By Bill Buchanan
An Associated Press article on Christmas Day titled, “Pros brace for labor strife,” talked about possible strikes or lock-outs this year in three of the major professional sports leagues: the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. The article added that baseball, which took about 12 years to recover from its strike in 1994-1995, is optimistic about reaching a peaceful settlement.
I used to be a huge professional fan of all the major sports except hockey. If they canceled the entire hockey season I would not take notice. But I am quickly reaching the “who cares” point with other professional sports. Over the years, the shameless greed, the steroids, the loutish behavior and the apparent total disregard for the fans has turned me off.
I gave up on baseball years ago. The 1994-1995 strike caused the World Series to be canceled for the first time since 1904. The World Series survived the Great Depression and two world wars, but could not overcome an even more powerful adversary Ñ greed. And I am talking about both sides here, players and owners. To allow the playoffs and World Series to be canceled was a slap in the fans’ faces. After the strike and a significant fan backlash, baseball was desperate to return to its former glory. So it sold itself out by allowing steroids to take over the game. Guys who looked like baseball players one season and NFL linebackers the next were suddenly hitting home runs by the basketful. In the late Ô90s the single season home run record was assaulted and eclipsed, then eclipsed again shortly thereafter. The career home run record, held by the ever-classy Hank Aaron, was bested by the sullen and obnoxious Bobby Bonds, who has had the cloud of alleged steroid use hanging over him for years. Baseball’s powers that be turned a blind eye to all of this Ñ- forever cheapening two of the most cherished records in all of sport.
I had not watched a professional basketball game in a long time. But we had Christmas dinner with Ava’s brothers, both of whom are big basketball fans. So as a favor to our guests, we turned on the overhyped L.A. Lakers-Miami Heat game. I have seen things on the gardening channel that were more exciting. I used to enjoy pro basketball. When I was younger, I loved to watch my favorite player, Bill Russell, and his Boston Celtics run up and down the court to title after title. While smaller and shorter than many other centers, Russell was a defensive master who did whatever it took for his team to win. Russell wasn’t interested in personal highlight reels. He didn’t play to pad his stat sheet. He played an aggressive and selfless style of basketball that complemented the other players on his team, and allowed the Celtics to chalk up championship after championship.
At times, Saturday’s game looked like 10 really talented guys who stood around thinking, “What move can I make that will get me featured on ESPN tonight?” There was some amazing athleticism, and LeBron James is an incredible player Ñ able to play any position on the court with all-star skill. But it seemed like most of those guys had written it into their contract that they didn’t have to play defense or hustle after loose balls. When one guy bravely stood his ground, and let guy on offense run into him, taking a foul for charging, the broadcaster practically enshrined him into the Hall of Fame on the spot. Excuse me, but that is what you are supposed to do. The average salary in the NBA in 2009 was over $3 million per year Ñ not including endorsements or other income. For that, you would expect a little effort. If the players worked as hard to make the game as exciting as the announcers and network promoters do trying to make you think it is exciting, it would be an amazing game.
Part of the problem in pro sports for me is all the team-switching. Years ago guys played for the same team pretty much all their career. Mickey Mantle was always a New York Yankee. Bart Starr was always a Green Bay Packer. Bill Russell was always a Boston Celtic. I was a fan of those players, and my loyalty to those teams was at least partially rooted in that continuity. Money has changed all that. Now it seems unusual for guys to go more than five years with the same team. You have to have a spreadsheet to keep track of some of them.
In medical terms, I would say that hockey was stillborn; pro baseball and basketball have flat-lined; and pro football is on life support. I will still watch an occasional pro game, and will watch play-offs and the Super Bowl, but even that is on shaky ground.
In some ways, it is sad to give up something that once gave you so much enjoyment. But I still have college football, even though that season is about to end. And while my Alabama team will not be playing for anything but pride this year, the team that beat us, our cross-state rivals at Auburn, will be playing Oregon for the national championship.