I’ve decided to demonstrate what a curmudgeon I now am with this post.
For years before I was fanatical about cheesesteaks, burgers and barbecue, the Philly pro teams and a handful of individual athletes were my driving passion. But I have a difficult time working up any intensity over who wins or loses at this point.
While some of that is the result of my interests diversifying as I grew older, there is much more to it than that. Sports have changed in several major ways, and not for the better.
I’ll start with analytics. They have become a factor in most, if not all of the major team sports. I accept that were a team – at least in baseball and basketball – to unilaterally go back to the pre-analytics approach to its sport, they would probably not be very competitive. But the price to pay for the success that analytics provides in terms of wins is a steep one that comes in the form of a less entertaining product for fans to watch.
I realize opinions will differ on this, but I also know I”m far from alone in not getting much enjoyment out of watching a basketball team chuck up 30 three-pointers per game. The NBA of the early to mid 80s, when three-point shots were a relative rarity, was a beautiful game to watch. I virtually never missed a Sixers game when I was a teen. Now, I can’t recall the last time I watched one.
Nor do I take much satisfaction from the fact that a new record for most league-wide strikeouts recorded in the Major Leagues has been set almost every year for over a decade and that there are now more strikeouts than hits across all of baseball, something that would have been unthinkable until recent seasons. I’d rather see fewer pitchers throwing in the high 90s, more pitchers staying in games longer, and batters trying to make good contact rather than taking upper-cuts at those 98-MPH fastballs.
Dave Kingman, who was considered something of a joke during the 1970s because he consistently hit for a low average and seemed to excel at nothing but smashing home runs, turned out to be ahead of his time. He’d probably be in high demand if he played today. The batting averages he used to put up each season are now the norm, as most players swing for the fences each time they step to the plate. Not a single Major League player with enough at-bats to qualify hit .320 last season.
Defensive shifting is another analytics-driven feature of modern baseball that rubs me the wrong way. I used to take pride in being able to determine whether a batted ball would result in a hit by the angle at which it left the bat. That’s no longer possible because of defensive alignments. This is also a factor in terms of lower batting averages, as players are coached to swing for the fences rather than hit directionally.
Teams won’t unilaterally stop using analytics, so only rule changes can diminish their impact on the game. I would start with Major League Baseball mandating that teams position two infielders on each side of second base when a pitch is thrown.
As far as basketball goes, I’d love to see three-point shots limited to the end of games. But I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.
And don’t get me started about some of the crazy decisions we see NFL coaches making every week nowadays.
Perhaps a bigger factor than analytics in my relative turn away from sports in later years has been the on-field and court behavior of seemingly most professional and many college athletes. For most of the 20th century, modesty was almost universally considered a virtue in the United States. It was the norm for parents to teach their children that it’s bad to brag and taunt. To say that aspect of our culture has been turned on its head would be a massive understatement. And that’s clearly driven by athletes and the TV networks that broadcast and report on them.
It’s almost shocking to see an NFL players fail to behave in a way that would have been condemned as obnoxious and unsportsmanlike for generations after virtually every play. And it’s almost as rare for a baseball player to simply put his head down and circle the bases after connecting for a no-doubt-about-it home run. The situation in basketball is obviously no better.
Some of today’s football players would have you believe they couldn’t work up the intensity to play well without taunting or doing something crazy after they make a play. I can’t help but wonder how guys like Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Dick Butkus and Jerry Rice managed to perform at such a high level without acting like idiots on the field.
Mike Schmidt won eight home run titles and I doubt he stood and watched a single long ball during his great career. In fact, I wish some of today’s home run watchers would have to magically face Bob Gibson the next time they step up to the plate.
Sports are now a reflection of our cultural decline.
There is another factor that has become an issue in recent years which has furthered my alienation from the games I used to love. While the situation has died down somewhat – perhaps at least partially in response to declining TV ratings – I was far from thrilled about the increased role of political and social messaging in sports. It’s obviously all on one side of the spectrum. We saw what happened to Drew Brees when he Tweeted about his grandfathers’ service in World War II and in defense of the Flag.
It’s beyond me that when we are more polarized as a nation than at any time since the 19th century, with hostility over politics seemingly intruding into every aspect of American life, that anyone thinks making it a bigger factor in the one past-time that still unified people at opposite ends of the political spectrum – behind their teams – is a good thing.
If the owners allow it to happen, the players can speak out and demonstrate all they like while on the job. But those of us who disapprove aren’t obligated to keep watching them.
League Commissioners are partially to blame as well. Adam Silver and Rob Manfred have both pulled all-star games from cities in recent years over hot-button issues about which there is a lot of public disagreement. Nobody forced them to choose sides. Nor was Roger Goodell obligated to mandate massive donations to a highly controversial movement that divides the country.
Those were the three primary factors that drove me away from sports; with the intrusion of more political and social commentary being something of a straw that broke the camel’s back. Routinely obnoxious on-field and court behavior by athletes came first; followed by the impact of analytics.
And now, on top of those three factors, there is the increased role of sports gambling. It is hopefully not impacting what happens during games, but it nonetheless detracts from sports being all about whether your team wins or loses. And I know I can’t be the only one who is beginning to find those incessant sports gambling commercials nauseating.
Call me a stick-in-the-mud if you like. But sports just ain’t what they used to be, and that’s a shame. Of course, on the bright side, I have more time to eat cheesesteaks.