By David Mullen
When I was a child, my father brought me up as a sports fan. Gradually, he lost his passion. While I knew the lineup of every Major League Baseball, NFL (and AFL) and NBA team, Dad didn’t seem to care about sports anymore except for watching an occasional Oakland Raiders or Stanford Indians (now adopting a politically correct color, cardinal, as their mascot) football game.
Eventually, he stopped following games altogether. Maybe it was the pressure of raising four children on a middle-class income. Maybe it was having a mortgage, which must be paid every month. Maybe it was just that his interest waned.
I never understood his loss of the love for the games. He was in the glory days of baseball, with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson and Roberto Clemente, among others, on their way to legendary status. The Raiders were part of the community, and some would come over to our house, as my Mom was friends with many of the Raiders’ wives. The Raiders teams were so entertaining, and the competition spurred on by quarterbacks Joe Namath, Len Dawson and John Hadl and teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins made games “must see TV.”
My father never cared much for the NBA, NHL or the PGA Tour. But I did. I got to worship Golden State Warriors forward Rick Barry, my lowly California Golden Seals and links heroes like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.
Lately, I am starting to understand the feeling my dad had. After the Antonio Brown and Zeke Elliott fiascos in the last few weeks, one’s love of sports is bound to sour. Brown’s antics were incomprehensible with Oakland (although they are one year away from moving to Las Vegas, in part because of greedy ownership), and he ended up in New England where he apparently wanted to be all along. At 24 and under contract, Elliott held the Dallas Cowboys hostage until Jerry Jones paid him so he could claim to be the highest paid running back in the NFL.
In football, fantasy teams and gambling has taken over. Veteran officials can’t keep up with the pace of the game. Players celebrate sacks or first downs even if their team is three touchdowns behind. College coaches and administrators get all of the money generated by “student athletes.” Behavior is moving a player’s deeds to the front page of the news, not the front page of the sports section. The fear of concussions has many parents holding back their children from playing football. The other football, or futbol, is popular worldwide but has been slow to gain mainstream popularity in the U.S., except when the World Cup takes place.
In baseball, the ball is juiced. The home run has lost its luster, and that is coming off a huge PED blemish, which ruined statistics that were a baseball fan’s balance sheet. There is no player loyalty anymore. And teams in New York, Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago have a lion’s share of the revenue over Tampa, Miami, Oakland and Kansas City because of the lack of true revenue sharing.
Umpires have their own strike zone, letting their ego overtake the rules of the game. Instant replay has not helped. The average length of a game is more than three hours. On Sept. 8, the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s played a nine-inning game in 2:14 and were praised. That used to be the norm.
The NBA revolves around LeBron James, whether he wins or loses. Once, ESPN was a bastion for sports information. Now it is a political or bully pulpit. What half truths can Stephen A. Smith scream about next? How are the New York teams fairing, because sports seems irrelevant everywhere else to ESPN? And the network has become a platform for the promotion of James. “Before we go to highlights, let’s see what LeBron thinks about global warming, gun control or immigration issues.”
Sports stars aren’t heroes anymore. They are marketing commodities. The most popular basketball shoes when I was growing up were Converse All-Stars named for Chuck Taylor, a semi-professional basketball player in 1919. Today, every NBA player endorses a shoe, mainly their own.
Boxing, a Saturday afternoon TV staple on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” featuring Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Forman, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Mike Tyson and others, has become a joke.
Expansion has cheapened the product in all team sports. There are just not as many good players to go around. And there is no end in sight as long as greed is more important than competition.
Like father, like son? I hope not. But I can honestly say that I am not nearly as fanatical as I once was. I can’t even name more than four players on the Jacksonville Jaguars.