Conditions have improved for black athletes, if only because of the sheer force of their skills and their numbers. In 1954 only 5% of NBA players were black. Today the league is 75% black, and though some have cited that fact as a reason for a dip in attendance, no cutback is likely. When it comes to winning, black is beautiful.
So is woman, and while the female athlete has hardly achieved any kind of parity with the male, she is closing the gap fast. A natural spin-off of the women's liberation movement, the drive to end sex discrimination on the playing field has had to counter the notion that as far as sports are concerned, women make good cheerleaders. While luminaries like Babe Didrikson Zaharias proved long ago how absurd that bias was, it remained for Billie Jean King to bury it forever on the night of Sept. 20, 1973 by roasting a male chauvinist pig named Bobby Riggs.
Somehow, superhype that it was, that match served to unite the sisterhood behind the cause. The major problem was that for decades, though the enrollment of most schools was half female, their athletic programs received only a minuscule percentage of the sports budget. In 1972 the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendment started the machinery to change all that by guaranteeing women the same funds, facilities and other benefits enjoyed by the men. Today the 916 schools in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, founded in 1971, are offering 14 varsity sports—a big stride forward.
It took some prodding to get the rest of flabby America striding. After a 1960 U.S. tour, for example. Herb Elliott, the Aussie miler, poked his finger into the midriff of the citizenry, calling them "weak, soft and synthetic, a people who thoroughly mollycoddle themselves." Like a hippo rising from the mire, one fancies, America got off its duff, and slowly, after many fitful stops and starts, began lumbering along, gradually picking up speed, going faster and faster, until today it seems as if half the nation is running. Or playing tennis. Or swimming, canoeing, bicycling, orienteering, roller-skating, mountain-climbing, sailing. In short, America is on a participant sports binge that promises to become a way of life in the next decade.
What else does the foreseeable future hold? In the very probable category, say those who have studied the question, with an estimated $50 billion a year now being wagered on sports in the U.S., there will be state-controlled mutuel windows in the stadiums before 1990; college football, caught in a financial crunch, will consolidate into a superconference of 25 teams or so; pay TV, championed by sports promoters, will become a reality; and, dictated by inflation and the energy crisis, a "spirit of moderation" will prevail in sports for the next few years.
Beyond that? Well, with hints from futurists who estimate that, among other space-age niceties, man man will be working only 147 days a year the end of this century, we invite you, gentle students, to resume your slouch positions, relax and let your imaginations drift forward in time, forward a quarter of a century to the year 2004.
You are jogging on your air-cushioned, heart-monitoring treadmill, the latest thing in home fitness, and idly punching the keyboard of your Sport-O-Rama TV network. Before you, a bank of 12 screens is flickering with spirited action. Eight-foot centers are battling for rebounds under 11-foot baskets. Women hockey players, their skates reflecting the sunlight flooding through the arena's transparent dome, are slashing across a surface of Teflon IX. A pair of 350-pound boxers, both at the peak of their powers at age 50, are dead even according to the scoreboard that registers their blows through sensors embedded in their gloves.
Click, You punch the "baseball" button and the screens switch to a dozen different views of a game between the Madrid Yanquis and the Peking Ducks. Click. You hit the "ambience" button, and the room is filled with gusts of balmy air and the smell of grass, rosin and hot dogs. Click. You call for a readout of the latest odds covering every possible contingency. Click. You bet $100 that Reggie Rudi, the Yanquis' star rightfielder, will swing away. Click. Your wager is automatically deducted from your account as, inexplicably, Reggie R attempts to bunt and pops out. Click. You tune in the dugout, where the Yanquis' manager, Billy Martinez, is screaming, "How do you fine a superstar? Take away his Kuwait oil wells?"
Click. You switch to the educational channel, where an aged professor from the Philco radio era is concluding a retrospective of sports in the 20th century.
"And so, students," he says in a faltering voice, "as we have seen, the ancient Greek ideal that has endured—indeed, transcended—the convulsions of the past half century, the one constant that is both the joy and salvation of man and his games, is the deep and irrepressible impulse to play, to revel, to give the best of mind and spirit and, in so doing, honor all men." Sh-BOOM! A question, Mr. Quark.