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And somewhere along the line sports became just another choice. Probably the two worst phrases ever to enter the sporting lexicon are wild card and entertainment dollar. Go on, name me anything worse. It was one thing when Bill Veeck said, well, people who come to the ball park ought to have reasonably clean rest rooms and maybe some fireworks now and again—even if they don't know the difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball. But that path has led sports to the lipstick counter, where there are 54 shades of red. The idea that sports are just another lipstick—in there competing with movies, discos, casinos, and sushi bars—does violence to the most important elements of sports, which is caring and cheering, and root, root, root for the home team.
Critics of the current wrestling boom account for the phenomenon by explaining that wrestling has gone show biz. Perhaps. But more, I would say, wrestling has succeeded because, in creating those characters who appear grotesque and obvious to nonbelievers, it has given those who do believe, who do care, reason to care more. Who is a purer and sweeter fan—the fellow who buys a ticket because he loves to see Sgt. Slaughter break heads, or the fellow who comes out to the park with an expense-account ticket because it's Resin Bag Nite?
Mainstream sports in America today fail to provide the comfort and nourishment that go with belonging. To play off sociologist David Riesman's classic term, fans today are part of the lonely stadium. One answer to the inevitable question—What's wrong with sports?—is that they are cold and confounding. So fans have grown confused about the basic elements of sports, about competition and commitment. Not even victory makes sense anymore. Let's examine some of these fundamentals.
It was decades ago that Vince Lombardi allegedly said, "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Revisionist historians have long since proved 1) Lombardi wasn't the first man in sports to utter that sentiment, and 2) he didn't mean it quite so harshly as it sounds. No matter. The important thing is that back then the bluntness of Lombardi's words shocked many Americans. But today, after years of moralists parroting the contention that we place too much emphasis on winning, the bald truth is that victory in America may actually be less important than it ever has been.
Games don't count nearly as much as they used to. First, there are simply too many of them. Second, it is accepted that players just can't get up for all these games. And third, why should they? Everybody makes the playoffs; everybody gets to a bowl; everybody makes the NCAAs; everybody makes the Tournaments of Champions; everybody gets more chances. They say that sports mirror our society. In this country, sports have come foremost to mirror our judicial system. Games appear to be litigated more than contested, and leagues are courts of appeals. Every defeat is followed by a retrial.
Let us consider last season's NCAA basketball championship. Now understand, Villanova played by the rules and won fair and square, won dramatically, courageously and popularly. Cinderella Team. (See also: wild card and entertainment dollar.) But what did Villanova's victory signify? George-town had lost twice in the so-called regular season, Villa-nova had lost nine times. Georgetown had beaten Villanova twice; Georgetown had won the conference tourney; Villanova had lost it, decisively. From any fair and rational point of view, Georgetown was facing triple jeopardy.
This happens all the time in a system that rewards mediocrity as a way of defending the integrity of the entertainment dollar. No wonder the poor fan is baffled. Coaches, players, colleges and pro teams will lie, cheat, steal, dispense and take drugs, pay and pocket the most outlandish remuneration—all in the name of victory. But then, all too often, real achievement goes unrewarded and triumph is capriciously gained.
This new attitude about victory has, I'm sure, been greatly advanced by the favored modes of sports betting. Today in America gambling on sports is pernicious, and whatever one thinks about this generally, it is surely the case that certain types of wagering are worse than others.
First, the racetrack. The old-fashioned horseplayer was, in many respects, a gentleman and a scholar. He studied the Form, knew his craft and carefully calculated his choices. Of course, the breed included some who lost control and bet the baby's medicine money on a longshot in a $3,500 maiden claiming, but we could accept a certain random degeneracy. Today, most of the habitués of racetracks and betting parlors are numbers players. Not even the Kentucky Derby is permitted to be a pure betting vehicle. Horses no longer win. It is all exactas, quinellas, trifectas, Pick Sixes, wheels and boxes. The jackpot mentality prevails. You can lose, lose, lose because if ever you win, as in the NCAA or the NBA, you win big. Cinderella Bettor.