I stopped watching professional football when John Unitas died. He was the last of the great quarterbacks. By great I mean that Johnny U could do it all. He was the last quarterback to call the his own game. Now we have the head coach the the defensive and offensive coordinators sending in the plays they believe will be successful. Woe to the quarterback who deviates from the assigned play. And while most, if not all of stats Johnny U have been surpassed, his records stood for a very long time in the history of the game. But it wasn’t just the passing of Unitas from the game that stopped time and stopped my interest in football. It was the end of the sport as a sport. There were no million dollar bonus babies back then. Men often played for as little as five thousand dollars a year or less if they became injured. A man often had a real job in the off season to make ends meet. And a number of the old football greats played both offense and defense during the same game. The comradeship, the sportsmanship, the thrill of playing a sport that they loved, that was the intangible that no amount of money could ever buy.
Baseball had long been the most popular American game, football came along for the ride and basketball was an afterthought. True, Ice Hockey certainly commanded its own following but that was regional. But sport has turned into a business, teams are measured in terms of profit and loss. Baseball still gave us the thrill of out favorite team winning the World Series but all too often it was the money spent on buying the best players and putting them into on team. As a whole America did not mind when Babe Ruth was paid more than the President of the United States. There were a good many players when never earned more than a twentieth of that salary every year. But it was Curt Flood who opened the flood gates of high money contracts. In sports there was no free agency, one’s sports career was owned by the club. He sued and eventually the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, agreeing with him that the lifetime agency clause in contracts was a form of slavery. Curt Flood was an extreme good outfielder and hitter for the then Kansas City Athletics. He never played again after he sued Baseball. I doubt that many professional athletes even know his name nor the debt they owe him.
Professional sports no longer have much sport left in them. It’s all about the money. The cheap seats have vanished, have been gone for the last forty years. You could buy a cheap seat ticket out in the outfield of any baseball stadium for a buck or two. Hot dogs were a dollar or two. And you could bring in your own drinks. Hell, you could carry in an ice chest full of beer if you had a mind to. Football used to be the same way. Then the club owners got the cities or counties to finance and own the stadiums. And every every so many years the owners complained they weren’t getting enough revenues. they wanted special boxes for all the high rollers to sit and enjoy the game. Luxury boxes that held only a few people but whose space ate up dozens of seats. People with a great deal of money often don’t think about paying ten bucks for a beer or hot dog. That luxury box made them special people and they became part of the pomp and pageantry of the game. Money ruins the game. Players in foot ball often need to specialize in order to earn a spot on the roster. Training has become so much more intense. And the stakes are so much higher. Basketball is, perhaps, the last sport where specialization has the least impact. Of course one must be very tall to play on the college and professional level.
Which brings us to the college and university level. I remember that even back in the sixties books were being written by former collegiate football players about the abuses in the sports programs at most major universities. Money paid under the table, the requirement to play when physically injured, the phony grades and courses that made it possible to recruit those with athletic prowess but less than acceptable intellectual rigor. Now I see that the University of North Carolina has made a sham out of their diplomas given to athletes. Winning is everything in our culture and plays no part in our sports. The gracious play no longer exists, it’s an in your face attitude by individuals and teams. Our problems with sports starts at the junior and senior high school level. There are many states where the local secondary school are very large and that means that the average student has little chance to play sports at that organized level. The idea that winning is everything starts here. It goes on to college. I was watching an Alabama-Auburn game in 1962 and as each starting player was introduced their major was given. Some were going to graduate as accountants, some as businessmen, other including physical therapy, and even a few were engineering students. That is not the case today. Most will graduate with a phony and worthless degree. Perhaps if it were for a degree in Football or Basketball we might take a little pride in such an accomplishment. But team sports is not much of an intellectual endeavor and compared to the number of graduates churned out each year the job openings are very few. Getting on a professional sports team is like winning the lottery.
But the worst damage is done at the university level. Sports has become a big money maker and the players receive so little by comparison. Alumni contributions come in as a results of winning teams. Few give their money to the science departments or the arts school. Mostly it goes to fuel the cost of newer and bigger facilities and the million dollar salary winning coaches make. Meanwhile that post graduate student who finds a position as a proctor or assistant is lucky to get more than four or five thousand dollars a semester. Sports in a society tend to reflect our preferences, our social status markers. In America, the capital of professional sports, intelligence and intellectual ability seem to come last.