Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Fan's Notes— 2.0

The Picture Says It All. Sports Sucks Now. Big Time.

Good day from the GNB Sports Desk! Or maybe..not so good day. LowerManhattanite here, with Part One of a Two Part "White Paper" report.

You will find no bigger sports fan than me. I grew up in a house with four boys, and a dad who threw a wicked four-seam fastball and a Doug Williams-tight spiral well into his fifties.

I remember the day I fell in love with baseball—July 13th 1971—watching Reggie Jackson launch that career-making mortar off the transformer atop the right-field roof of Tiger Stadium. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Saw it with my dad at his restaurant. I'll never forget it. Reggie was my idol. But I couldn't follow A's games 3000 miles away, so I lavished my love on the then-horriffic Yankees. Reggie came to the Bronx in '77. How happy do you think I was? :)

Football entranced me—particularly the-just-about-over-the-hill Joe Willie Namath (even in that cool, old L.A. Rams "uni"), and my mid-seventies Steelers, which was extremely difficult as I was in a house full of Dallas Cowboys fans, but I persevered. And found I could just fall in love with watching a great player for another team—namely, the Oilers' Earl Campbell—in spite of his being on a bitter Steelers' division rival—he was simply the most awe-inspiring, punishing runner I've ever seen.

A sublime, indelible NBA memory is of seeing the gentle giant Willis Reed in glorious Black & White TV, uncharacteristically go down the length of the old Baltimore Bullet bench, caving in the grilles of every player who dared remain sitting in a wild, courtside brawl—and a few of the standees in an old WOR free-TV game. Yes, they fought like hell in the olden days of the NBA too, folks. I personally harangued the Rockets' Moses Malone into missing all three shots of a "three-to-make-two" in the waning seconds of a Knicks game, from my near-courtside seat in a two-thirds empty Madison Square Garden in the early 80's.

The Olympics? I remember Tommie Smith, and John Carlos, and Bob Beamon, and Ludmilla Turischeva (who I liked much more than Olga Korbut), and Dave Wottle and Steve Prefontaine.

I lived sports. Breathed sports. Played sports—excelled at Baseball (Pitched and played center), and Football (Wide-Out, Halfback and Safety/Rover). Live and die with my beloved Yankees. My Steelers. Am still in my wishing ill-will on my Knicks until ownership changes (as I did with the Yanks for their unceremonious ditching of Reggie)


Which drives the divinely fucked-up confluence of every single sport seeming to go into the shitter at once to something beyond just painful for a "fanatic" like me.

It's actually numbing. I never thought—in my life ever—that I could be moved to the point where "Sports" per se would begin to lose me...but I'll be damned...'s happening. :(

Doc Wendel wrote a post a couple of days ago, stepping away from his strong, derailleur-to-derailleur coverage of the Tour de France, to handle—dead-on—the burgeoning doping scandal that threatened to (pun not intended) derail the tour. He ended it , saying "This is today's doping story. Talk among yourselves. We'll be back tomorrow for Stage 16. If anyone is still left to ride."

"If anyone is still left to ride."

That's a hell of a statement. I could hear the This-is-fucked-chest-kick in Jesse's words. He loves cycling. The way many of us love baseball. And football. And basketball. Now granted, many people are NOT sports fans—and are probably chortling up their sleeves at the seeming total collapse of integrity in sports going on right now, but dammit—there are MILLIONS of Americans, and BILLIONS of world citizens who are sports fans, and the news in recent days—after months and years of building to this point—are just axe-struck by it all. Nearly 80 million people attended Major League Baseball last year. 22 million went to NFL games. Another 22 mil checked out NBA contests. And that's just in-arena viewership—it doesn't include TV and radio fans. I wouldn't even hazard a guess at the number of soccer (football) fans worldwide who dug hard on the World Cup, or the folks like Jesse who live for le Tour. Countless millions...frankly, billions of semi-to-very involved fans—and many of 'em are flat-out-disgusted and heartbroken, very much the way you can "hear" it in Jesse's online voice.

It matters. It just does.

It's an outlet, an oasis and refuge in our lives, and has been forever. And as busy and distracted as people are in this multi-tasking age, sports' ability to make us slow down for those few hours a week to enjoy it, is not a small deal. We find ourselves now, with these awful, and confidence-draining stories rendering those few hours an utter waste of time. How did we get here—At this five-way intersection of sports, with all the cars piled up, —flames and steaming effluent shooting everywhichway?

