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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Team Sports

In Alabama, football is a religion. That’s a metaphor, of course, but it’s accurate in the sense that football has a primary role in Alabama culture. Read the Wikipedia entries for many cities in Alabama and you’ll find a list of their football stars. The successful integration of football programs at my high school, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University facilitated the transition of the state to an integrated society, or at least a less segregated one.

The prevailing religion in North Carolina is basketball. The World Cup for “soccer” reminds us that team sports are a worldwide obsession – and a worldwide generator of income. I haven’t seen the numbers, but I suspect that total revenues (tickets, TV, merchandise, etc) of team sports at both professional and school levels far exceed the total revenues of the film industry, the television industry, the music industry, or the publishing industry. Team sports sell. Individual sports like golf and tennis sell too, but not to the same extent. Just one NFL franchise is worth more than Tiger Woods ever was.

An obscure Briton of the 19th century, John Acton, wrote that "power tends to corrupt.” So does money, in the magnitude that team sports generate. I want to mention two forms of corruption.

Many US colleges and universities depend on team sports for money – not just direct income, but indirect income. By “indirect” I mean donations from alumni to the academic side of the institution. Many university presidents see that that donations from alumni for academic scholarships, academic buildings, premier faculty, laboratories, new dormitories, etc rise and fall in direct proportion to success or failure of that institution’s team sports. The presidents are even at risk of losing their jobs if the institution’s team sports are perceived as a failure by alumni. It’s no wonder that appointments of athletic directors and head coaches, as well as signings of top athletes from high school, are big news.

Do team sports skew the mission of colleges and universities? Yes – unless you consider those institutions to exist, in part, to provide public entertainment. That's precisely what many of them do.

Another troubling form of corruption is in the professional ranks. The NBA doles out millions of dollars to teenagers, many of whom aren’t psychologically able to handle the temptations of money or the pressure to perform. The NFL uses athletes like a consumable and then discards them, but the athletes suffer debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or dementia pugilistica as it is known in Muhammad Ali, is rampant among former NFL players. NHL players get it too. Pro athletes who “retire” from high-contact team sports will require massive dollars for medical treatment in future years.

Every December my sons and I attend a Carolina Panthers game in Charlotte, a family tradition. Like residents of ancient Greece and Rome, we enjoy the spectacle and the display of skill. But when we are lucky enough to get seats "down close", I see the individual athletes as people. I wonder, what will become of them when they're my age? It makes me very uncomfortable.