The more America saw, the more it wanted to see. If the Kentucky Derby was that enthralling, what of the Preakness and the Belmont? The Indy 500? Give us 500 more races. In college football, rivalries that once were waged in the relative isolation of Norman, Okla. and Lincoln, Neb. became causes of national import. And soon, in TV's unrelenting drive to diversify and intensify the lucrative sports market, there evolved on the screen a kind of fast-forward montage, in which it became increasingly difficult to separate the heroic from the hoked-up from the hard sell. Suddenly, it seemed, bird hunters were taking dead aim at sky-divers, skiers were hurtling down slopes greased by the Noxzema Girl and white-water canoeists were being outdistanced by the Ty-D-Bol man.
Though much has been made of the fact that TV helped make pro football the sports phenomenon of the 1960s, there is a flip side. Sports helped make TV. Surveys show that sports viewing is one of the primary reasons why consumers buy TV sets. And while the Uncle Milties, the Gun-smokes and the Lucys have flashed and faded, sports remain as TV's constant and ever-burgeoning craze. It was a marriage made in the marketplace, with all the compromises that implies, and overall both parties have benefited immeasurably because sports, as Pete Rozelle is wont to say, "delivers the numbers." Staggering, almost incomprehensible numbers. Says Jerry Colangelo, general manager of the Phoenix Suns, whose team receives $880,000 a year from its network "godfather": "If TV wants us to play at 4 a.m., we'll just have to leave early wake-up calls."
BEEMAN: But what about those other numbers, the ones on the scoreboard, the statistics, the fun part?
PROF: Ah, gentle students, the mean truth is that the single overriding trend in sports over the past 25 years is that our pastimes, our refuge from the clamor of a fast-buck world, have themselves become big business. The barons of sport contrived for so long to present themselves as noble sportsmen fending off bankruptcy at every turn that the pose inevitably touched off a messy money war, which has been waged in the headlines and every barroom in the land.
By contrast, the catalyst for the battle of the bucks, a series of lawsuits against the pro leagues instituted by the players' unions, edged quietly through the courts. The wheels of justice ground slowly but when they stopped, it was one crusher after another for the owners. In 1976, when the Dodgers' Andy Messersmith was declared free by court order to offer his services in the marketplace like any other citizen, the lid blew off the salary market for good.
To keep our own lids intact, let us here only briefly cite part of the barrage of heavy bucks that we have all lived and suffered through. NBA salaries have increased 700% over the last decade to an average of $158,000. Only seven years ago, O. J. Simpson's $733,358 wad would have paid the salaries of 22 players plus a Serbo-Croatian placekicker. And so on across the sports spectrum, from multimillion-dollar boxing purses to sweaty pitchmen like Bjorn Borg raking in almost $2 million a year from endorsements.
BEEMAN: Money, money, money. Surely there are other measures of an athlete's worth than dollars and cents?
PROF: Yes. In fact, you are their very embodiment, Miss Beeman—bold, black and beautiful. Bold in the sense of forthright, questioning, individualistic. Indeed, the modern athlete bears about as much resemblance to the old as Ilie Nastase does to Little Mo Connolly. Yes, brash, pampered and spoiled also apply, but they reflect an age that above all else has been one of growing pains.
Bred in the student riots of the mid-1960s, the new militant athlete staged divisive strikes and spoke out in public and in books like Dave Meggyesy's Out of Their League, one of a spate of angry denunciations of the "dehumanizing" aspects of team regimentation, the win syndrome and autocratic coaches. Clashes with coaches became more frequent. Growing hand in black glove with the new militancy was the resentment of the black athlete. In 1967, 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in baseball, Harry Edwards, the militant black sociologist, called for a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics, charging, "Sports reeks of the same racism that corrupts other areas of our society." Though the boycott fizzled, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished one-three in the 200 meters, raised their gloved hands in the defiant black power salute during the national anthem, they served as a pair of exclamation points to a long list of grievances.
Primarily, black athletes rebelled against this scenario—being given a college scholarship, trained to entertain the ticket buyers and then, once their eligibility was used up, being ignored to the point that only about half of them graduated. In the pros, they found it hard to get the same salaries—much less the same endorsements—as white players.