For the love of the game? – What’s wrong with Professional American Sports.
A recent conversation with my uncle, in his late 50’s, while watching our beloved Detroit Tigers get beat by their rival Cleveland Indians, led me to ask myself questions about the state of American sports. My uncle told me about the old days. He talked about a time when leagues were smaller, and players had to be the very best to make it. Days when players didn’t get traded, and had to work side jobs outside of the sport just to support themselves. They played for the love of the game, and the love of the name of the front of a jersey. Sport came before business, even when business tried to come before sport. “Those days are gone,” he told me.
This year in American sports has been one that has left a sour taste in many peoples mouths. An NFL lockout of epic proportions threatened to end or shorten the football season before it started. An NBA lockout has just begun and has some of the leagues biggest stars talking about playing in other countries this year. Baseball has been littered with problems, including constant steroid sagas, and a disturbing situation involving the Los Angeles Dodgers filing for bankruptcy amid a fierce feud with Commissioner Bud Selig.
What is going on in the world of sports? Sit down with an older relative, like a grandparent or an uncle and listen to their constant complains about how sports just aren’t what they once were. We listen to it but brush it off like we know it all and they’re just living in the past. I know I do. However, this past year of lockouts, holdouts, bankruptcies and player trades has led me to wonder? Are they right? Is sports really just a giant financial monster with no heart and no soul?
What is happening to the love of the game?
Money, Money, Money
Money, the root of all evil, right? Well, yes and no. Money can do a lot of things. It can spread a wonderful sport to a much wider audience. It can present the sport in the most entertaining way possible to all of the fans that love it. It keeps clubs and organizations afloat in a world where you can’t succeed without financial backing. However, do the negatives outweigh the benefits? Take baseball for example, with no salary cap, it is a sport where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The teams with the most money win. Period. Every once in a while an Arizona Diamondbacks with sneak in and take one away. But for the most part we are talking about the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies, the Angels. Teams are interested in two things. Winning, and money. One might assume that teams want money in order to breed success. Sometimes I wonder, if it isn’t the other way around.
Looking at the NBA and the NFL, the problems faced by the MLB are somewhat lessened by the salary cap system, that limits the total payroll a team is able to give out to its roster. I will never understand why Major League Baseball has never taken this rule into its ranks. What kind of league are we watching when every time a player appears as a superstar on a given team, within 2 years they are either playing in Boston, New York or Philly. These teams simply identify the player, double their current salary, and enjoy the benefits. Is this sport? No, this is business. That’s all it is. Find a rich man to purchase and fund your team, and you have yourself a winning franchise 8 times out of 10. What kind of sport is this?
Another problem we see around professional sports, is the way that rookies are grossly overpaid. Take the NFL for example, a sport where a rookie can demand unthinkable money before they even set foot on the field. There is something completely out of tune when a rookie quarterback can demand more money than some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, before setting foot on the field, just because a bunch of people had a hunch that he might be the best of the bunch in the NFL draft. When I call it a hunch, I really mean it to, highlighted by the 6 year $61 million dollar contract granted to JaMarcus Russell by the Oakland Raiders his rookie year. This was more than most veteran starting quarterbacks were receiving at the time, and look how that one turned out. There should be a rookie salary cap in place that forces young men to earn the right to be paid. Sport is supposed to be like a day job. You don’t go into your career fresh out of college and demand the same amount of money of an executive board member. You start small and you earn your raise and your promotion. Not the other way around.
The sad thing is that this attitude is trickling down into the world of College Athletics. Now, there has been corruption in college sports for many years. However, looking at the current situation, it is spreading like a virus that threatens to destroy everything that we love about college sports. The things that make college so great. Players playing for the love of the game, playing for their school, playing for their friends. Playing for that championship ring that they will cherish for the rest of their lives. Right, Mr Pryor?
Loyalty – Playing for a City
There are two edges to a sword, and when it comes to money buying players and teams with the most money being the most successful, this is also true. While we may hate the Yankees for buying the entire world, the players are the ones who accept the contract. Now, don’t get me wrong, I would probably jump for a multimillion dollar salary and endorsement deals to boot, too. Who wouldn’t? It’s the world that we live in, and players are now put in the position where they have to choose. Money always wins. There was a day when a Curtis Granderson, would come up through the Detroit organization, from bottom to top, and remain a Tiger for the rest of his career. A beloved Tiger. Now he’s a Yankee. There was a day when Johnny Damon, a beloved Red Sock, would play the outfield at Fenway for years and years, a lifetime of hating the New York Yankees. Now he’s playing for them.
Lebron James, an Ohio boy, playing for a city in his home state, winning every year, owning the keys to the city and whatever he wants is placed at his feet. He is given every opportunity to be successful and is unable to do it. What does he do? Leaves them high and dry.
The Lebron James saga brings up the topic of shortcuts. They never used to exist. To win, you had to win. You had to go earn your championship. You had to earn your respect. Now, you find someone to earn it for you. You skip steps. I might sound bitter, but I am a sentimental person. I am still young, but I firmly believe I have witnessed the end of great time in sports.
A transition has been completed and it is no longer all about the game.
There are no more great champions. There will be no more great stories. They may seem great, but they’re diluted. The bar has dropped. Permanently.