I am no longer a sports fan. Having lived through the great cultural shift of the late 60s, and witnessed the corporatization of professional sports (and despite the constant repetition of the phrase “student athletes” by the NCAA bureaucrats, college sports, too), I have seen many of the virtues of sport disappear, and many noxious patterns and behaviors replace them. The athletes themselves are bigger, stronger, faster than their predecessors, but the games have become diminished.
I do not wish to suggest that the world of sports of my youth and young adulthood was a prelapsarian paradise.
Pro sports were businesses then, too, but small ones, dominated by men who treated owning a sports team like owning a racehorse, a gentlemanly pastime. But they also treated their ballplayers miserably—indentured servants to the reserve clause. Colleges made money on men’s basketball and football, but not so much as to erode their integrity as educational institutions, unlike today.
Television is the prime mover in the changes in the world of sport, and the money it generates for the pro leagues and big universities is the source of today’s corruption. Television began (like radio before it) broadcasting sporting events. Then, when the money began rolling in, sporting events became television shows—a big difference. Games are now played when the networks wish them to be played, because the money being laid out for the TV rights gives them the muscle to demand it; advertising revenue, not what is best for the game or its fans is the prime mover. Thus we have the obscenities of Sunday night baseball; night World Series games going past midnight on school nights (so much for the baseball commissioner’s commitment to “the children.”); football games on almost every night of the week instead of just Saturday and Sunday afternoons; over expansion—teams, games, playoff games, bowl games. The phenomenon of a .223 hitting infielder being paid 18 million dollars a year in 2021 is just one more sign of the decadence of pro sports today. And now we have the leagues partnering with gambling operations, which can only lead to further corruption.
And then there are the sportscasters with their logorrhea, jargon, and meaningless stats—launch angle, exit velocity, high pointing the ball, etc.–that obfuscate rather than illuminate the game. Ou sont les Red Barbers and Marty Glickmans d’antan? I have found that when I do watch a game these days, I do it with the sound off. And I do not find the 24/7 sports yak shows on radio and television and the proliferation of Internet sports sites (sports yak in print, not sports writing) to have added any value—its little insight, commonplace opinions, and always at the top of its voice. Hell is Max Kellerman and Stephen A. Smith on an eternal loop. I rarely read anything written with the grace of a Red Smith, or with insight into the game that Thomas Boswell or Paul Zimmerman brought to their work.
Next, there is what Christopher Lasch called “the culture of narcissism,” born in the late 60s, which has created several generations of preening, “look at me” athletes—the children of Muhammad Ali (bragging, nasty taunting), Jimmy Connors (temper tantrums), and Mark Gastineau (one of the progenitors of what New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick calls the “choreographed immodesty,” which is now legion). There is more posing today on the football field and basketball court than there is in a RuPaul drag show, fueled by 24/7 TV and social media. Add in today’s social media taunting and hissy fits (where 13-year-old boys become 13-year-old girls), and the infantilization of the modern athlete is complete. That many now find it appropriate to express their political opinions (but only certain sanctioned opinions) on the field and court, with the blessings of the owners and commissioners, is the latest manifestation and a further turn off.
But then the whole idea of manliness is under attack. Men used to play sports with stoicism and the passion was assumed in the players’ obvious effort and determination and its results. Now one cannot make an important strike out pitch or basket or tackle without making a face usually reserved for the completion of a sexual act, flexing muscles, or thumping one’s chest. Kids used to look to athletes to get clues as to how to behave as an adult; now they get the message it is OK to be perpetually childish.
What was once a somewhat austere activity modeled on a Greek ideal of competition, is now a Roman orgy of spectacle coarsened further with laser lights, fog machines, Las Vegas showgirl cheerleaders, garish and vulgar Super Bowl halftime shows, endless TV promos with the players preening. Where once there were athletes, there are now gladiators.
I have not watched hockey or basketball in over twenty-five years–too many teams, too many games, too many teams qualifying for the playoffs. And basketball’s emphasis on the individual styling of the slam dunk and the excessive gunning and loitering at the three-point line (the worst rule change in the game’s history) has killed the team game I loved.
In 2019 I stopped watching baseball, something I never expected would happen.
The strikes, the look the other way response to PED usage that has befouled the record book forever, eroded much of my loyalty, and now, like basketball, it has reduced the game to two power elements: the strikeout and the homerun–the final blow for me. When I first began watching baseball, there were more than twice as many hits as strikeouts. For the past couple of years, there have been more strikeouts recorded than hits for the first time in history.
Time of games has steadily increased to the point that 4-hour plus games are no longer an anomaly. Watch a kinescope of a 50s World Series game, and notice the crispness of the pace. Players get on and off the field quickly; pitchers do not vacillate like Hamlet on the mound (“To throw the slider or the fastball. . .”), there were no batting gloves that needed to be constantly readjusted, no chronic pitching changes dictated by analytics, no endless replay confabs. Most games ended between 2-3 hours. Baseball players, too, have also succumbed to “look at me” posing. I am especially amused by batters gazing admiringly at home plate as their apparent home runs fall short, only to see doubles turn into singles and triples turn into doubles, because they did not hustle out of the batters’ box. Elaborate bat flipping has become rampant, and the commissioner tells the kids that it is “fun.”
Baseball in person, once a great pleasure for me, became a chore in the early nineties. I loved going to the games at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It may have been a dump, but it was a place of real, spontaneous enjoyment where the game was paramount. The current downtown stadium blasts music between innings so loud you have to shout to have a conversation with your neighbors, the cheers are orchestrated over the PA system, and the enormous video screen is in constant agitation creating isolation instead of camaraderie among fans and distracting them from the game. I stopped going after a few years.
All of this and more took most of the luster off the joy of seeing the Red Sox, Cubs and White Sox and Washington DC get off the schneid. And for the first time in 71 years I cannot tell you who won any of the season awards for the past two years. I did not watch one inning of baseball in 2020, and only a few post-season innings in 2019. I am vaguely aware the Dodgers won the World Series in 2020, but I couldn’t tell you whom they beat without looking it up.
Football is the only sport I still watch, not because it does not suffer for the ills I have mentioned, but because it is a short season where all the games still mean something. But I mosly watch Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and rarely watch at night.