Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reflections on Sports In America

In the Fall of 2004, the Boston Red Sox faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. At the same time, Senator John Kerry faced President George W. Bush to be elected the most powerful man in the world. The Boston Globe posted an online poll, asking which scenario readers would prefer: A Red Sox victory (and the first team championship in 86 years) or a George Bush defeat (ending the administration of a president viewed very unfavorably by Massachusetts residents).

Boston Globe website visitors picked a Red Sox victory. It wasn't even close.

We have reached a scary state in America when it comes to athletics. For lack of any other name, perhaps it's the post-Sandusky era. I have found myself less interested in watching my own beloved UCONN Huskies. It could be because the men's basketball team won the national championship last April, so I am a bit complacent. However, I think the reasoning is far deeper. We idolize our athletic heroes too much. It's clearly having a negative effect on society as a whole.

As a kid growing up in the small cow town of Franklin, Conn., the only real recreational activities were sports. After school, you played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. Nothing else was offered. You either played those sports, or you watched them, or you stayed home.

Certainly athletics taught a lot. I learned how to play as a team, and to this day prefer team activities over individual ones. I learned how to stomach a loss. Believe me, I had a lot of practice. Dusting my rear off and getting back into the game was a matter of course. I learned that being competitive was ok, but that competitiveness can have a dark side. I also knew deep down inside, despite wearing off the leather from numerous basketballs in my parents' driveway, that I would never play in the NBA.

But things have gotten out of hand. The highest paid public employee in my home state is the Connecticut basketball coach. As much as I love Jim Calhoun and respect what he's done on the court, is he really worth more to my home state than the Governor? Or the most important emergency responders in the state? Or even the fire chiefs of Hartford or Bridgeport? In case you are wondering, the second highest paid state employee is the women's coach.

A year ago, my friend Scott Lauber and I were in Rome, among the ancient ruins and the Coliseum. Way back, the athletic heroes were the Gladiators, who were both feared and revered, until they were mauled by a tiger. We are so much more civilized now, aren't we? The tigers are gone, to be sure, but today we pay millions of dollars to idolize grown men who can hit a small sphere with a long stick. What will tourists two thousand years from now say about our civilization when they try to understand baseball?

The famous line from the movie "The Program" went like this: "People won't buy tickets to watch someone take an exam." In truth, sports have always been about money, given the capitalist society we live in. However, today's media-frenzied ultra-connected world has made sports about BIG money. It's disrupting the very fabric of the games. Certainly one reason I am disenchanted with college basketball is because the familiar brands of my youth are about to go poof. The Big East conference, the formidable collection of teams that defined my introduction to basketball as kid, is imploding.

As a teenager, I memorized the conference's schools. In one year, the mainstays are leaving. Pittsburgh. Syracuse. Boston College is already gone. Heck, Connecticut has apparently made it clear they are interested in bolting, too. They will be replaced by teams half-way around the country... or further. I certainly have nothing against Baylor, but realize that a team from Waco, Texas is about to join the Big East and perhaps that's just one point of evidence that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

The movie had it right, too. Athletic teams are not just teams; they are programs. And few institutions, let alone individuals, have the courage to stand up to them. What happened at Penn State was not just a travesty of justice. It was a multiple-system failure where too many (and we're only beginning to learn how many) stood on the sidelines, too scared to speak up.

I still like to watch the games. I hope that's not wrong, given my new attitude. But no doubt I will watch them with a new sense of perspective. My dad and brother Mark had season's tickets to UCONN football. Next year, they are talking about watching high-school football games at my alma mater, the Norwich Free Academy, instead. I think I might join them. I know the coach there; we went to high school together, and I know for damn sure he's not making as much as Jim Calhoun.

1 comment:

ben said...

Certainly agree with your larger point. Easiest solution to get college athletics back to their appropriate place is to not allow any admission breaks for athletes. Would end big time sports as we know it.

Baylor, however, is continuing to play in the Big 12.