Sports Loses Its Escapist Gleam In A Summer Of Court Dates

Jul 12, 2011
Originally published on July 12, 2011 5:41 pm

Sport is a contract. Of course, sports are replete with contracts, from the billions of dollars that the NBA and NFL are currently at an impasse over, to the tiny print on the back of a ticket to a ballgame.

But the greater contract of sports is between the fan and the games themselves. The contract says that for every winner, there must be a loser. This way the universe is in equilibrium, sitting at a .500. The sports fan's summer horribilis goes far beyond being a bummer. In fact, we're experiencing a rift in the basic compact, what L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustated calls "a sportspocalypse."

The carnage is all around us: the trial of Roger Clemens; the bankruptcy of the L.A. Dodgers; the N.Y. Mets' Madoff entanglements; the lockouts in the NFL and the NBA; the sad fade of Tiger Woods; and a Tour de France being held with a doping appeal hanging over the top rider's handlebars.

"Yeah we've had labor strikes and work stoppages in the past, and teams have gone into bankruptcy in the past — but not this daily drum beat," Werthiem says. "I'm abroad right now, and I'm noticing the Yahoo headlines are just enough to make you not want to come home."

Yahoo itself is noticing the effect its headlines are having. Jamie Mottram, who oversees Yahoo's sports blogs, says, "The intricacies and developments of NBA and NFL lockouts are not often making it into the Yahoo front page, because they are not interesting to a mass audience."

Mottram adds that fantasy football fans are particularly aggrieved that their seasons have already been disrupted, no matter what happens in the real world.

The fans' lament is not born of naiveté; they're willing to pay what amounts to extortionary prices for the product. But they are now, or may soon be, facing a denial of that product. Even when fans are not robbed of a season, they've been robbed of the normal rhythms of victory and celebration, as with a National Hockey League finals that descended into riots in Vancouver, just as members of the victorious Boston Bruins began sipping from the Stanley Cup.

Sports observers anticipated the NFL and NBA's labor trouble, though no one could envision just how a contentious divorce would push the Dodgers into bankruptcy. The thought was that Major League Baseball would be able to step into the maw and win the hearts of America.

In fact, "there hasn't been any great story to follow in baseball that isn't in a divorce court or in a bankruptcy court", says Wertheim. Even Derek Jeter's 3,000th career hit was a bit marred by having occurred within the context of this being the worst season of the Yankee captain's career.

Veteran reporter Robert Lipsyte has covered the struggles of daring but pilloried baseball free agent Curt Flood, and the controversial and heroic Muhammad Ali. Stories of those athletes, and others like them, may have depressed fans at the time, but they differed from our current situation because the players in question at least stood for something greater than the best way to divvy up a few billion dollars.

Those cases came at a time, says Lipsyte, "When we still had the conceit that sports was some crucible for character-building, or moral integrity."

Now, we've come to accept sports as pure entertainment. That's fine, perhaps even more clear-eyed but for one thing. These days, there's no entertainment to be had. If, as Lipsyte contends, "Sports for many people, and certainly for most male fans, is soap opera," then it must follow that we are living in scary times: The soap opera may be cancelled.

Perhaps American fans should look to Hope Solo and her band of resilient woman warriors as the tonic. The U.S. Women's World Cup team just dispatched the mighty Brazilians in a game that has been described as one of the greatest matches played by either gender on any stage. Their semifinal game against France might make people forget that the bill is coming due, literally and figuratively, in all the professional sports.

Otherwise, pretty soon, news consumers will be turning to stories of the Greek debt crisis, or the bleak U.S. jobs picture, to take their minds off what's being reported on the sports pages.

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NPR's Mike Pesca took the opportunity to look around and assess the state of all of our games. Sorry is among the kinder words that came to mind.

MIKE PESCA: Sport is a contract. Yes, there are the kinds of contracts between players and owners, the kinds that have two leagues shut down simultaneously. And, yes, there is the literal contract in tiny print on every baseball ticket taking away a fan's right to sue if struck by a foul ball.

D: With a loser for every winner, the universe is sitting at .500. This is why the current situation isn't merely a bad time for sports. We, are in fact, experiencing a rift in the basic compact.

JON WERTHEIM: I mean, this has been sort of a bummer sports summer for fans. It's sportspocalypse.

PESCA: L. Jon Wertheim has written for Sports Illustrated for 15 years. He looks at the trial of Roger Clemens, the bankruptcy of the Dodgers, the lockouts in the NFL and the NBA, the sad fate of Tiger Woods, and a Tour de France with a doping appeal hanging over the top rider and sees the sports landscape as unprecedentedly bleak.

WERTHEIM: Yeah, we've had labor strikes and work stoppages in the past, and teams have gone into bankruptcy in the past, but not this daily drumbeat where you just say, oh, no.

PESCA: And even when we're not robbed of the product, we're robbed of the normal rhythms of victory and celebration, as with the NHL finals.


B: This was the catalyst. The first car set on fire. It would be the first of many. This is just moments after the cup was delivered to the Boston Bruins.

PESCA: And anytime a baseball player shows offensive promise, fans can't help but cast their eyes at the Rocket in the federal docket and other alleged steroid abusers, says L. Jon Wertheim.

WERTHEIM: Mark McGwire and Bonds and Clemens are the shoe bombers, and players today are the guys getting groped in the security line. And, yeah, you can't achieve anything in baseball today without having a fairly big chunk of the sports public raising a skeptical eyebrow - I know exactly.

PESCA: But veteran reporter Robert Lipsyte, who covered the tumultuous times of trailblazing baseball free agent Curt Flood and Muhammad Ali, says we are living in a summer horribilis.

ROBERT LIPSYTE: Sports is soap opera. The statistics, you know, are great, and who wins and loses are great, too, but the idea of having, you know, heroes and villains, people that you can identify with, is extremely nourishing and gets you from day to day.

PESCA: Right. And that is why these strikes are different. It's not like a bad development in your soap opera. It's like your soap opera getting canceled.

LIPSYTE: Absolutely. That's why this really is, you know, the end of the soap opera. What are you going to do tomorrow?

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.