I have long believed professional sports and elite college sports as severely compromised enterprises. It’s not just the obvious examples of league officials turning a blind eye away from the lack of fair play, like with baseball players doping and hitting home runs between 1998 and 2004. Or with the New England Patriots and them filming their opponents’ practices to gain an advantage during games. Or with the Houston Astros stealing baserunning signs from the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 2017 World Series. Or even with NCAA Division I football and men’s basketball, where there are enough recruiting and (until last year) pay-for-play violations to render the student part of student-athlete a really bad joke.
No, I believe owners, universities, and league offices collude to put their thumbs on the scale, and have done so for years. They do it for two reasons: 1., to generate revenue and renewed interest in their sport (whether basketball, hockey, baseball, or football, or — more obviously — WWE) and/or 2., to steer a sport-wide championship in the direction of a particular team (also a way to keep those multi-billion-dollar TV contracts aflowing).
This doesn’t just explain the New England Patriots and the mysterious “tuck rule” ruling during the 2001 NFL Playoffs, a ruling that cost the Oakland Raiders the game and catapulted the Patriots toward the first post-9/11 Super Bowl (patriotism and sports — it’s kismet!). It explains when referees, umpires, and other officials make consistently favorable rulings helping certain teams win playoffs series and championships. Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the LA Lakers and the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 NBA Playoffs comes to mind. An official even admitted they may have rigged this particular series in favor of the Lakers. And Duke and Coach K. All anyone has to do is look at the difference between the team UNLV stomped in by 30 points in 1990 and the team UNLV “lost” to in 1991. Really? What difference — no difference!
Even this isn’t the worst of it. With the newly opened frontier of legal betting on professional and college sports across the board, the temptations for individuals, for officials, for athletes themselves to alter outcomes to win bets will be enormous. The sports would is only a few years away from healthy athletes dying in their athletic prime of suicide or “suspicious circumstances,” stemming from their own gambling addiction, or because of a fan’s gambling addiction and narcissism.
I kid you not. We are a decade or two away at most from discovering how some of these great moments we have seen in a sport should have never been. All because money changed hands, or because of deliberately calibrated officiating, or because of tampering with equipment or with schedules, or because of general collusion among college conferences and universities or between sports leagues and team owners (or, with the student-athlete system, between all of the above).
And when these turds hit an industrial-sized fan meant for a large indoor arena, what do any of us say then? That we knew all along? That we just went along because we wanted the distraction of sports free from corruption and politics? All of this is bullshit.
The truth is, sports has always been a source of entertainment, a place where we have pretended for years the outcome was never fully assured. But, we all have known the outcome has been helped along, sometimes by a lot. To build a fantasy around sports as set of institutions that brings people together and creates a sense of community is incredibly superficial. Those moments are fleeting and do nothing to change communities, cities, or our societies. Those moments, even as they temporarily unite folks around as flimsy a thing as a win or winning a title, are not untainted ones.
Listen, I love sports, and have appreciated athleticism going all the way back to the Ali v. Frazier and Ali v. Foreman days. Heck, when my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father as payback for psychologically torturing my mother after she filed for divorce in 1977, I had appreciation for it then. That moment of college athletic-level tackling and the physics around it have been in super-slo-mo in my mind for 45 years. I have loved watching sports since I was 12, and playing sports since puberty grew me to five-foot-eight before I turned 13, and six-feet-even before my 14th birthday. The business of professional sports (including college sports programs and Olympic sports), though, is ugly. That is why I no longer care if athletes dope, stopped caring ages ago how much money they and the sports team owners make, or care much about wins and losses for my Knicks or other teams I kinda root for.
Because I believe as much as I believe in anything a day of reckoning is coming for these institutions. And when it does, don’t say I didn’t write about it. When it does occur, we can then finally agree there is no difference in pop culture between commercialized music, PG-13 movies, fashion, and the world of sports.