May 25, 2011

The Death of Sports

I'm not sure exactly when it happened.  It probably was a gradual thing.  But my love for sports is dead.  I came to this realization the other day.  It was sad, but I think I saw it coming.  I have been disappointed with sports for a while now.  This blog has seen its share of my complaints over the years.  I always assumed those were like disagreements between friends - something that could be worked out over time or ignored for the sake of the relationship.  Not any more.  This is a full fledged break up.

I have always loved sports.  Not playing them, mind you.  I loved watching them, reading about them, talking about them.  I never quite went as far as some kids - where they become walking encyclopedias of every little sport fact.  I had friends like that and they annoyed me.  "Hey, you know how many doubles Dale Murphy hit off left handed pitchers on road trips while the moon was in its second phase?"  I liked to follow stuff, know who was leading categories, cheer for my teams.  I had football and baseball cards.  I always watched the playoffs for just about everything - except hockey.  Even as a kid, I always read the Sports Section (and the comics) in the paper.  We got both the morning and evening papers, so I would check to see if there were new stats or transactions.  I loved transactions - trades, injury reports, stuff like that.  [Side Note: Do you remember when there were two different papers?  Was that just a West Palm Beach thing?  I loved it.  The Palm Beach Post came in the morning and The Evening News came at dinner.  It was shocked to find out they were the same company.]  I read Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports.

Sports was one thing my dad and I connected on.  I used to watch football with him on Saturdays and Sundays.  We would watch Atlanta Hawks basketball on Superstation TBS at night.  We avoided Braves games, because we both hated the Braves.  My grandmother was a big fan of them, though.  We always watched the MLB playoffs and World Series.  The Super Bowl was a big deal at our house - as I've mentioned on here before.  So were the Thanksgiving day games and New Year's bowls.  We didn't cheer for the same teams.  In fact, our house was a conglomeration of fan bases that hated each other.  My dad rooted for the Bears, Celtics, and Hurricanes (I don't know who he liked in baseball - he didn't like baseball).  And he hated the Dolphins, Notre Dame, and Braves.  My brother went for the Redskins, Lakers, Expos (they trained in WPB), and USC Trojans.  I was a fan of the Cowboys, Hawks, Yankees, and Georgia Bulldogs.  So we had our share of arguments and loved ridiculing each others' teams.  To this day, I still find it hilarious that Dallas' one win in 1989 was over the Redskins.  Haha.

So I loved sports.  I have blogged on this site 46 times about sports.  On my Darth Fatso site, I blogged about the Super Bowl and how my eating changing affected that event.  I have an entire other blog about my fantasy football league.  (See, I DO spare you from inane writings sometimes.)  But now, I just can't do it any more.  I can't pretend.  I have tried over the years to make it work.  But each sports has, in turn, just done irreparable harm.  What's it called?  Irreconcilable differences.

MLB: Baseball didn't have to do much.  I never really loved the sport.  It was kind of the thing I watched while the real sports were on break.  As I got older, I got less and less interested.  But there were some things about it that were undeniably attractive.  First, the teams trained down in Florida.  This meant that it was easy to get to watch baseball in person.  Second, the tickets were cheap.  If you wanted to go to a Marlins or Rays game (Why would you, when I lived there?), you could do it for under ten bucks.  But, when the 1994-1995 strike happened, that put the sport on life support.  I had put up with work stoppages in other sports and figured you just deal with it.  But this one cancelled the World Series - the only thing of redeeming value in baseball.  I was just about through with them.  I, like many Americans, got sucked back in during the McGwire/Sosa home run race.  As a Yankees fan, I loved their emergence again as a dynasty.  But the final blow came with steroids.  It seemed like nothing good that happened since that strike was real.  Every big name guy was on drugs.  And the Yankees were the worst offending team.  I broke with them after the Mitchell Report fingered TWENTY-SIX players on that team.  I have enjoyed how the Tampa Bay Rays have built their team.  But the way the big money teams raid the small money ones still irks me.  I go entire seasons without watching a game.

NBA: I think the first blow was when Shaq left the Magic.  I really connected with that team while I lived in Orlando.  I went to a few games.  I watched most of them.  My close friends were all Magic fans.  And the team was a good one to like - upstanding guys (for the most part), nice management, lucky lottery picks.  They should have been a dynasty.  But Shaq was a selfish jerk and I realized just how toxic the Orlando media was (and still are - just wait until they shove Howard out of town.  They aren't happy unless they are mad at the Sentinel.)  I had rooted for Jordan and loved watching him play.  I got over the Shaq betrayal and got up for the next Magic run when they signed Grant Hill and T-Mac.  Whoops.  I picked myself back up when they got Dwight Howard and make a title run a few years ago.  But something happened when LeBron James bolted for Miami.  Something broke in the NBA.  It has always been the most selfish of the leagues, when it came to players.  It is the one where one player has the most clout over a team.  One player can make a difference, sell tickets, push a team into the spotlight.  But one player can't do it all.  In one player could have done it, it would have been LeBron.  He tried and almost did it.  But he wasn't strong enough.  And he got tired.  So he bolted to Miami.  (To be fair, we have seen other guys do this too - Garnett, Barkley, Drexler.  James was just the most blatant.)  Since then, Carmelo moped his way out of Denver and Deron Williams griped his way out of Utah.  It was like players realized they truly had the full control now.  I know Dwight Howard is going to leave.  If I was him, I would.  He can't carry that franchise and the management is too stupid to get him help.  Plus, the NBA is headed for a lockout this summer anyway.  I just can't put up with it.

NFL:  This was the heartbreaker.  I always thought I would have the NFL.  They were my favorite sport.  It is the league I am the most invested in.  I've been to more NFL games than any other sport - except maybe UCF football.  I watch the most NFL.  My kids even recognize this.  I handled my transition away from the Cowboys to Tampa and Jax okay.  I even put up with labor issues before.  Free agency?  Okay, we'll deal.  Obnoxiously high prices?  Punk players?  I'll overlook it.  But two things did it for me.  The first was the concussion issue.  I really read a lot about this over the last year.  I was reading the early stuff, too - not just after the NFL started to try to cover their butts.  It is scary.  People are literally killing themselves to play this sport.  And the worst part is how it affecting kids and teens.  The attention is all on the NFL.  They have players dying in their 40s with massive brain damage.  But think about these kids who are playing like their professional idols.  How bad is it going to be for them?!?  I honestly can see a day where football as a whole gets shut down due to safety hazards.  The NFL is walking a dangerous line.  They are addressing the issue without admitting they knew anything was wrong.  What happens when we find out they had access to these studies years ago?  How many lawsuits are going to hit from families of former players?  How will colleges justify offering this sport?  The second fatal problem was the current lockout.  It isn't that the sport is suffering.  As Bill Simmons explained on ESPN the other day, this whole battle is two guys trying to decide how to divvy up an enormous pile of money.   Eight billion dollars are on the table.  And these sides are fighting over who gets what.  Not trying to split up fifty bucks.  EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS.

This gets at the crux of my problem with professional sports.  I know there are other issues at play like medical care for retired players and licensing stuff.  But the real issue is this money pile.  I have a hard time watching that and not getting furious.  Did you know that teachers in Florida are about to go on a merit based pay scale?  These woefully underpaid individuals - the people who we are trusting to educate future generations of adults - are now going to have their income determined by student performance.  BUT, the catch is, this performance is on some stupid wacky unfair standardized test.  The test does not take into account cultural background, learning style, test taking style.  It has no consideration in it for the individual student or class.  Everyone must take the same stupid test.  The instructions for it are actually counterproductive for students to do well on it.  It is geared to auditory learners.  And schools monkey around with the scheduling of it so they have enough time for make up testing due to rampant absences during test week.  So, these teachers who are barely making enough to justify taking this job, are now going to see their pay cut if their students don't do well enough on this test.  Oh, that is in addition to having to pay for supplies and snacks and rewards out of their own pocket. All of this so the state can save some money?!?  And then we have a group of people fighting over EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS while my daughter's excellent superior amazing teacher is wondering if she can afford to keep teaching.  Fury.  And, yes, this is more a problem with society than with sports in general.  But that certainly doesn't mean I have to continue supporting that flawed societal decision.

COLLEGE SPORTS:  My last refuge had been college sports.  I love UCF.  I cheer for their teams and watch their games.  I get excited when they start to do well and realize their potential.  They have started to get some bigger named athletes.  Their recruitment is improving.  Their facilities are top notch. Bowl appearances, bowl wins, national rankings.  It is all finally happening.  So I have something left to hold on to.  Sure, college sports seems dirty at times.  There are recruiting violations all over the place.  Players are getting arrested.  Coaches bail on their teams for bigger pay days.  But those are bigger schools.  UCF doesn't do that.  Ok, fine, they've had their share of players cheating and dying and stuff.  But that was under old leadership.  These new coaches and administrators are clean and above board.  the UCF football team had one of the highest graduation rates in the NCAA - right up there with Stanford and the Ivy League schools.  They had one of the lowest arrest rates.  Good place.  I even started to admire George O'Leary after consecutive winning seasons, reading about the grad rates, and the recruitment.  So what if Ohio State is now shown to be dirty?  So what if we know that in a few years UConn will have to return the title hardware and Auburn will forfeit every game Cam Newton played in?  Who cares if the BCS is so stupid and corrupt that it makes the national title an annual joke.  UCF isn't like that.

Except they are.  After the biggest recruiting year ever at UCF - national praise for both football and basketball classes - the whole thing starts to stink.  Turns out some guy from Chicago that is tied to basketball players is not who he says he is.  He's tied to an agent.  Suddenly UCF's Chicago pipeline is called into question - including how we got Marcus and Jeff Jordan and the big name guys this year.  The top notch QB we signed from Louisville tries to back out of his letter of intent.  O'Leary won't let him.  Things start to look murky.  It was then that I knew that UCF had really hit the big time.  They were dirty just like everyone else.  When I talk about this with my friends, they all say the same thing.  "You know, all the team do it.  They all cheat.  It really comes down to who cheats less and who covers it up better."  So why am I supporting this?  I am teaching my kids to play fair, not lie, not steal, not cheat.  I am trying to make them good citizens who follow the rules.  And then I am supporting an institution that is about who breaks the rules in the least obvious way?

Sports is always about getting an edge.  This drug isn't technically illegal - yet.  Try to squeeze in one more offseason workout.  Text one more recruit ten more times.  Hire this guy to put you in touch with this coach.  Keep it under the table.  Get together with other players to plot out your free agency so you can play together - three years before you are actually a free agent.  The whole thing is dirty.  We have gotten to where we assume everyone is dirty.  Lance Armstrong?  We know he cheated.  The mounds of evidence point to that.  Worse, it points to a massive conspiracy to keep it quiet.  Will you be stunned if he is proven to be a doper?  No, you probably will be to know he wasn't.  Is there a single athlete that would surprise you to be revealed as a user?  Is there a single college team that would be a shock if it came out they cheated?  I know that I risk sounding like a bitter old man, but there was a day when sports pointed us to something good.  It showed us heroes who went above and beyond, who trained their bodies to the peak of human skill.  It gave us lessons on the triumph of the human spirit.  It offered hope to millions who saw it as a way to escape their lives of poverty and desperation.  At times, it unified the country behind powerful community experiences - the World Series after 9/11, the first Monday Night Football game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  Now, though, it is hard to even imagine feeling that way about sports.  In fact, it seems a little silly that we ever attributed such a high place to something like sports.

At this point, the entire industry is ridiculous.  The whole thing is dirty.  It's all about money and power and none of it is about fun or the game.  I have intentionally NOT pushed my kids towards sports.  It used to be that you had kids get into sports to teach them about teamwork and hard work and loyalty and all that good stuff.  Now, I keep them away because I'm afraid of what they'll really learn.  How long before they are pushed to play through an injury, to take some kind of enhancement?  How long before my daughter's life would be taken over by gymnastics practicing?  How many games before my son gets his bell rung and is told to get back out there?  I just don't think I can do it any more.  How bad is my apathy?  The NHL and NBA are both in their playoff runs.  Baseball is in full swing.  And I have spent the last week watching my Burn Notice DVDs and playing Monster Dash on my iPhone instead of watching a single sporting event.  Last night, I checked and saw that the Heat and Bulls were tied with under a minute left in the fourth quarter.  Instead of putting on the game, hoping to see something amazing, I went to bed.  I didn't care at all.  Isn't that what you always hear?  You know a relationship is dead when you don't even fight or argue or scream any more?  You just don't even care?  That's me.  The dashboard of my blog is littered with half written posts griping about sports that I never even finished.  They just get to be "I've already written this.  What's the point."  It's over.  That's not to say the old feelings will never be tapped into again - with some special game or exciting season.  But I don't think it will ever be the same.  I always heard that sports helped to show us the best mankind had to offer.  Honestly, now it merely shows us the worst.  That sounds like a toxic situation to me.  It's time to move on.

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