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However much that kind of betting has affected horse racing, it is nowhere as insidious as the primary team-sport wager: the point spread. That is a poisonous device that has eroded our minds into thinking that there are really two games out there: the one played and the one handicapped. On the most obvious level, from CCNY and LIU and Bradley and Kentucky right on down to Boston College and Tulane, it has encouraged fixes. You're not losing, son, you're just shaving a few points. Less apparent, the point spread has fostered the impression that a victory of sorts can be gained even in defeat. Well, we beat the spread.
Many newspapers in the country have turned their sports sections into tout sheets. They not only print the spread, but some also go so far as to run additional standings that list a team's record against the spread. The week before the Super Bowl is invariably reduced to a discussion of the spread, to the exclusion of most other issues. While baseball is no less threatened by drugs and their attendant dangers than football and basketball are, it would appear to be intrinsically a more secure game simply because baseball betting rarely involves the point spread.
Our games have become more professional, and that's not necessarily bad, no matter how the traditionalists may moan. But what is bad for sports is that they have become so vocational. That's where the fun has gone out of it.
Again, for the fan, there are so many contradictions. In simpler times, an athlete was not perceived as someone apart from the rest of us. He was, generally, one of the boys, just like you and me, only a guy who happened to be better at catching a ball and throwing it, at running or jumping or whatever. Most of the best athletes, the ones who would eventually become All-Americas or pros in one sport, had fun participating in several sports as they grew up. The three-sport star was the true American sports hero. There was no rush to specialize. But today, even in elementary school, the best athletes are encouraged to channel their skills into one narrow vein. Thus, from an early age, the good athlete becomes a sort of vestal virgin, removed from society at large, saved for a particular sport.
The worst of this is that no one is ever really allowed to enjoy the experience of being good. The high school star is judged not for what he does in high school but for where he might be able to play in college. The top college player is never primarily a college player; he is, instead, athletic livestock being fattened up for the pros. The rookie pro does well mainly so that he'll have more leverage when he becomes a free agent. And, of course, the highest goal to which any athlete can aspire is to be a color man on TV.
The sad thing about Doug Flutie—and poor Donald Trump never understood this—is that he peaked too soon. Flutie created expectations at the college level that he cannot possibly fulfill in the pros. If he should become a serviceable pro quarterback—or even a bona fide star—it will not be enough. Trump paid for a 22-year-old has-been.
Our system siphons the thrill of accomplishment out of a kid by constantly measuring him against a nearly impossible future standard. The high school valedictorian is praised for his immediate achievement; so is the best piano player in the class, the best poet, the prettiest girl and the handsomest boy. But we do not allow our young athletes the pleasure of the present triumph.
Of course, this does produce results. I believe a major reason American athletes do so well on the international stage is that they are taught that this is the only real arena. The kid from Athens, Ga. must win everything to win anything. In this regard we altogether resemble Communist athletes.
Probably the worst thing that television has done to sports in this country is to nationalize them to such an extent that there are no small successes. Being a conference champion now is, more literally, to be only a national runner-up.