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Louis Untermeyer


Weekly Muse
My humble opinion on current events

February 12, 2002

The State of Sport

The Winter Olympics are underway in Salt Lake City, for those of you who care about such things. Maybe it's a personal failing on my part, but I've never understood the appeal of the Olympic games, as a spectator sport. I understand why athletes train hard and compete in the games, and I admire them for it, don't get me wrong, but I have little interest in watching it. I'll watch some of it, such as the ice hockey, and regardless of the sport, I hope the good old U.S. of A kicks some serious metal butt. 

But most of it's boring, and some of it can hardly be called a sport, like figure skating. Yes, figure skaters train their cute little buns off; yes, they are in phenomenal shape; yes, they possess awesome talent and remarkable precision; yes, the moves require discipline and blood, sweat, and tears. But you could say the same about ballet and ballet dancers, and no one considers ballet a sport. 

But the Olympics does present a fine excuse to use the Weekly Muse to indulge my love of sports, and examine the state of the games. We'll cover the four major leagues. Here goes.

NBA

Of the four major leagues, the National Basketball Association seems to be doing the worst. Attendance is down, ratings are down, Jordan's return has done little to spark interest. 

Why the malaise? I think the NBA game has become boring. It's no longer exciting or fun to watch. Too many players go through the motions, and the few that play with passion show up opponents by screaming and gyrating after a simple play (too many NFL players do the same). Too few players seem to be able to shoot. Defense resembles demolition derby - hit the guy with the ball hard and pray you don't get called for an intentional foul.

There are also too many unlikable players in the NBA. Overwhelmingly talented, they're brash, arrogant, condescending toward their own teammates, other teams, their owner, and the fans. They feel bigger than the game, that the game owes them something, the big money, the fat contracts, the endorsements. There seems to be little appreciation in too many players for how good they've really got it. It's annoying, and makes the game nearly unwatchable. I now watch only Phoenix Suns games, though not as religiously as I used to (isn't there a game on tonight? Oh, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is on. CLICK), and never watch any other games. I barely glanced at last weekend's All-Star game. I may watch some playoff games, I may not. 

I'm not the only fan with this attitude, and that is the challenge the NBA faces.

NHL

In contrast to the NBA, the National Hockey League seems in great shape. Stadiums are full, the league has expanded a few times in the last several years, ratings are decent, and the action on the ice has never been better. Players are faster and stronger than at any other time in the league's history. 

I must admit, I'm a recent convert to hockey, so I'm still catching up on its history and rules of the game. But the players seem a bit more down-to-earth than athletes in any of the other leagues, more appreciative of what they have. They interact well with fans and generally seem to enjoy them. Players skate hard and fight harder, yet seem to respect each other. There's little showboating or grandstanding, namely because any player who tried it would get creamed. It's very much a self-policing league, and it seems to work. 

Hockey is great fun to watch. Limit the dirty shots, let the player police themselves through fair fights, and let it go. Someday, it may even catch, and surpass, the NBA in popularity.

NFL

The National Football League is also doing very well. Wildly popular, it is probably America's favorite sport (sorry, baseball and car racing fans). The season just concluded with a classic Super Bowl, in which the heavy, seemingly invincible favorite (Goliath) fell to an underrated yet plucky, resourceful, and resilient foe (David). 

The New England Patriots offer fans in every city hope that their team could also pull off a one-year turnaround. Any why not? The St. Louis Rams are the only team to be in the Super Bowl twice the last three years. 

Go back in time, when St. Louis and Tennessee played. Neither were highly rated at the beginning of the season, neither were very good the previous year. Yet here they were, and they played an exciting game.

Take Baltimore and New York last year. Same story. Both came from the dregs the year before. Neither were picked to go to the Super Bowl. Yet here they were.

Same for New England this year. They finished 5-11 the year before and started 1-3 this year. Nobody had heard of the quarterback, Tom Brady. 

Some say this produces parity, that all the great teams are gone, the dynasties are over. I say great. I hope so. Isn't any sport boring when the same team wins year after year? Wasn't the NBA boring when the Bulls always won? Wasn't the NFL boring when Dallas always won, or the 49ers, or the Steelers? Isn't it boring when one team is so superior to the others for so long that it doesn't matter who the other team is, or how hard it's fought and clawed to get a chance to beat the champ? Only to lose. How boring. How sad. 

Much better now, when all teams hold legitimate dreams of championship during training camp and the inexcusably long preseason. 

Major League Baseball

On the field, baseball is the same wonderful game. The players are good. Pitching is still at a premium, and probably a bit diluted, but when, really, has that not been the case? Besides, didn't pitchers dominate the World Series last year? It can't be that bad.

Off the field, baseball is a mess. Owners and players don't trust each other because, well, they're untrustworthy. Owners whine about high salaries but they're the ones signing the checks. Players jump from team to team, or play teams off against each other, to receive the big checks. The commissioner says, under oath, that virtually every team loses money, and nobody believes him. Two teams may not exist this time next year. Owners want a salary cap, players don't. Everyone seems to want socialism, in which the big-money clubs subsidize the small-money clubs, in essence, funding the competition. It's insane. 

Money seems to dominate baseball more than any other sport. Until that stops, baseball's off-field woes will always overshadow on-field performance, and eventually consume it. 

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