Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sports is going to hell (a.k.a., why I still like NASCAR)

Earlier this autumn, I found myself unable to generate – what is termed in pop-cultural as – any Give-A-Damn when the news splashed across my television the NBA had to begin canceling games due to the ongoing lockout.

Millionaires quibbling with billionaires excites me not one God-forsaken bit.

The story was going to end there without much reason to actually write about the topic of sports… That is, until news recently began spilling out of State College, Pennsylvania, like a lanced infection point.

Charges of sexual abuse of young boys by retired Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, accusations of a cover-up by senior university administrators, as well as endless questions of who else knew what in now-former Head Coach Joe Paterno’s coaching staff since Sandusky’s tenure there are beyond horrific.

As an exclamation point, the alleged abuses are reported to have taken place at the youth services foundation Sandusky established in 1977 known as The Second Mile.

My intent here is not to go on a prolonged diatribe filled with disturbing details about the Penn State scandal. More than enough has already been published on the subject – and more undoubtedly is to come.

Instead, I want to explore what I see as the connection between Happy Valley and the NBA: the steadily growing entitlement mentality in sports – fueled by the celebrity worship which our society has nauseatingly embraced.

It is through our unhealthy fascination with celebrities that so many teens burst into tears at the sight of a singer or band, others go into prolonged mourning because someone famous dies, and unwarranted accolades are showered upon athletes – all taking place and increasing in intensity for generations.

When it comes to sports, today it starts in our schools. We all have either witnessed it, experienced it (meaning through bullying), or enjoyed being the beneficiary of it.

Student athletes – especially those who perform their sport(s) at the highest levels – simply are treated differently. In the vast majority of instances they are granted a far greater degree of forgiveness and leeway in their personal behavior and all too often enjoy latitude in their academic responsibilities other students do not.

This sense of behavioral entitlement is granted to them by school staffs and faculties, their peers, parents (their own and/or others), and the communities at large they “represent.” The social process originates in grade school. It expands in high school. It reaches new heights at the college level. By the time a select few lucky athletes are able to take their on-field/court performance to the next level, the absurdity of the situation is almost beyond comprehension.

When charges are filed against or word gets out of an arrest of a popular athlete, fans – without fail – begin clamoring for “second chances” or at the very a least slap-on-the-wrist consequence. Three years ago in northern Ohio, there was significant hand-wringing over the legal fate of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth after he killed a man in Florida because he was driving drunk.

Other times, fans simply go into a disturbing state of denial that their beloved athlete could do any wrong.

An effective example of that is how people in Pittsburgh react to stories about Ben Rapistburger… I mean Ben Roofieburger… I mean… Aw, hell, you know who I mean.

Also, it should be noted the vast majority of coaches in sports are former athletes. So, it ought to be no surprise when we find them behaving in ways reminiscent of their less upstanding players.

We only have ourselves to blame – myself included. With all the money the average person dumps into tickets and league products – the replica jerseys, ball caps, T-shirts, posters, jackets, pins, bumper stickers, league television packages, trading cards, bobble heads, Beanie Babies, and even Christmas tree ornaments – it is no wonder so many athletes retain such senses of privilege. Personally, over the course of my lifetime I have poured my own money into these items as well as accepted them as gifts to the tune of thousands of dollars.

Liberty vs. the philosophy of sports

Much the same way my libertarianism has spilled into my approach to religion, a similar impact is taking place with my outlook on sports. Between the manner in which the NFL maintains its sense of preferred geographic dispersal via revenue sharing and how more and more professional sports franchises are demanding their localities pony-up tens- or even hundreds-of-millions of dollars to finance construction of a new stadium or arena, there is much for a libertarian to loathe about professional sports.

Simply put, when we invest significant emotional energy in a sports team, we essentially are embracing a form of collectivism. In many instances, top-performing teams actively frown upon individual-centered performances by their athletes in favor of shoehorning them into roles that typically require them to play below their full potential. Or, in a mirror of the corporatist establishment fostered by federal agencies and their bodies of regulations, we have seen more than our share of sports superstars receive preferential treatment by those who are supposed to officiate games impartially.

The states of affairs described above in large part (not entirely, I must confess) stand in contrast to what takes place in NASCAR. There, race teams operate in an environment which is the closest to a true free market setup: all race teams’ earnings from race to race are dependent upon their performances.

Additionally, race teams, even those which drive for the same ownership and must compete head-to-head, are expected to put forth their best individual performances each and every race.

And if not for NASCAR, we would not have stories such as Denny Hamlin’s, who made his Cup-level debut in the later stages of 2005.

Not long before then, Hamlin was pondering leaving stockcar racing. Wanting to see their son realize his dream, his parents took out a mortgage on their home to finance his racing endeavor in Late Model Stock Cars. It paid-off when he was able to land a driver development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing. And the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Hamlin reached the highest level of stockcar racing with no sense of entitlement, no expectation of unearned reward simply for showing-up. There are no participation trophies. He fought and worked to realize his dream – with a little help, love, and support of his family.

Most importantly, he had to be able to finance and then earn his own way to the top of his sport. You don’t see that anywhere else in sports.

Related (mildly) side note

Revisiting the subtopic of celebrity worship (but straying from the central theme of sports), I shall admit to feeling genuine sadness five years ago upon learning of Steve Irwin’s untimely demise. For a change and unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries in professional sports and the entertainment industry, it can be said Irwin became famous because of his genuine motivation to make his fans and viewers smarter. Additionally, he was trying to do so in a field of science – an area in which today too many people are lacking knowledge.

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