Anybody with an ounce of discernment knows that sports are big business in our time. But somehow, this fact becomes easy to forget when we are caught up in the entertainment. Similar to Hollywood films, our brains cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality once we are immersed.
Disagree? Ask yourself why people get startled during horror movies, or become emotionally invested and cry when a TV character’s life ends tragically. That same blurring happens with sports, as we see when fans attack someone for wearing a visiting team’s jersey or burn neighborhoods after a title win.
These are all just games for sale. And selling a product on these kinds of levels means playing a bit dirty. It means lying to the consumer at times, to keep him emotionally invested in the game.
Lie #1: College sports are more pure than the pros. Boosters buying anything imaginable for “amateur” players is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, professionals are surely mercenaries by necessity, because so are the team owners, but the students and college coaches are not far behind. There isn’t enough space here to comb the athletic department scandals of the past few years, let alone throughout history.
You hear this fib most from college basketball fanatics, who generally sneer at the NBA. “I like college because they know the fundamentals,” some will say, not realizing that NCAA scoring and shooting are woefully low in recent years. Their idea that the pros are no-defense, free-flowing dunk machines is built on a flawed perception of the players’ intelligence. NBA analyst Tim Legler recounted his rookie year surprise at the speed and savvy of the pros, saying, “A contested shot or pass in college is blocked or intercepted in the NBA.” Meanwhile, college kids struggle to shoot 45% from the field, against lesser competition.
Lie #2: A true man who loves women will support, watch and enjoy women’s sports. The flip side of this browbeating sentiment condemns men who don’t appreciate the WNBA nor women’s soccer as non-progressive, exclusive, or even misogynist. This kind of thinking led to events like the NFL’s annual pink accessory stampede to battle breast cancer. It’s about inclusion and equality at face value, but fundamentally about getting every paying customer into the big tent.
There is nothing wrong with under-the-rim basketball and slower players on the pitch, though most fans (male and female) elect to pass on that. We generally want to see the best of the best. Those players are currently men. Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted that the women’s pro league had little social imprint—a few years after former commish David Stern tried to convince us it was the men’s side that was the loser. Not every sport is meant to be popular. And not liking something doesn’t always equate to “hating.”
Lie #3: Performance-enhancing drugs can be/have been eradicated. Sports radio host Colin Cowherd, among others, was fond of repeating this lie in the years after the embarrassing Mitchell Report hit major league baseball with a mighty splash. “Steroids and other PEDs have been cleaned out of the game,” fans keep hearing to this day. Declining offensive numbers and less bulky players are used to prop this up.
However, the nature of criminal activity is such that the cheater is a few steps ahead. Those new microchips inside store credit cards are not infallible, no matter what media, businesses, and government tell you. Likewise, it is a slam-dunk guarantee that athletes are onto something new that drug testers aren’t privy to quite yet. Crime may not pay long-term. But since athletes have a limited shelf life, there will always be those with short vision who will gamble with their names, bodies, and lives.
Lie #4: Football can be made into a safer sport. Speaking of crime, repeating this lie is not illegal. Maybe it should be. Change the tackling, helmets, and concussion protocols all you want. There is no way to make a blood sport into something softer, without creating a different game. Fans who argue that they’re not titillated by football violence are lying to themselves. Those 1/1,000th of a second replays aren’t only to check whether the guy’s cleat was in-bounds. We also see the twisted limbs and head whip-lashing fifty times, facetiously hoping no one is injured, even as we wince and nod in admiration.
If the entertainment value was only about high-flying offenses and precise execution, then arena or even flag football would be hugely popular, and they aren’t. Why? The hitting is not as vicious as in college and NFL scraps. We should simply admit taking pleasure in this, and move on.