America's Love Of Team Sports Comes At Price

May 3, 2011
Originally published on May 4, 2011 9:21 am

I've always thought that one of the best things about American sport is that we aren't dominated by one team game, as so much of the rest of the world is soccer-centric. That's why we can have our own American dream. The dream of most other countries is simply to have their national soccer team do well.

We spread around our devotion to teams: baseball and softball, football, basketball, ice hockey, soccer ­­–– professional teams, college teams, even high school teams. Yes, Americans are much more serial team fans than those in other nations, who tend to be more monogamous in their sporting affection.

However, the downside of this focus on team sports is becoming apparent. The United States is less and less a power in some individual sports –– especially the old country club games of golf and tennis.

For the first time ever, the four men's golf major titles are held by foreigners, all members of the European tour. Except for the Williams sisters, no American, male or female, has won one of the Grand Slam tennis championships in the past seven years –– and right now, it looks like another biblical seven years of tennis famine lies ahead here. We do somewhat better in women's golf, but still, it's been 17 years since an American woman, Betsy King, finished No. 1 on the LPGA tour.

Now, obviously, part of the reason for this depressing situation is that the rest of the world has caught up with us in sports as sure as it has in many other respects.

But I also think that because we concentrate so on team sports, from a very early age, in schools, American athletes tend to find a team game that appeals to them. On the other hand, a good young foreign athlete who doesn't much like soccer is more inclined to try an individual sport instead. As a consequence, most of our good tennis players and golfers don't stumble into those sports through public programs, as they do in foreign countries, but only because of family influence.

Much is made of the fact that Venus and Serena Williams and Tiger Woods are rare African-American stars in their sports, but the more salient fact is that all three were taught their sports by their fathers, just like so many of our best white players. Their race is merely incidental, for their path to the top is American typical.

I'm especially surprised that more of the best American girl athletes don't try tennis, because for females it's such a high-profile sport, with much more potential for fame and fortune. Maria Sharapova is richer and better known than any American woman playing basketball, softball or soccer. Can't anybody figure that out but Richard Williams, Venus and Serena's father?

The cliche is that there's no "I" in team. But more and more, when it comes to tennis and golf, there's no "U.S." in world champion.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Our sports archaeologist, Frank Deford, has been tracking long-term changes in sports, and that includes the decline of individual sports.

FRANK DEFORD: I've always thought that one of the best things about American sport is that we aren't dominated by one team game, as so much of the rest of the world is soccer-centric. That's why we can have our own American dream. The dream of most other countries is simply to have their national soccer team do well. But we spread our devotion around to teams: baseball and softball, football, basketball, ice hockey, soccer professional teams, college teams, even high school teams.

Yes, Americans are much more serial team fans than those in other nations, who tend to be more monogamous in their sporting affection.

However, the downside of this focus on team sports is becoming apparent. The United States is less and less a power in some individual sports, especially the old country-club games of golf and tennis.

For the first time ever, the four men's golf major titles are held by foreigners, all members of the European tour. Except for the Williams sisters, no American - male or female - has won one of the Grand Slam tennis championships in the last seven years. And right now, it looks like another Biblical seven years of tennis famine lies ahead here.

We do somewhat better in women's golf. But still, it's been 17 years since an American woman, Betsy King, finished number one on the LPGA tour.

Now, obviously, part of the reason for this depressing situation is that the rest of the world has caught up with us in sports, as sure as it has in many other respects. But I also think that because we concentrate so on team sports - from a very early age, in schools - American athletes tend to find a team game that appeals to them. On the other hand, a good young foreign athlete who doesn't much like soccer is more inclined to try an individual sport instead.

As a consequence, most of our good tennis players and golfers don't stumble into these sports through public programs, as they do in foreign countries, but only because of family influence.

Much is made of the fact that Venus and Serena Williams and Tiger Woods are rare African-American stars in their sports. But the more salient fact is that all three were taught their sports by their fathers, just like so many of our best white players. Their race is merely incidental, for their path to the top is American typical.

I'm especially surprised that more of the best American girl athletes don't try tennis, because for females it's such a high-profile sport with much more potential for fame and fortune. Maria Sharapova is richer and better known than any American woman playing basketball, softball or soccer. Can't anybody figure that out but Richard Williams, Venus and Serena's father?

The cliche is that there is no I in team. But more and more, when it comes to tennis and golf, there's no U.S. in world champion.

INSKEEP: There's no I in Frank Deford, either, and he's part of our team. He joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.