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Frank Deford
December 23, 1985
What has happened to our once-comfortable world of sports? The author says it has been overcome by bigness, sameness, greed and other modern-day realities
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December 23, 1985

No Longer A Cozy Corner

What has happened to our once-comfortable world of sports? The author says it has been overcome by bigness, sameness, greed and other modern-day realities

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The easy answer, of course, is that sports in America fell from grace a long time ago, and there is no need to get ourselves in a dither because, really now, it's all just more of the same. There is much truth in this, too. In 1869, the very year that Princeton and Rutgers inaugurated intercollegiate football, a game between the two schools was canceled because the faculties feared overemphasis. Professional baseball players were unionized a century ago, threatening strikes and delighting in the formation of a new league that would, it was hoped, undermine the autocracy of entrenched owners and overthrow the despotic pay scale. By the turn of the century the President of the United States himself was decrying the abuses of college sport, and The New York Times was editorializing about the "twin evils" in American culture: lynching and football. No gambling scandal of recent vintage has caused such disillusionment as the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Say it ain't so, Joe. Say it ain 't so.

Sports back then were racist and rude; athletes were often drunks and scoundrels who were frequently denied admission to respectable society. Money passed under the table to ersatz amateurs, and most athletes were assumed to be blockheads. Fans were hooligans, the arena no place for a decent woman or a fainthearted visiting team.

Today, there is nothing more tedious than our pitiful whinings about how we no longer possess sports heroes; the fact is, the stars of yesteryear were not nearly so familiar or renowned as the journeymen of today. Whose heroes? Sports were generally parochial and not braided into the broad culture; actors got the endorsements and the respect that athletes get today. Ex-quarterbacks and small forwards simply did not loom as presidential contenders.

So to suggest that sports have somehow lost either their innocence or their glory since television cameras started pointing their way is pixilation. And yet.... And yet, there is no question that society has come to be disillusioned with sports today, even as it celebrates sports all the more. As the numbers sitting in attendance at the stadiums and before the television sets increase, so do the misgivings. There is an itch about sports we cannot scratch. What is different from the grousing we used to do is that nowadays we don't so much complain about sports as we feel regret, even grief, about them. That is because sports unearth memories of youth as music does a first kiss...or at least like a romantic melody one associates with that moment. Only there is a major difference. Music, for best example, has essentially become a product, one created specifically to change for each cohort of teenagers, so that they might have something of their very own to take with them down all their days. Sports are different. You can say: Sorry, I don't like heavy metal, but I have here my big-band records. But you can't say: Since I still like the Brooklyn Dodgers, I'm going to stick with them instead of the Mets this season.

Yet, no matter how many things about sports adults may lament today, I don't think that children are any more upset by sports than children ever were. I think children are just as much in awe of and in love with sports as they ever have been. You have to grow up to get mad at sports—and that's because only when we grow up do we find out that sports are flawed.

Part of the disenchantment, obviously, is caused by the public glare in which all our institutions exist today. It sure was a lot nicer when we knew only the batting averages—and not who takes drugs and who beats his wife and who's homosexual or even, who, you know, mumbles like a blankety-blank Cro-Magnon, you know. You bet it was easier to be a hero in the Good Old Days.

But, I would submit, it vastly overstates the case to argue that the disaffection with sports derives, ipso facto, from its greater exposure. Rather, the distrust of sports today arises not so much from what we see more clearly than it does from the ambiguities and the contradictions that we simply can't fathom. You see, while sports may never have been pure, they were simple. The same 16 franchises made up major league baseball for half a century. What other business could make such a claim for stability? Everything stood still. Sports had a pecking order, with major league baseball clearly first, college football a distant second, then boxing, horse racing, golf, tennis, and so on down the list. Somebody once asked Paul Gallico why he left sportswriting. "February," he replied. There were no sports in February. Sports were dependable. Sports were verity. I would even contend—and not facetiously—that the geographical dislocation of the Braves and then of the Browns and the A's and (above all) the Dodgers and Giants created an emotional turbulence in a portion of the population that was nearly on the order of, say, women getting the vote or school segregation being declared unconstitutional.

In sports, even the rules that were broken and the mistakes that were made were predictable. Nobody expected athletes to go to class or boxing promoters to go to church. Of course some colleges would cheat. Play enough games, and a few would be fixed. Every now and then a star would drink himself out of the game. And, yes, the press was expected to be rather cozy in not divulging such matters.

The reason the seamier side of sports could be winked at was that, essentially, sports were over in the corner. Sports were brandy and cigars after dinner. A large part of their charm was that they knew their place. But what has happened to sports in the post-World War II era is that while they have assumed a larger role in society, nobody has the foggiest idea what that role should be. When sports were clubbier, when they were the boys' night out, they had definition and character. Today, sports in America belong to all America, just as business and religion and politics do, and when you get to that point they become too amorphous to belong to anyone.

There is this singular fact about American society: So many lines have been broken down, so much blurring has gone on, that we are deregionalized to the point where Atlanta might as well be Seattle, where everybody talks like the six o'clock news, where everybody names their children Jason and Jennifer. Yet paradoxically, at the same time this drift toward uniformity has been taking place, we are faced with more and more choices.

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