Leave it to the biggest show boaters in professional sports to steal the sports headlines even in their off-season.
The NFL lockout is the most disheartening sports story of the last decade — and possibly the previous one as well. Worse than “(insert star college athlete) receives (insert inappropriate side benefit)” scandals. Worse than officials accepting bribes to tip games. Worse than steroids.
Why? Because it’s never been so blatantly obvious that we, the fans, have been completely forgotten.
I won’t pretend to understand all the details of this dispute — who wants what, why they can’t have it, and why that means no football. I’ve frequently found it too painful to read articles describing the inability of the billionaire owners and millionaire players to work out how much more money each party is entitled to. I suppose I’m too busy working a part time job so that I can graduate from college debt-free to find time to sympathize with the multi-millionaires who control the most popular professional sports league in America.
It makes me cringe to hear athletes say things like, “I have a family to feed,” when faced with the prospect of a pay cut. They have obviously forgotten what’s like to actually not be able to feed a family.
Nor are the owners a sympathetic lot. They have apparently not wrapped their collective heads around this fact: without the players, they are just a bunch of old white guys who used to own professional sports teams. If the athletes who are taking years off their life expectancy are responsible for the billions you rake in annually, it might be good form to take care of them after they retire. Just a thought.
Because you don’t get rich by owning a professional sports franchise. You get richer.
And it’s not just football.
When the New York Yankees offered their aging all-star shortstop, Derek Jeter, $13 million a year until he turns 40, everyone knew that at least half of that money was being spent to keep Jeter, a lifetime Yankee, in pinstripes until he reaches 3,000 hits (update: now on the disabled list for the first time since 2003 — no doubt entirely unrelated to his aging body — Jeter sits at 2,994). The 5-time champion was coming off the worst season of his already Hall of Fame worthy career, and, sadly, most 36-year-old baseball players don’t have their best seasons ahead of them.
It was a charity offer. An arguably deserved bonus for the years of dedication, hard work, and, of course, championships.
It was rejected.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman suggested that his team captain shop the market, to see if anyone else would pay $13 million for the receding shortstop. Of course they wouldn’t — only in a Yankees jersey is Jeter worth even close to that amount.
But he won, of course. He held all the cards — he is the talent. How much did he ultimately need to take the field? $15 million. Now that’s more like it.
At this point, the money has reached such astronomical heights that it’s more symbolic than anything. What’s the difference between $13 million and $15 million? Between $800 million and $850 million? Do these numbers translate to on-field performance? Do 35 home runs = $7 million, or 2,000 rushing yards = $5 million?
These athletes, and the people who pay them, have lost touch with the people for whom one hour = $8.00 — Americans whose dedication is the only reason anyone would consider shelling out millions upon millions of dollars to someone who is really, really good at catching, throwing, or hitting a ball.
And with so little reciprocation, where does this feeling of dedication come from? In the heat of a close game or playoff series, it seems perfectly natural. But when I step back and think about it, it’s completely ineffable.
There is a bizarre sense of loyalty that every passionate sports fan can identify with. It is most often dictated by one’s city or state of residence, but certainly not always — for example, I am a diehard Atlanta Braves fan. I have friends — members of the same family, born and raised within the same Vermont household — who root for the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans.
Thousands of miles from Atlanta, St. Louis, and Tennessee, our spirits still rise and fall with the success and failure of our favorite teams. As the recent ESPN tagline tells us: it’s not crazy. It’s sports.
So if every professional sports league disbanded tomorrow, many of us would feel a strange sense of loss, as though a close friend of ours — or rather, a few hundred — had “broken up” with us. In many ways, our team allegiances have come to feel like parts of our identity. Their absence would be, at first, devastating.
But soon we would discover that professional sports are just like summer blockbusters, American Idol, and Broadway musicals.
If I’m in polite company: forms of entertainment that help us forget the doldrums of everyday life, and luxuries of industrialized societies that have wealth and resources to spare.
If I’m feeling cynical: bread and puppet charades meant to keep us screaming for something besides justice, and engaged with anything but the state of our planet, the luxuries of societies that colonize others and then find no irony in television shows like Survivor. In a world with no resources to spare.
Our lives would continue without the Red Sox, the Raiders, the Lakers or the Sabres. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true: our lives would go on. And the billions upon billions of dollars that go into player salaries, owner salaries, stadium construction and upkeep, TV contracts, and advertisements could go toward, perhaps, providing clean water to the 70% of the world that does not have access to it. That might be a good start.
Because at the end of the day, I am in love with the games, not the sports.
The unmatched unity of a football team, where every single player on the field must do his job perfectly to execute a single play. The rage and grace of hockey, where players glide in a fluid dance across the ice — and directly into each other. The inexplicable beauty of baseball, with its flawless dimensions that have made it simultaneously timeless and ever changing.
These are the games I love. Not the athletes and owners who have taken them hostage.
I take solace in that fact that if the NFL can’t work out its internal dispute, the game of football isn’t going anywhere. So, no, you won’t catch me mourning.
At least, not nearly as much as the (former) professional athletes who won’t have the American people to cut their paychecks anymore.
Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College, and is interning at the Addison Independent as a news reporter and member of the online team this summer. He likes sports — a lot — and, as with most things he likes, he spends a lot of time thinking about them. He hopes that you enjoy the cathartic weekly release of those thoughts, and that you will share yours as well in the comments below.