How to Take Back Sports

How far back must we go to remember that sports matter? How deeply into our personal and national pasts must we travel to recall that we once cared?

Do we have to return to 1936? Adolf Hitler tried to make the Olympics into a propaganda machine for anti-Semitism and racism. In that case, American track star Jesse Owens, demonstrating that the master race could be mastered at racing, stole Hitler’s ideological show. Were not sports a vehicle of significant political substance then?

Or should we return to 1947 and Jackie Robinson? A baseball player integrated our “national pastime” a year before the U.S. Army considered African Americans equal. Robinson’s barrier-break may have been largely based on ticket-selling economics for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ owners, but didn’t sports do something good?

Their fists raised, their dignity palpable, track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos spread the American black power and student protest movements to the world when they stood on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Politics and sports mixed beautifully then.

Remember when tennis feminist Billie Jean King took on an old fart named Bobby Riggs in 1973, boldly bringing the women’s movement to the playing fields? That moment of sports theater stirred up sexual politics as much as any Betty Friedan essay or Miss America bra burning could ever do.

Sports had meaning. And sports were accessible.

Remember when your grandfather or your uncle–maybe your mother–took you to a game when you were a little kid? The hot dog was the best. The crowd was mesmerizing. The colors were bright. The crack of the bat under the summer sun, or the autumn chill wrapped around that touchdown run, was unforgettable. Back then, some nobody became your favorite player, somebody named Johnny Callison or Hal Greer or Clarence Peaks or Vic Hadfield, someone who sold cars in the off-season and once signed autographs for your father’s men’s club for a $50 appearance fee. Those “heroes” were working-class stiffs, just like us.

Now you read the sports pages–or, more exactly, the business and crime pages–and you realize you’ve disconnected from the institution and it from you. Sports is distant. It reeks of greed. Its politics glorify not the majestic drama of pure competition, but a drunken, gambling masculinity epitomized by sports-talk radio, a venue for obnoxious boys on car phones.

How can we reconcile our detachment from corporatized pro sports, professionalized college sports–even out-of-control kids’ sports–with our appreciation for athleticism, with our memories? And how, after we sort it all out, can we take sports back?

Part of the problem is that we want sports to be mythological when, in our hearts, we know they aren’t. So reclaiming sports requires that we come to grips with our own role in the myth-making. Owens, Robinson, Smith, Carlos, and King played to our highest ideals and so have been enshrined in our sports pantheon. But we’ve also made heroes of some whose legacies are much less clear-cut. Take Joe Namath, the 1960s quarterback who represented sexual freedom, or Bill Walton, the 1970s basketball hippie who symbolized the alienated white suburban Grateful Dead sports antihero. Neither deserves the reverence accorded Owens or Robinson or even King, but both captured the essence of their era. Or how about relief pitcher Steve Howe, who symbolized the evils of drug addiction in the ’80s, or Mike Tyson, who currently plays the archetypal angry black male? No less than Tommie Smith and John Carlos, these anti-icons were emblematic of their age.

It may be discomfiting, but it’s true: The power of sports and sports heroes to mirror our own aspirations have also contributed to the sorry state of the institution today. The women’s sports movement Billie Jean King helped create proved a great leap forward for female athletes, but it also created a generation of fitness consumers, whose appetite for Nikes and Reeboks created a new generation of Asian sweatshops.

Fans applauded the courage of renegade Curt Flood, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who in 1969 refused to be traded, arguing that baseball players should be free to play where they want to play. We cheered–all the way to the Supreme Court–his challenge to the cigar-smoking owners’ hold on their pinstripe-knickered chattel. Now players can sell their services to the highest bidder, but their astronomical salaries–deserved or not–alienate us from the games as much as the owners’ greed.

The greed isn’t new, of course. The corporate betrayal of the fan is as traditional as the seventh-inning stretch. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and the Dodgers and New York Giants fled to California in 1958, for money, subsidized facilities, and better TV contracts. But what has always been a regrettable by-product of sports has suddenly become its dominant ethos. Our worship of sports and our worship of the buck have now become one and the same. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we get the heroes we expect–and maybe deserve.

So how do we as a society reclaim sports from the corporate entertainment behemoth that now controls it? Some modest proposals:

  • Deprofessionalize college and high school sports.
    Let’s ban college athletic scholarships in favor of financial aid based on need, as for any other student. And let’s keep high school athletics in perspective. Why should local news coverage of high school sports exceed coverage given to the band, debating society, or science fair? Sports stars are introduced to the culture of athletic privilege at a very young age.
  • Allow some form of public ownership of professional sports teams.
    Leagues and owners ask us to pay for the depreciating asset of a stadium but give us no share of the appreciating asset of a franchise. Lease agreements between teams and publicly financed stadiums should also include enforceable community-involvement clauses.
  • Make sports affordable again.
    Sports owners call their games “family entertainment.” For whose family? Bill Gates’? Owners whose teams get corporate subsidies should set aside 20 percent of their tickets at prices no higher than a movie admission. And, like any other business feeding at the public trough, they should be required to pay livable wages even to the average schmoes who sell hot dogs.
  • Be conscious of the messages sport is sending.
    Alcohol-related advertising should be banned from sports broadcasting. Any male athlete convicted of assaulting a woman should be banned from college and pro sports. Fighting in a sports event should be at least a misdemeanor and maybe a felony, rather than a five-minute stay in the penalty box.

Let’s take the sports establishment by its lapels and shake it back toward us. Because even with all the maddening messages of male dominance, black servility, homophobia, corporate power, commercialism, and brawn over brains, sports still play an important role in many lives. When we watch a game, we are surrounded by friends and family. There are snacks and beverages. We sit in awe of the players’ remarkable skills. We can’t do what they do. They extend our youth. The tension of the competition is legitimate. The drama is high.

And therein lies the essence of modern American sport. It’s a good show, albeit bread and circuses. And we just can’t give it up. So why not take it back for ourselves as best we can, looking for ways to humanize an institution that mirrors our culture, understanding that those who own sport won’t give it up without a fight, knowing that we like it too much to ever just walk away.

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

Jay Weiner is a sportswriter for the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune and author of the forthcoming book Stadium Games: Fifty Years of Big League Greed and Bush League Boondoggles, to be published this spring by University of Minnesota Press.

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