SI Vault
John Underwood
May 20, 1963
Recently the climate of sport has been befouled by 'expos�s' and charges of widespread corruption. Is sport crooked? No—but there is a creeping threat to basic values that must be recognized and fought
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May 20, 1963

The True Crisis

Recently the climate of sport has been befouled by 'expos�s' and charges of widespread corruption. Is sport crooked? No—but there is a creeping threat to basic values that must be recognized and fought

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These views are extreme. Sport remains a major assimilating force on the college campus, and there are as many legitimate reasons for letting the superior athlete play his way through an education as for supporting a brilliant violinist. It would be a mistake to kill the athlete's chances of going to college. Better curb the excesses of his elders.

But if some college authorities persist in sidestepping rules, then, alas, the athletes, their parents and friends will have to set a higher tone. For it is important that the man on the field be ethically straight and that his play be right and not merely entertaining. Sport will retain its character, its unique quality as sport, only so long as the player and the fan and the kid who stands three hours in the rain to get Willie Mays's name on a crumpled program believe in its sacrosanctity.

William Saroyan said that baseball is "caring." The obligation of the athlete is clear: he must care. There is an almost spiritual quality to sport. Man and boy identify with the sports hero; the hero must therefore be the quintessence of his sport. "I suspect," says Sociologist Max Kaplan, "that the fan rather enjoys scandal—but only so long as it does not touch or destroy his heroes. That is to say, himself."

It would be absurd to expect unqualifiedly good deportment from an athlete. His world is often a roiling place, and rebellion is never far below the surface. Roger Maris was an impossible character the year he hit 61 home runs. Bo Belinsky likes nightclubs and Tommy Bolt hurls golf clubs. Big Daddy Lipscomb, the Pittsburgh Steelers' giant All-Pro tackle, died in tawdry circumstances last week, possibly of a combination of dope and liquor.

But it is not too much to expect the athlete-celebrity to at least try for good conduct, since where he goes, what he does and who he does it with take on a measure of importance that reflects on his sport. Paul Hornung found out too late that "you just can't be like other people."

If college and amateur leaders have contributed to the moral crisis of sport in their own spheres, so have the professionals. These prosperous days the major sports deal in very large amounts. Walter O'Malley's new ball park in Los Angeles is a $22 million showcase. Racetracks in this country handle $2.5 billion a year, and pro football is a $20 million operation. Naturally, the athlete becomes a principal beneficiary. Big league baseball teams cascade hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses on big-eyed, little-tried talent (recent examples: $175,000 for Bob Bailey of Pittsburgh, $130,000 to $150,000 for Bob Garibaldi of San Francisco).

This is not exceptionable. Commercial sport is a business, a part of the free-enterprise system, and the people who run it quite rightly should take as much money out of it as they can. But eventually it will be to their advantage to remember that sport is not a fast-buck business, a get-away-quick racket. There must be a degree of dedication to the game, for hard-nosed business reasons as well as idealistic ones. The purpose of sport is to offer recreation, to lift men out of their humdrum experience and offer them an exultation they cannot find in other pursuits. When profits become the only objective, sport dies. The name is retained, but it is a mockery. In death, it kills more important things than itself.

Baseball has not had a scandal in years. Salaries are way up. There is a sound pension plan, and the players have representation. But the players also have a game reduced in significance by continuous capital-gains maneuvers. Franchises are moved from city to city like show troupes. Many owners are wheelers and dealers. Arnold Johnson of Kansas City was involved in so many deals with the New York Yankees—including the sale of Yankee Stadium—that his reckless player-peddling became a national joke. Adulterating the game, management moves the fences in and out to suit the power of their teams. Up goes the number of league games and night games—a staggering 849 in 1963 as compared with 248 in 1945—and along comes a meaningless second All-Star Game. Irresponsible telecasting and player-juggling between the minors and majors have meant slow death for the minor leagues. Cumulative result: the players become technicians—happy, solvent automatons—and they admit it.

Professional football has handled itself well, though its huge popularity is only a recent thing. Players' salaries are not quite as good as those in major league baseball, but the season is measurably shorter and there are now two leagues (and a third in Canada) to vie for a man's services. This is to the player's (and public's) benefit. The player draft has been handled sensibly, and bonuses have not skyrocketed out of proportion. Even so, the money drive has made some pro football managements forget the lower-income fan, who was the game's principal supporter in the formative years but is now shunted aside by season ticket sales (in New York, Detroit and many other cities) that eliminate the best 40,000 seats from the range of the small man's pocketbook. Nor is pro football above gimmicky sideshows: the Playoff Bowl takes its place alongside the second baseball All-Star Game, though neither is as blatantly commercial as the half dozen or so meaningless college bowl games that have been appended to the season in the last few years.

Voracious suicide

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