About a dozen years ago a local book store had Mike Lupica in to sell a few copies of his new book and answer some questions. I asked him whether he despaired for the future of professional sports because of the increasingly unpleasant personal behavior of the typical professional athlete. He was upbeat and sanguine, suggesting that they had always behaved badly, but we just hear about it more nowadays.
Now, that was Mike Lupica, who is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but it sounded good at the time.
And he was wrong.
There has developed, over the last generation, a disconnect between professional athletes and the people whom they entertain. I won’t pretend to understand all of the causes, but clearly the huge amount of money available to professional and college sports because of TV, marketing, better stadiums, etc has created the perfect storm. Athletes are at once more valuable to the teams, their agents, their families, their universities, and have unimaginable amounts of disposable income available to them. So the athletes have the money to behave badly, and the teams and the rest of the leeches have tremendous incentives to protect their cash cows.
Gone are the days when professional athletes were part of the culture. My father-in-law remembers the NY Giants (baseball) coming to his neighbor’s house for barbecues, and shooting hoops in the driveway with a few of them. I simply cannot imagine that happening now. They are insulated from those who pay them; with bodyguards, private parking, special escorts from the police, private jets, special entrances….you name it, they’ll do it to avoid us.
And the more they avoid us, the less connected they feel to the fans who try so hard to love them and cheer for them. Some pay lip service to their fans, and a few even genuinely appreciate the sacrifices that so many Americans make to watch their favorite teams in action. But the majority of professional athletes, in particular the stars, have no interest in their fans and consider all contact with them to be a chore that is, unfortunately, mandated by their contracts.
So I have gradually lost interest in the players, and have embraced the beauty of the games. (Well, just one game. Baseball. It’s perfect in its symmetry and organic management of changing skills and athleticism). I can’t remember when last I knew the name of every New York Yankee. I just don’t care very much. But I watch the ballet of pitcher to batter to fielder and I am in awe of the design. I just need to find some players who don’t make $20,000,000, and don’t have utter and complete contempt for me and the game they play.