SPORTS: Sports suffer even as participation, attention grow

A lot of sports aren't what they used to be.

July 10, 2010

I hear and read a great deal of banter about open-wheel racing’s not being what it used to be.

Hard to argue. It’s as plain to see as empty seats and sagging television ratings, although I do harbor hope that the Indy Racing League’s new chief, Randy Bernard, can find some light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming freight train.

But will we ever return to the halcyon days dominated by the likes of Foyt, Andretti, Rutherford, Mears and the Unsers? Unlikely, but never say never.

Yet open-wheel is not alone. A lot of sports aren’t what they used to be. Even hallowed NASCAR is seeing a downturn in attendance and ratings.

At the risk of sounding like the aging boomer that I am, I submit that—in many cases—even as athletes, equipment, coaching and training have improved, the sports themselves have suffered.

Beyond football, is there any sport today that is really thriving? And, please, don’t offer up mixed martial arts. That’s not sport; it’s spectacle.

Take our “Indiana” game, basketball, for example. Despite the presence of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, et al, I don’t believe the artistry and aesthetics of the game that came of age in the 1960s and matured in the 1980s will ever be recaptured. The essence of the game has simply changed, filtering down to all levels.

A friend and I were discussing how officiating might improve college basketball. My answer was simple in theory though admittedly difficult in practice: Enforce the rules that are on the books. It was intended to be a non-contact sport, based on free-flowing movement. Even as Butler University was praised for “playing the way teams used to play,” much of the Bulldogs’ success was based on the physicality of their defense. And as classic as that NCAA championship game against Duke was, it was nonetheless a bump-and-grinder of the first degree.

I don’t believe baseball is the game it used to be. Too many teams mean too much diluted talent. There’s a dearth of great starting pitching, the kinds of guys who routinely strung together 20-plus-win seasons. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio and Sandy Koufax?

Meanwhile, minorities from the inner cities are pursuing other sports, leaving fewer future Jackie Robinsons and Willie Mays.

I love golf, but not even Tiger Woods versus Phil Mickelson can match the era that gave us Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson, Steve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino.

Tennis, too, no longer resonates as it did in the days of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Right now, it’s Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and a bunch of other guys, and the Williams sisters and a bunch of other women.

Boxing? Quick, name the heavyweight champion, and no fair using Google. The sport has been on a steady decline since the days of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

The Sport of Kings, horse racing, captures our attention for the Triple Crown races in the spring, then pretty much disappears from conversation.

Hockey? Same as baseball. Too many teams. The average American would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three of the sport’s biggest stars, and I’ll spot you Sidney Crosby.

Olympic sports are probably holdingtheir own. Swimming: then we had a Mark Spitz, now we have a Michael Phelps. Track and field: then we had a Carl Lewis, now we have a bunch of guys futilely chasing Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Gymnastics: then we had a Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller, now we have, well, let me look it up: oh, yeah, Carly Patterson and Nastia Luikin.

Same goes for winter sports. Except for snow geeks like me, we only really care one out of every four winters. That’s why you won’t hear much about Bode Miller, Lindsay Vonn and Apollo Ono for a while.

On the positive side, women’s sports in general are far better and infinitely more plentiful than back in the day. Simple reason: Title IX and the maturation of opportunity.

And overall, sports probably have never been more popular in terms of participants and spectators. But has more made for better? Sorry, this boomer says no.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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