Should some latter-day Gibbon write a Decline and Fall of the American Sports Empire, the 12 years just past will fill the first volume, with the passing of the Indianapolis 500, an annual World Series, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, meaningful college bowl games without sponsors' names in their titles, heavyweight championship bouts that matched the world's two best fighters on free TV, and baseball seasons that opened on Opening Day rather than the night before (or perhaps not at all). Each of these was a fixture as recently as 1984. Improbably, that now looks like a Golden Age.
America confers protective landmark status on her historic buildings and officially observes national holidays. She does this because her citizens, left to their own capitalistic devices, cannot always be entrusted to preserve those institutions worth keeping. Alas, the treasures and traditions of American sports are not protected by any force of law. That is why there will always be a Memorial Day weekend but not an Indy 500 worthy of marking it.
As you surely know by now, auto racing's greatest spectacle has been rendered ridiculous. On Sunday the sport's biggest names—Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi, Penske et al.—were performing in the inaugural U.S. 500 in Brooklyn, Mich., while more than half the drivers zooming around the Brickyard were rookies. And another one bites the dust. In assessing the survival prospects of various American sports traditions, one might now stamp ENDANGERED across Indianapolis.
The Kentucky Derby and the Masters endure, to be sure. George Steinbrenner has not yet acted on his annual extortionist impulse to remove the Yankees from New York. But how many other institutions of stature and long standing remain?
The Super Bowl, you say? Funny. Just as the NFL season culminates with the Super Bowl, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George would like his 500 to serve as the season-ending capstone to his new Indy Racing League (IRL), whose drivers would be guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots at Indy. The Super Bowl analogy is his own. Race in the IRL, George all but told drivers from the existing CART circuit, or do not race in the Indy 500. So they did not race in the Indy 500. It has come to this: an event with a proud sports heritage wanting to emulate the Super Bowl, a vulgar, big-revenue spectacle that is often boring and uncompetitive. For the want of Roman numerals, Indy—with its 80 races dating back to 1911 and four Victory Lane celebrations by A.J. Foyt—has sacrificed itself.
Our Gibbon will want to watch the videotape of actor and race fan Paul Newman asking with genuine perplexity, "Where does all that tradition go?" Newman is the kind of quaint relic who gives vastly of his time and personal fortune to charity, and so he cannot be expected to understand what moves today's rainmakers of American sport. Where does all that tradition go? It goes where Willie Sutton went: where the money is.
It has ever been so. Still, when Walter O'Malley moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn, he at least blew smoke about being motivated by something other than naked greed; the move had to do with America's manifest destiny in the West, right? (Yeah, that's it.) Free agency was nominally about "freedom," even if what it really meant was that Albert Belle would be free to reject a $43 million contract offer from the Cleveland Indians and seek one more nickel elsewhere.
The pretense that money was not what motivated the barons of sport was finally dispensed with in 1984, when, under the cover of darkness, Robert Irsay fled with his Colts from the people who had loved and supported them in Baltimore. Since then owners have been free to wear their true thoughts on their sleeves—perhaps literally so, in the case of Marge Schott's famous armband.
As a result, franchise free agency has become as widespread as athletes' free agency, further fraying our traditions. When clubs change cities as if changing managers, and players change teams as if changing socks, then only team uniforms remain constant. It is all that's left to root for. Basically, says comedian Jerry Seinfeld, we're "rooting for laundry."
Seinfeld said that a few years ago, when one could at least cheer for the same laundry season after season. Nearly two weeks ago the Detroit Pistons ditched their traditional blue, white and red uniforms in favor of new ones in a tired teal, bearing a redesigned team logo that features an anatomically bizarre horse and tailpipes. Days before, the Minnesota Timberwolves had unveiled their new uniforms, which carry a meaner Wolf logo. The team did this rather than keeping the old unis and putting meaner Wolves on them, a concept that would not address one of the seven-year-old franchise's primary concerns: that there aren't enough sheep buying Wolves' clothing.