Monday, July 30, 2007

Oh, Ignoble Sport!

Around the time I turned 19, sports began to recede from my group of interests. I didn’t know why, nor did I care; blissfully, I stopped straining to check box scores, stopped debating the merits of interleague play, and stopped pacing in front of the TV during important games. An apathetic athletic year passed, though I tried to convince myself I still gave some sort of shit: I remember staying up until three in the morning in January 2004 while somebody in America gave me the play-by-play of the Jets’ last-minute playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying too hard, like a boyfriend trying to talk himself into liking the girl he’s been dating for a couple of years.

So, like any terrified boyfriend would do, I went to relationship counseling with sports, and gradually built my interest back to somewhere near where it used to be. At this point, I’m too old to believe that sports matter very much, but I let ESPN.com monopolize my downtime and I’ll even watch a game once in a while. I’m pretty consistent with watching playoff games, and I’ll rarely miss a championship game. I’m what my sports-loving friends would call a casual fan, and what my religious friends would call a sports addict.

I attribute my waning interest to how spoiled I was during my formative sports-loving years. Between Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and Jerry Rice, I saw the best athletes to ever compete in hockey, basketball, and football, respectively. Babe Ruth is the only “best ever” from the four major sports whom I didn’t get to see. I also had Pete Sampras in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf, and Carl Lewis in track. Unbeknownst to be, the mid-to-late nineties was a golden age in sports, and the athletes were, literally, the best ever. I was too young to have perspective, and so I assumed that every generation hence would offer the same sublime levels of talent and transcendent sports moments.

For the most part, I was wrong. Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in the 1993 world series (http://youtube.com/watch?v=yD449dPiu9w) is still the greatest single sports moment I’ve ever witnessed. No one’s even approached Gretzky or MJ, and the only football player to enter the “best ever” discussion since Rice retired (Tom Brady) is a white bread, do-gooder quarterback playing for a faceless team. Swiss tennis star Roger Federer and Woods are the only two active transcendent sports figures, and neither of them plays a team sport, let alone a major sport.

Meanwhile, each of the majors is in turmoil. Hockey, for one, is hardly a “major” anymore after the disastrous lockout a couple of years ago. The NHL does not have a good TV contract, has sagging attendance, has only one marketable star (Sidney Crosby), and receives virtually no media coverage. In the grand market, hockey is worse off than ultimate fighting. The other three majors—basketball, football, and baseball—are mired in crises of their own. Basketball faces the worst internal struggle of the three, as it recently came to light that referee Tim Donaghy bet on games in which he officiated, and quite possibly fixed the outcome of numerous important contests.

The NFL, however, has the worst public relations issue, as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick—the Falcons’, and perhaps the league’s, most recognizable star—was indicted last week on federal dog fighting charges. Dog carcasses and dog fighting equipment were found on his property, and all evidence points to his involvement in one of the cruelest, most senseless, and despicable types of crime.

Of the three sports, though, Major League Baseball has the most persistent, pain-in-the-ass dilemma: steroids. Years of speculation that name-brand stars, as well as lesser players, took illegal muscle enhancers have come to a head with Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. This is bigger than Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Roger Maris in the summer of 1998—this is one of the five best players of all time, and certainly the most reviled player of all time, standing on the precipice of breaking the most hallowed sports record of all time. It’s impossible to believe that Bonds did not take steroids, but the lack of concrete proof means that millions of devoted sports fans have to sit by helplessly while a nefarious, ornery cheater rapes sports’ most glorious benchmark.

Thank God I’m not one of those millions. Anymore.

Stay Subdued, Sports Fandom
DJ Detached

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