Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Basketball Brawl Fallout

I'm not happy to say it, but I have become quite cynical about sports and I used to love sports. First I should qualify my cynicism by stating that there are certainly many professional athletes that play mainly for the fun of it and exhibit proper conduct. Tashawn Prince of the Detroit Pistons for instance was the only player from both teams who stayed on the bench in the initial pushing match. There are plenty of players that are just trying to make a living for their family as we all must do in our society.

But yes I am cynical. I grew up in the days before free agents. I certainly was all for players having a union and gaining some worker power. But in the ensuing years we've seen a degenerative effect on pro sports. Free agency has loosened the hometown feel of sport franchises with players moving on after a couple of years. Franchises themselves have become free agents with teams moving on to other cities if offered a better stadium/arena deal.

In the last few decades we've seen the marketing of sports explode, thus the sense of exploitation of players and the individual sport itself. The vast amounts of money coming in creates a false sense of importance to the sports, afterall these are just games. It has made every foul, wild pitch, missed field goal, wasted time-out, penalty, more important than ever because it can cost money.

The franchise owners want their team in the playoffs for more attendance paydays and hopefully their personally glory of winning it all. The players want their statistics to look better for later when it's time to negotiate their contract and of course the media limelight if they are the champion team.

TV and the media want drama to attract more viewers for higher ratings points and sell more newspapers. You can bet ESPN had higher ratings for its Sports Center highlight show in the next days after the Piston/Pacer game. And the highlights of the rumble are still playing on and will likely be a part of the promotional set-up when the two teams meet on Christmas in Indianapolis.

Here in Detroit four days after the game the front page lead stories are still about what happened. Todays headline story in the Detroit Free Press, IF HE THREW THE CUP, IT WASN'T FAN'S FIRST OFFENSE, which goes on to tell of the suspect bribing a police officer with Piston tickets to avoid a traffic citation, and having various problems involving stalking and assault on past girlfriends.

And Ron Artest was on NBC's Today show apologizing and then hawking his CD. The infamous cup was briefly being sold on E-Bay. Oh yes, there is money to be made in the wake of the publicity. I'm sure a few of the fans that were giving a beating for no reason will be filing lawsuits against some of the Indianapolis Pacers players or the Palace Arena for not having better security.

Further scutiny of the tapes have found that another Pacer (back-up center David Harrison) who was not suspended had thrown two punches at spectators as he left the arena. He may be charged by local police, and the NBA might add him to the list as well. Local police are starting to track down some of the people in the crowd responsible for throwing things.

But back to the bigger picture, I still have this main feeling that money has much to do with sports becoming something ugly. I remember back before free agency Detroit Tiger Al Kaline actually turned down a raise citing his previous season as not worthy of a raise. Todays equivalent of that story is the recent signing by the Detroit Tigers of free agent relief pitcher Troy Percival who turned down better offers. Yet, his two-year, $12 million contract is nothing to cry about as far as less money and in only two years he can do it all over again.

Now as I stated earier I generally am in favor of free agency. I understand the limited amount of years that athletes are able to perform and the need to financially prepare for the future after sports. I also understand that the non-stars and back-ups without strong unions would have a very difficult time feeding their family, these are the players I'm most sympathetic to. But the star players sign one big contract and are set for life. Even the top rookies draftees become millionaires before playing one single pro game.

In contrast I think of the steak cooks at a Logan's Roadhouse franchise that toil behind glass so that customers can watch them work. They are made to be "entertainment" for the patrons and don't make millions. Teachers, police, scientists, paramedics, and so many other occupations are so much more important to our society yet certainly don't receive even close to the compensation of star athletes and entertainers. You have to look to the top of the business world of CEOs and corporate executives to find the lavish paydays to match star athletes and their importance is as well debatable.

I wonder that if this basketbrawl game is possibly a breaking point for a much neeeded intense examination of the role of professional sports in our society. But then again it may just bring in more fans as it may turn off. And the scads of corporate scandal has done nothing to bring down CEO compensation, so I doubt that much will change in sports.

I've always felt that sports is the male equivalent of women's soap operas and daytime talk shows. Sports is something for men to gossip about and analyze to death. I'm as guilty as any man in being a sports gossip, but I do find that I've curtailed it in last decade and my cynicism about sports has been the reason.

My disenchantment with sports (and the corporate world as well) is certainly rooted in my passing years. I am old enough to remember a time when sports was more innocent, less media driven, having a big ego was considered wrong, that there was more loyalty by fans to their teams (fair weather fans are more numerous) and players to their team and city, and team owners were less of the story. Maybe someday the pendulum will swing back and sports will exhibit some changes for the better. Or maybe not, the genie is out of the bottle and time marches on.


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