . . but too many hyper-wealthy individuals who grew up in incredibly poor neighborhoods feel it adequate to metaphorically toss coins from their passing limo as they drive through the old dirt poor neighborhood to visit their old coach.
9. Little League Parents
What is this, exactly? Why do parents of 6, 7 and 8 year olds start screaming at the coaches, and the officials, and the other parents as they sit and watch their child playing a game? It's probably something to do with Maslow's' Hierarchy of Needs . . when other needs are satisfied, like the need for 20 beers on a sunny afternoon, we fight over the trivial. But it's also probably about our own regrets . . . that we never made it to the bigs ourselves and god-damn it, no two bit pinstriped numb-nuts is going to mess it up for me . . . I mean, for my little Jimmy. Just as nothing perfectly illustrates the pettiness of politics as does a meeting of your homeowners' association, nothing brings out our own worst instincts to start wars and to lash out at authority like a neighborhood Little League game. And although this is perhaps a factor of human nature, it's certainly worse now as we've all truly taken the winner-takes-all and anything-to-win mentality to heart.
10. Color Commentators with nothing to say
OK, everybody say it with me, "They've got to establish their running game."
Or, "They have to manufacture some runs."
The color guy is there mostly so the play-by-play guy doesn't sound weird talking to himself. But most of them talk too much, and they almost never say anything insightful, helpful, or useful.
11. The shiny butts
This is just my code phrase for the fact that everything in professional sports, and even in some of the big money scholastic sports, has gotten too shiny, too fancy, too produced, too focused on the television cameras and too god-damned SLICK. Some of the rough edges weren't rough edges, they were character. In some cases, they were local flavor, or personality. Now its all uniform and shiny and taut and perfect. And mostly awful. It's the Applebees coming into town and putting your great, old, slightly run-down but filled-with-history-and-wonderful-food neighborhood diner out of business. You know exactly what I mean.
12. The obsessive ranking of everything
Why do we, and the sports reporters we follow, feel the need to rank every single stat in every single sport? I call it the Church of the Holy Bill James. And Nate Silver is the high priest. Even sports that have clear paths to the championship, with their own highly successful paths for building and resolving season ending drama, seem to feel the need to have a running national or international ranking, available at all times. (Can you say Power Rankings and March Madness?) Every single thing has to be ranked all of the time. Who has the best offense. Who's the best sprinter over the past 12 months. And it's true in sports where long term success was never the driving force, winning individual events was. So the world #1 ranking in golf has become more important than winning at Augusta, in some strange way. And what's up with the "pre-season ranking"? Why the hell do we need a ranking of teams before they've played a single game? Heck, some of these rankings occur before the team is even assembled! (Lookin' at you, college football.) What does that ranking mean? And does it bother you that that early, uninformed, bullshit ranking is the basis for all future rankings, the final of which determines the national champion?
14. The Lack of loyalty
Finally, and probably most damning, is the way loyalty works in sports these days. The careers of Kirby Puckett and Bear Bryant are things of the past. I know. I'm naive. I need to get over it. Instead, we've got Lebron James and Urban Meyer. Cities, for whatever reason, absolutely love their sports teams and their sports heroes. They just don't give a damn back. It started with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it's very quickly accelerated in recent years. You're got the Baltimore Colts. There's the Cleveland Browns and the execrable Art Model. The Seattle Supersonics. The Houston Oilers. The Montreal Expos. (Well, with the Expos, the disdain probably ran both ways.) Pay them the money, give them the stadium, fill up the stands in every game . . .and they're still just as likely to stab you in the back as look at you.
I know that this has been a pretty bleak look at the sports world, but frankly it's heartfelt and honest. But I will try to end on a slightly positive note. There's really only been one positive story in the world of sports that has genuinely impressed and inspired me over the past few years. And I only know about it because it happened in my own home town. The best thing in the entire world of sports in the last 20 years was Larry Kehres. One of the only things, frankly. It's almost the exact opposite in every way possible of everything listed above. If you don't know the story, I'd suggest you look it up. Yeah, it's about winning championships and big games, but much more than that, it's about pure athletics, good sportsmanship, true loyalty, and genuine humility. And he retired last year. There you go, the last nail in the coffin of sports, as far as I'm concerned.