Sunday, June 29, 2008

There Ain't No Nirvana in Sports

To think of playing cricket for hard cash! Money and gentility would ruin any pastime under the sun. ~Mary Russell Mitford, 1823

We have weird ideas about the "purity" of sport. Take the Olympics. People have this weird idea that athletes are just thrilled to merely compete against their peers from all over the world and to represent their home countries. Now, this may be true of the Jamaican Bobsled team, but for U.S., Russian, or Chinese athletes, among others, winning is what it's all about. Winning a major event like the 100 meters or the pole vault is a ticket to fame and fortune. Losing is all about becoming a footnote in sports history which will look nice on the old obituary.

In fact, it's always been like that. Consider this little piece where some professor has the temerity to point out that in the ancient Olympics, athletes competed for prize money, had their own touring circuit, and used "performance enhancing potions" to try get an edge.

About those potions: One would think that one's performance would be enhanced just by the threat of having to take a potion containing wild boar's dung, much less by actually drinking it.

So, athletes have been in it for the money and taking drugs, not to mention cheating, since the first laurel wreath was awarded. What a surprise. And whose fault is that?

Well, the first group that comes to mind is the sports fans themselves.

Once fans get hold of a sport, corruption is soon to follow. Consider college football. There is big money involved because sponsors follow fans. So teams stand to make a lot of jack by winning a lot of games. Players stand to become independently wealthy by getting drafted by pro teams and lasting just long enough to collect their pensions. When money is involved, purity is out the window.

If you want purity in sports, you need to follow the women's sports. Women's basketball is still played as a team sport, where passing actually occurs between shots. Softball (there is apparently no men's softball in college) is played with serious passion in front of tiny little crowds of family and friends. Even college baseball still harkens back to some sort of sports ideal, since baseball has few scholarships, hence no recruiting scandals, and few fans (until the playoffs), hence less pressure to do something illegal in the first place.

Put it this way. Fresno State just won the College World Series, becoming the lowest seeded team in NCAA sports history to win a championship. That's in any sport. Fresno has never won a men's title (although they won the softball championship once). When Fresno State or some similar school plays in the BCS National Championship game, I'll believe that some sort of ideal sports environment has been achieved.

Yeah, yeah, I remember George Mason in the basketball tournament. There's always a Cinderella team in basketball because one great player, or one player just getting unconciously hot during the playoffs, can propel a basketball team to near the top. But all the Cinderellas turn into pumpkins, even in basketball. Fresno St. is the first to get to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

The fact is that sports is a business, and football is the biggest business of the bunch, with basketball close behind. That's what's wrong with college sports. We knew professional sports are a business, so the cheating and drug-taking should be no surprise. But college football has been in the same boat for years. In fact, steroid use probably started there and migrated to the pros.

Supposedly, all that drug use is cleaned up (oh, yeah, and I've got a couple of acres of swampland I'd like to sell you), so the scandals have now moved to recruiting and arrests.

The University of Alabama keeps making news for getting players busted. Until recently, it's been mostly disorderly conduct or being boozed up and driving around. The last two, involving armed robbery in one case and drug dealing in the other, are downright scary. It's getting popular to blame all this on Mike Shula because most of those arrested were his recruits, but the fact is that Nick Saban recruited at least one of these convicts-in-training, and he's not doing much to find out what the rest of the team is up to.

How could he? He's spending all his time recruiting. When he's not recruiting, he's looking for loopholes in the recruiting rules to exploit to his advantage. He doesn't have time to worry about the character of his players. Heck, he doesn't even have time to coach the team. Most of that role is handed to assistant coaches. Coach Saban is not alone here. Steve Spurrier recently decided he couldn't call plays any more because of all the recruiting and booster-schmoozing he has to do would preclude him from participating in developing a game plan.

Hey, here's a crazy idea. Why not let the players call the plays like they used to? Then the coaches wouldn't have to do anything but teach them the game, whenever they weren't out recruiting.

The only way to enjoy sports any more is to watch the games and not spend time ascribing any noble motives to the players or their coaches. They're out there to win; we want them to win. Let's let it go at that.

Let the commissioners, the leagues, and the powers that be worry about the other stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment