Another Black Eye for Pro Sports

In a previous column I expressed the opinion that what we call “sports” can be divided into three categories: perfect sports, imperfect sports, and spectacle. 

I suggested that football is a perfect sport and that there are few potential rules changes that would improve the game.  It is a game of violence, but there are rules to the violence that are strictly enforced.  It is the best of all sports. 

Baseball, too, is a perfect sport.  The phoniest thing about baseball is the way they argue.  How many people do you know who argue by screaming at each other with their faces just inches apart, throwing spittle all over each other’s faces?  It’s disgusting, but no more disgusting than the tobacco chewing, spitting, and crotch-scratching that many players engage in. 

I’ve also suggested that another major problem with baseball is the strike zone.  The rule book says that the strike zone is from the inside edge of home plate to the outside edge, and from the knees to the letters on the player’s uniform.  So why do the team owners allow each umpire to have his own version of the strike zone?  This problem could easily be solved by installing lasers to call balls and strikes.  The discretionary strike zone is almost enough to make baseball an imperfect sport.

Track and field, softball, swimming and diving, gymnastics, and golf, are all perfect sports.  Tennis, too, is a perfect sport, except for its silly scoring system.  If you have no score, you have “love.”  When you score one point you have “15.”  If you score again you have “30.”  And if you score a third time you suddenly have “40.”  Why not “45?”  If at some point both players have the same score – whether 15-15, 30-30, or 40-40 – it’s called “deuce,” which means “two.”  It’s probably a screwy system because, like everything else the British invent, it makes no sense. 

Basketball is the best example of an imperfect sport.  Not only is it an intensely boring game to watch, if you tune in to the last thirty seconds of a game you’ll see all the drama and excitement you’ll see in an entire game.  So why not have thirty second basketball games?  Given the number of momentum-killing timeouts that coaches call in the closing seconds of a game, they could stretch thirty seconds into thirty minutes of commercial messages.

But the biggest rap on the game of basketball is the scoring for foul shots.  If a player grabs the ball and races down the court for an easy two-point lay-up, chances are some 300 lb. brute will land on his back and crash him to the floor.  When that happens, the player who is “mugged” gets to stand about fifteen feet from the basket and shoot two free-throws.  If he’s skillful enough to make both he’s awarded two points, the same number of points he would have made had he not been smashed to the floor.  So, where’s the penalty for the offender?  The game of basketball could be improved 1,000 percent by simply making foul shots worth two points each and allowing no timeouts in the last five minutes of a game.

But none of these, perfect sports or imperfect sports, has the long and proud tradition of the “spectacle.”  We don’t know what games prehistoric man invented to amuse himself.  We do know that, in the early Christian era, the townsfolk enjoyed some real knee-slappers as they watched the Christians dashing around the arena, trying their damnedest to be the last one eaten by the lions.  That was spectacle.

The Spanish found a way to get even with the animal world by arming a whole bunch of guys with spears and swords and turning them all loose on a single bull.  That’s spectacle.

And in the modern era we have professional ice hockey and its first cousin, professional wrestling.  Professional ice hockey could, and should, compete with football as one of the greatest of all “perfect” sports.  It should be a game of beauty and grace, a game of speed, skill, and athletic ability, but it’s played as if it were a common street fight.  It appeals to the most visceral side of human nature and attracts fans, most of whom would pay to see a terrorist attack, an autopsy, or a fatal car crash.  It is not sport, it is spectacle.

When I was a boy growing up in a St. Louis suburb, all the kids my age were sports fanatics   We were all members of the St. Louis Browns Knothole Club (before the Browns became the Orioles  in 1954), or we were members of the Cardinals Knothole Club… sometimes both.  We were such avid fans that many of us could name the entire starting lineups of most major league teams.  But times have changed and most of us are now interested in just one team, in one or two sports, and since the advent of free agency, it would be a rare fan who could name the starting lineups for most competing teams.

Professional baseball took a serious blow to its popularity as the “national pastime” with the major league baseball strike of April 1-13, 1972.  Baseball fans missed out on eighty-two games during that 12-day walkout and major league baseball has still not fully recovered the respect of their pre-strike fan base.

This was followed by the National Football League players strike of 1987.  That 24-day strike was called after Week 2.  The Week 3 games were cancelled, reducing the 1987-88 season to just 15 games, and games 4, 5, and 6 were played with “replacement” players… mostly guys who had played college football but weren’t quite good enough to make it in the NFL.  Football fans across the country were enraged, forcing the NFL to reach a settlement in time for game 7. 

On March 8, 2004, in a National Hockey League game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks, a Vancouver player “sucker-punched” Colorado’s Steve Moore, driving his head into the ice and fracturing three vertebrae in his neck.  Moore ultimately recovered from his injuries, but that attack only added to professional hockey’s less-than-sportsmanlike reputation.  

Since the 1987 NFL strike, professional football has recovered its popularity to a greater degree than has professional baseball.  But then, during the third game of the 2016 NFL preseason, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers brought his radical left-wing political views to the playing field.  A man who began life in 1987 as an adoptee, who signed a $114 million contract in 2014, and who reportedly had a net worth of $20 million, let it be known that he would not stand for the playing of our national anthem prior to games.

His lack of patriotism has spread to other teams and other sports and now, in the summer of 2019, we are forced to endure the childish behavior of Megan Rapinoe of the Women’s U.S. World Cup soccer team, who has also brought her radical left-wing politics to the playing field.

But, while Rapinoe may deserve our enmity for refusing to stand during the playing of our national anthem, and for childishly thumbing her nose at an invitation from our president to be his guest at the White House, she deserves some measure of credit for raising the issue of the pay structure for female athletes vs. male athletes.

Most of us can agree that there is significant wage discrimination between male and female athletes.  Yet, is there anyone who does not fully appreciate the athletic ability of female softball players, tennis players, swimmers, divers, golfers, gymnasts, volleyball players, and track & field competitors?  However, when Forbes Magazine published a list of the world’s highest paid athletes in 2018, there was not a single female athlete listed in the top 100.  In 2019, Serena Williams made the 63rd spot on the Forbes list with an estimated income of $29 million.

And while we can all agree that it would be a rare female who could compete with male athletes in games such as baseball, basketball, and football because of the obvious physical differences between males and females, there are sports, such as soccer, in which the physical differences becomes all but irrelevant.  Unlike football, the game we call soccer does not have a playbook with dozens of set plays… plays that all players must memorize and execute.  Rather, soccer is a game of kicking and passing with each kicking and passing decision made in a millisecond. 

For those who enjoy the game of soccer, it would be difficult to describe what contrast they might see in a match played by males vs. a match played by females.  As fans of American football are known to say, watching a soccer match is much like watching grass grow or watching paint dry.

Although competitive women’s sports date back to the ancient Olympic Games when the Heraean Games, dedicated to the Greek goddess Hera, were held concurrently with the men’s competition, women’s competitive sports were all but non-existent until the mid-20th century.  Until that time competitive sport was considered to be a “manly” pursuit, not an activity conducive to the feminine gender.

But women’s competitive sports have made great strides in the past half century, exemplified by the extraordinary accomplishments of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team.  Their triumphs on the playing field will live on in the hearts and minds of American sports fans, and the differences in financial remuneration between male and female soccer players will be debated and eventually resolved.  But what will not be so quickly forgotten is the poor sportsmanship and the lack of patriotism demonstrated by one player with radical left-wing political views.  What should have been another historic milestone in competitive sports, turned out to be just another black eye for professional sports. 

Paul R. Hollrah is a retired government relations executive and a two-time member of the U.S. Electoral College.  He currently lives and writes among the hills and lakes of northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country.


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