Twenty-five years ago, ESPN burst onto the broadcast scene and the world of sports has never been the same. For college kids (or, at least, those at University of Texas), nightly Sports Center and around the clock 24-hour programming took priorities over studying for exams (which helps explain my grade point average); adult couch potatoes found that Australian Rules Football represented an attractive alternative to those household “honey do’s.” Roberto “Remember the” Alomar, Bert “Be Home” Blyleven, and Andre “Bad Moon” Rison among others were immortalized by Chris Berman with each replay. Fans eagerly awaited the “Play of the Day” with hopes that their favorite teams and players would appear on the evening highlights.
As part of their extended silver anniversary celebration, ESPN structured Top 25 lists of virtually everything sports-related. The 1980 U.S. Olympic team’s miraculous victory over the Soviet Union was selected as the “most memorable sports moment” of the past 25 years. “Do You Believe in Miracles?” I remember the pride I felt watching that team of unheralded, overmatched young men proudly stand on the Olympic platform accepting gold medals on behalf of our country (and I barely even understand hockey. Today, we remember very few of their names, but will never forget that patriotic spirit exhibited by this true team of underdog Americans that defeated a superior hockey power. Thankfully, that memory is forever etched in our collective brains, because it may be quite a while until we experience anything like that again. Ironically ESPN is partly responsible.
Fast forwarding 24 years to the 2004 Olympic summer games in Athens, we find very few similarities with those members of the recent U.S. basketball “Dream Team” who were selected (or begged) to wear our country’s Red, White, and Blue. The patriotism that U.S. athletes once displayed was replaced by arrogance and indifference; the pride we once felt at watching them perform was replaced by disappointment and disgust. Representing one’s country was once considered an honor of the highest degree to be cherished for a lifetime; many of today’s American hoopsters saw it as a burden, an inconvenience, a waste of their precious time. Several “Superstars” chose not to participate at all; many of those who comprised the team acted like pampered babies, seemingly more concerned about playing time, personal stats, and endorsement opportunities than honoring our country. Rather than stay in the Olympic Village and mingle with their fellow athletes, these celebrities chose to hobnob among the “rich and famous” aboard the Queen Mary II cruise ship; rather than ride team buses to and from games, they instead traveled by limo.
And yet, despite the two weeks of luxury, the world’s best basketball players were overmatched and out-hustled by athletes from those superpowers of Puerto Rico and Argentina. The likes of Manu Ginobili (Argentina) and Pau Gasol (Spain) proved to be the best NBA-ers in the games, though they unfortunately represented other countries. From the opening tip-off of the first game, our American heroes couldn’t shoot, pass, or defend. They bickered; they bitched; they brooded. In the end, they stood on that lower platform and embarrassingly accepted their hard-earned bronze medals (while dreaming of that next endorsement deal).
Just a few months later, another group of U.S. sports heroes had a chance to redeem their fellow athletes as the Ryder Cup matched our best golfers against the best from Europe. With home course advantage, our superstars again set out to prove our athletic superiority over the rest of the world. Tiger vs. Monty? Lefty vs. some Brit named Luke Donald? Surely this would be no contest. And it wasn’t. Just a few years removed from “suggesting” that Ryder Cup participants be paid, America’s greatest golfers showed the world that arrogance, greed, and bickering are not reserved for our basketball courts. Some chose that week to test out new golf clubs; other opted out of afternoon rounds because they were simply too tired. From the onset, our players went through the motions, barely talking to each other, rarely encouraging successes. On the other hand, the Europeans exhibited a team unity, passion, and pride of country (continent) that had somehow eluded their rivals. And in the end, we suffered another embarrassing defeat.
NO “ME” IN “TEAM”
A funny thing has happened over the past 25 years since ESPN revolutionized the way Americans watch their sports. Perhaps, because of segments like “Play of the Day,” we started glorifying athlete over team, individual play over game plan, slam dunk over pick and roll. Perhaps, fans encourage this attitude by their obsessions with players’ statistics and the popularity of fantasy sports leagues. Many of today’s superstars are pampered well before high school, promised the moon from unscrupulous agents, promoters, and other seedy characters. They believe that sheer talent supercedes the need for hard work and mastering fundamentals. Personal highlights represent their meal tickets (and a prized Berman nickname) regardless of the impact on the team. They sign endorsement contracts from shoe and sports drink companies that occasionally pay more than their salaries and bonuses (and contribute to misplaced loyalties). Many are compensated better than their coaches and treat them with indifference and disrespect. They snub the autograph-seeking fans who pay their salaries and make headlines with improper behavior that would land the rest of us in jail. They celebrate great plays with choreographed routines, knowing that such actions provide more SportsCenter moments. They put themselves above the team, the result of which is often fundamentally poor efforts (and losses to inferior teams from other countries). Please realize, I am generalizing and not all athletes fit this selfish mode.
The memories of that 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team live on in highlights and movies, but the pride and patriotism experienced by its players are rarely exhibited today in sports. We all have seen old clips of stars like Ted Williams donning military uniforms after putting their careers on hold to serve their country. We remember the challenges faced by Jesse Owens who represented his country despite threats to himself and his family. Arizona Cardinal star safety Pat Tillman walked away from millions of dollars on the gridiron to join an elite Rangers unit serving in Afghanistan where he gave his life in defense of our country. And Tim Frisby, a 39 year old freshman (and father of six) at the University of South Carolina, competed a lengthy military career and now is a wide receiver on his college football team. (Google him to learn more.) Yes, many heroes do exist in this country and even in sports. But, more and more often, many athletes think less of country, less of team, and only of themselves. After all, the Olympics and Ryder Cup come around only every few years. But, the “Play of the Day” is chosen every night.