Where to begin? Where it all ends, of course. MONEY. Now, here's the part where Ira from Maspeth calls in from his mom's basement, railing at the sports talk show host about the players' salaries. "It's a freakin' game! I played it for free when I was a kid, and if I could play it now, I'd do it for a tenth of what these spoiled blah-blah-blabbity-blah-blah, please shut the fuck UP, Ira!

It's actually a lot more complicated than just "those overpaid jerks" you like to call in about when you're not calling in to propose some half-ass trade.

In the olden days of sports—an era which you can place at around pre-1965 or so, teams were owned by involved, sports-loving families of means, or involved sports-loving/business-owning families. Jacob Ruppert owned the Yanks. The Payson family owned the Mets. The Yawkeys owned the Red Sox. And the Wrigleys and Buschs owned the Cubbies and Cards, respectively. The same held true for NBA (The Celtics' Walter Brown, the Pistons' Fred Zollner) and NFL (The Giants Maras, the Steelers' Rooneys) franchises. Note that I use the caveat involved in my description of these family ownerships. What changed post-'65 was the acquisition of teams by outside conglomerates and the neglect of the clubs that weren't, by family businesses that would grow into conglomerates. The expansion of the busineses or corporations owning these teams would break down the fragile command and control structures that ran the teams. The further removed the one-time hands-on ownership was from the running of the teams proper, the worse things became overall. This was manifest most directly in Baseball and Basketball—less so in Football, as the clubby nature of ownership and the macho "Leaders of Men" ethos remains in large part to this day. Those owners are still men, though, tangible human beings for whom the team is an odd extension of themselves. What would damage Football is the monstrous—and I do mean monstrous TV contracts, which turned the rough-and-tumble, almost "outlaw" NFL of the mid 60's into an mega-entertainment venture not unlike a theme park or Las Vegas casino. We saw the birth of NFL Films, The "Super" Bowl, Monday Night Football—hyper-marketing to the Nth degree.

The new, crazy money—via corporatization of ownership, and the tremendous broadcast contracts for the vast majority of teams broke the close bond between team and boss, putting layer upon layer of bureaucracy in between—unlike the ways of the age of Ownership-As-Benevolent-God. In those days of yore, players went almost year-to-year insofar as contracts. A huge year could raise your salary a bit. Another one, maybe a bit more. But have an off year, and you could be taken back to your pre-good two years rate. Free agency for players didn't exist, so you took what the owners gave you. Your salary was LOW, in comparison to what owners made off of your play. You had to have an off-season job—not as a sportscaster or post-season analyst like nowadays, because the press still controlled that, then.

No, you worked on a farm. You coached high-school kids. Ran a dairy, or a cleaners, or a restaurant. You worked a fishing boat. Maybe managed a beverage distributor.

And when you were done...when the fastball would overwhelm you, or the nerves in your knees knifed you with every stride downfield—you were retired by the team. As a parting gift, you got a couple of hunting dogs, a gold watch and a nice rifle in a box. A couple of cows for your farm, perhaps, and a framed plaque with your jersey under glass. That's if you were a good player. Were you a journeyman, you got a ticket home, your last check, and a handshake. Players tired of being nickel and dimed by millionaire owners now fat with huge broadcast money, or untold capital after being bought out by AcmeCo or whoever. So they fought for salary freedom and the opportunity to make the maximum they could get. Now is where the big salaries come into play, Ira, from Maspeth, calling from your mom's basement. All those million and billion-dollar numbers bandied about over owners' capital, set images of fat, dollar signs dancing in their eyes after many decades of being taken advantage of. And after a few lawsuits (Curt Flood's) and victories like Andy Messersmith's over Baseball's reserve clause, the dam broke, and athletes followed their Hollywood acting counterparts in ending their own version of the studio system—controlling their own destinies for the very first time,

Of how not every owner went greed crazy and wrecked things, not every player did either.

But enough did. Guys coming off one career year, signed jaw-dropping (for their time) contracts when they entered the free-agent market. Decent players like Rennie Stennett (Baseball), Chuck Muncie (Football), and Allan Houston signed monstrous contracts, far in excess of their reasonable but grossly overrated talents. But...owners paid them. Why? Because rather than open their books and expose the obscene profits, the bosses simply paid up—hoping to snag the best players, roll those turnstiles and increase those profits further.

