BENNER: Grandpa prepares for 'once upon a time' in sports

January 1, 2011

Our first grandchild, William, entered this world a few weeks ago. Which means, at some time when he can fully comprehend, it will be my duty to place him by my side and offer tales of the good old days in sports.

I’ve already begun to compose my thoughts. Allow me to share …

Now you see, William, once upon a time, this thing we call sports was so much simpler. I’m not saying better. Just simpler.

Games were, well, just games, not made-for-television productions. I’m talking, lad, about sports before cable. Yes, son, back in the dark, dark ages. Well before ESPN and TV timeouts. Well before anyone ever dreamed of paying to watch sports on TV.

Back then, William, there were just four major bowl games. The Rose (and yes, son, my alma mater, Indiana University, actually once played in it), the Cotton, the Sugar and the Orange. They played them all on New Year’s Day. And when the games were over, a bunch of guys called sportswriters—yes, I was one of them—voted on who was No. 1, and that team was declared the national champion. And hardly anyone complained.

Back then, the Super Bowl was pretty much just a game to decide the professional football championship, not a week-long corporate-partying extravaganza that just happened to conclude with a football game. Once again, William, somebody won, somebody lost, and life went on. Nobody thought it was career-making to win one, or career-destroying to lose or not even play in one.

Once upon a time, my boy, there was no drug-testing in sports for a simple reason. There were no drugs. Or at least not the kind that would help you become stronger or faster (and maybe kill you in the process). I’m not saying this was a good thing, William, but alcohol was the drug of choice for those who chose to indulge, and no one much cared if they did.

In basketball, son, I can recall when the rules were the rules. Like, you couldn’t take more than two steps without dribbling or you’d be called for traveling, and if you bumped a guy or put your hands on him, it was a foul. It was a beautiful game then, William, with movement and passing and great shooting. Ballet with a ball. I’ll dig out some old game films and show you.

William, I’m so old that I remember when the introduction of the starting lineups meant an acknowledgement and little more. The game was the thing. Now, there are spotlights and smoke and flames and pulsating music and the athletes engage in hyperbolic choreographed dances.

And once upon a time, William, when someone scored, they just scored. Like that’s what they were supposed to do. Now, guys slam the ball into the ground, leap into the stands, pound their chests, produce elaborate pantomimes or glower at their opponents. I guess they believe they’re giving us fans what we want.

Back in the day, son, there was no instant replay, either. Sure, sometimes the officials didn’t get it “right,” but generally the best team won by making better plays.

Now, William, I’m not saying it was all better back in the day. That sister you’re going to have some day … she will have opportunities in sports that didn’t exist for girls 40 years ago. I can also recall the sad days when a team with African-Americans on its roster would encounter all sorts of obstacles, both on and off the field or court. Now, we don’t even think much about women or minorities occupying the highest places in sport. Someday, I’ll have to tell you about a guy named Tony Dungy.

I’ll also want to tell you sometime about one of America’s best sporting events that no longer exists. It was the state high school basketball tournament in Indiana and, if you can imagine, the tiniest little schools not only were allowed to compete against schools 10 times their size, they wanted to. Most times, they didn’t beat the big guys but, boy, when they did, it created lifetime memories for the little schools and the little towns.

You’ve heard of the “Final Four” and “Sweet Sixteen” and “March Madness,” William. Back then, those were the terms synonymous with Hoosier Hysteria.

They even made a movie about it. It’s called “Hoosiers.” What say we turn off ESPN and go watch?•


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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