It’s been said that Hollywood is upstream from culture and leads the culture in thought and trend. It’s also been said that politics is downstream from culture and it reflects where the people are. No one ever mentions sports on that stream, but it must be on there somewhere. Recent controversial events in the world of sports are pushing me to put the remote down and reevaluate the place sports holds in my life.
On one hand, sports is only recreation. It’s meant to be a break from our work. It provides a time to exercise our bodies and our competitive natures. In this sense, sports is a good thing. It gives us a change of pace during the day, it provides exercise and it calls us to focus in a way that is different than staring at a screen, shuffling through a stack of paperwork or operating a piece of machinery.
On the other hand, sports has become an overwhelming business. I remember the first time one of my friends wore a pair of Air Jordans to school. He was the instant envy of the class, but we had no idea how the sports market was about to explode.
Professional athletes make salaries that most of us only dream of. Teams feel the pressure to win and the coaches and athletes bear the weight of that heavy burden. This drives them to take risks and stretch the rules to the limits. Sometimes beyond the limits.
Who has caused athletes, coaches and teams to operate like this? It’s us. The fans bear some, if not much, of the responsibility. We’ve elevated sports to a weight it can’t bear. Modern stadiums and arenas are reminiscent of the ancient Roman coliseums. They treated the gladiators like gods. Are we any different? We should remember how being obsessed by the games affected the Roman Empire. Just a hint, it didn’t last much longer after the days of the gladiators.
Another pressure on professional athletes is that we've placed them on such high pedestals that many of them forget we just want to see an amazing play. Our admiration for them pushes them to believe they should become leaders in the arenas of politics and social issues. We need leaders and inspirational figures, but can’t the stadium be a place where we’re inspired by an athlete’s work ethic and achievement rather than what they’re doing as the National Anthem plays?
Unfortunately, the demand to win and maintain a winning program pushes coaches to take desperate measures to land star players. The scandal at the University of Louisville is clear evidence of the extreme pressure in recruiting and the lengths coaches will go to land star athletes. In the end, though, the teams are trying to sell tickets to fans even as they recruit. They’re recruiting players for us.
What if we said enough? What if we insisted we’re not willing to win at any cost? After all, athletes are human beings—not some kind of commodity we use to suit our needs.
Don’t think I’m letting owners, athletics directors, coaches and players off the hook, but as controversies unfold one after another in today’s sports world we need to be careful to bear our share of the blame. Even if we’re not on the field, we play a role in the game. Maybe we need to put down the remote, call a timeout and remember why we’re watching it in the first place.
Brandon Porter is the media director for the Commonwealth Policy Center.