So now everybody's out for self. Owners would now move a team on a whim, to more favorable locales to make ever more money. Teams with huge and faithful fan bases like the Cleveland Browns would just up and leave a town where the team history was rich and deeply ingrained. The Baltimore Colts, a legendary franchise, would sneakily book from a historic home, in the dead of night, in a row of moving trucks—lock, stock and barrel—enticed by Benjamins waved around by a beckoning city, craving a ready-made team. The hell with waiting for a chance to snag an expansion franchise. New stadia please, publicly-financed, thank you, or we leave your town, too! Greed...was good. And then the players got in on it, big time—agents negotiating with multiple teams to drive the bidding up, pitting team against team, owner against owner, even player against player. Get the absolute maximum! (And I get my 10%,—partner). The use of statistical formulas rose, often flawed, always skewed—comparing the player being shopped to all-time greats of yesteryear—using odd snap-shotted numbers.

" don't want my guy? No problem Owner X in Megatown does. Ooooh! He's your division rival, ain't he? Fans won't like it when they beat you out for the post-season."


Over a barrel, with flames licking from the hole. Got your ass, boss.

And then Ladies and Gentlemen...the wheels come off at Koyaanisqatsi-on-crack speed. Hang on!

a.) Team owners want to "young-up" the talent pool, to decrease the salaries as younger players cost less, and can be signed for long-term, lock-in contracts.

b.) Ultimate controllers of the talent pool—agents, parents of the younger, future stars, and the schools where these stars are now being scouted and touted earlier than ever, realize there's ridiculous money to be made off that younger talent. So, the NCAA changes its rules, letting players leave earlier—many after two years, too many after one year. The days of players staying for degrees or at least three years, ends. The schools reap the benefits of a back-scratch via increased TV contract money facilitated by their professional sport benefactor/pimps. Baseball exploits a signing loophole and harvests super-talented kids from Central America and the Caribbean at the age of 16. The NBA phases out its "hardship" rule—the rare allowance for an underaged/un-colleged player to enter the league, to where all a player has to do is complete high school to be eligible for league play. The NFL walks away from the idea of student-athletes, and encouraging red-shirting in College ball—where players would stay on for extended runs in school to max out full eligibility for collegiate play. A player could be in school five years playing. No more. The pros would like those extra, prime playing years for themselves, thank you very much.

c.) Said schools and parents, realizing the worth of their cash-calves, defer to that "talent"—relaxing one-time rules and tenets of player development to keep the kids happy. Discipline begins to break down. High school and college coaches go from being people-shapers, and teachers, to being baby-sitters and minders—until a kid is ready to "go pro". No one dares piss these hormonal, still-developing "investments" off. They're allowed to behave like children far longer than their predecessors—as long as they excel athletically. Ruh-roh!

d.) The now-absentee ownership, without the old-school command and control structures in place, has two things in mind. MAXIMIZE PROFITS, and WIN. In that order. They stockpile young athletes, getting them "cheap" (but still lucrative for parents and schools), while ditching grumpy, old-school veterans who might "upset" the kids with their views on the game and "archaic" ways. Leadership is attritioned away, leaving a load of kids—rudderless in terms of "respect for the game". The salary gap closes, overlaps, and then races the other way, as pro coaches find themselves making FAR, FAR less than their young, coddled charges. The "old-school veterans" in these ranks are also attritioned away, lest they piss off the kids. The ones that do can be fired with but a word from the player's agent to management. Baby-sitters fill those ranks too.

e.) Now, as salaries ramp up, young players no longer need to "work" in the off-season. The idea of "responsibility" fritters away. Mom, and dad, and school haven't stressed the idea—they're focused on creating millionaire superstars younger and younger. Kids...or rather, immature adults who no one has told "no" since their early teens, now have free off-seasons and increasing amounts of money to spend. Smaaaaaaart.

f.) These "kids" eat better, and have access to better training than any athletes before them. They jump higher, run faster, grow bigger than ever. But the biggest money's out there for the superstars. They have to be better than the next player. Nature, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. Drugs—performance enhancing drugs had long been a part of the game, in terms of keeping players pepped-up, and wakeful for performance after cross-country trips. But now, as science advances along with everything else on the planet, new drugs come down the pike—drugs that can make these already bigger, stronger, faster athletes that much more of all of those things—in combination with better access to fitness equipment to build those bodies. Performance increases—along with the salaries again. With the performance increases, records are eclipsed. Superstars abound. Ownership knows what's going on, but the click-click-click of the tumstiles means ka-ching-ching-ching.

The cycle is on, ya'll, and going into third gear.

g.) Salaries go through the roof, and all that big money doesn't attract the best of folk. Hangers-on, and money-grubbers with selfish, ill-will in mind, hover about the new stars—like blinged-out moths to a flame. These people will never say "no" to the athlete either—and indulge his every whim—while getting fat off their "boy". Family won't say "no" either. 'Cause they're livin' large too. Team bosses look the other way at indulgences—can't antagonize that star! The women? Stardom and money does what stardom and money does, kids. Already fawned over in youth, this new breed of athlete—essentially millionaires in-waiting, get even more ass thrown at them than their counterparts of a mere two decades ago. And there are shady dudes who will supply women as a "honey-pot" strategy to hook a rich, fat, "fish". The sex is easy to get—for the big prospects, from high school on. Fame and future stardom'll draw that. Relationships come cheap as hell. Women are interchangeable. Props and objects to be used. No sense of responsibility to anyone, especially "significant others." The situation just gets better and better.

h.) The pool of potential pro athletes widens and deepens as it becomes evident that there are millions and millions to be made. It draws more people from dire circumstances, looking for the big payday. Kids are groomed and scouted as early as middle school by colleges and pros, and pimped just as early by those crazy parents again. More dysfunctional, albeit talented athletes are in the fray—given over to "mentors" and "handlers" who manage the talent, and hide the dysfunction, and anti-social behaviors exacerbated by that justified feeling of "I can do no wrong".

i.) Ownership/The Leagues push the superficial—the stuff that marketers drool over as fan draws. Home runs. Crazier dunks. Higher scoring, The stuff that lights up the scoreboard and sets the flashbulbs in the stands a' poppin'—and blows the Nielsen boxes to fucking smithereens. So...they skew the game rules—change stuff up. The pitcher's mound is lowered to help the hitters out, and penalize the pitcher—they get rid of the hand-check, and limit tough defense in B-Ball, while promo-ing the wild, solo act that is the slam-dunk competition—and rule in football on things like the "in the grasp" rule, to save QBs, and add the "pass interference" rule to help receivers and juice the scoring. It becomes as Rick James said, "A celebration, bitches!" The triumph of the individual is on. Teamwork as we've known it, dies off. The focus of the game shifts to stats and highlight reels. This stuff gets used by agents in representing their players come contract time. Everybody's Babe Ruth, now. " a sta-aaaaaaar... One big circle going round and round." Hello, Wheaties box. Hello, Nike, Hanes and the automaker of the week. We have a new promotional tool to hype players—and by extension their teams. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle got $100,000 for wearing idiotic bonnets and promoting margarine in the late 60's. The endorsement money we're talking about now is waaaaaay beyond mere margarine grease. It's the real stuff. True C.R.E.A.M. And worst of all...everybody, and I do mean, everybody—ownership, players, agents—everybody—is out for themselves.

So all of this sits, and festers. It grows mold like an experiment run wild, in the back of a lab and neglected for years. Twenty-five years, actually. A generation goes by and this stuff goes from a fungus on sports, to an integral part of sports—under the skin, and in the muscle and very bone of it. Symptoms are noted. Pains and aches and the occasional numbness, but, we let it slide. We did. The fans are included. We paid lip service to the purism of "the game" and derided in the most superficial way possible, the obscene changes noted above, while not-so-blindly cheering on the eye-and-psyche-pleasing results of said obscene changes. We're all to blame for what's gone on in the last 25 years in sports—every pain, and ache, and bout of numbness.

Until it metastasized. That's what we're looking at now.

All that came before, leads to now. Bonds and the 'roids. Vick and the disgusting criminality. Donaghy and his destruction of faith in the play of the game. In order of heinousness—bad, to worse, to worst of fucking all. The drugs you can test for. You can see the changes in the players using. Brady Anderson's and Luis Gonzales freak, fifty-homer seasons and the swelling of their bodies speak volumes for their puffed-up, number-inflated brethren. That we can fix. Vick and his fellow travelers in recklessness, and criminal stupidity can be brought to heel with stiff sanctions for bad behavior.

Donaghy's misdeeds may actually be the worst of all, because it plays to the worst fears and darkest thoughts of the most cynical sports fan—that the "fix is in". That what you see in the arenas and on your TVs is being manipulated by unseen forces for the personal gain of a very few. That's when it becomes the WWE. A titillating, scripted joke.

And you lose everyone who cares...including even a nut like me.

Lose me, you lose it all. And just for thr record, sports? You're well on your way there.

Wanna know how to fix it? Check back here in a couple of days for the follow-up and some solutions.