Not too far into the future is a world without professional sports. We should begin getting ready for the day when there is no game, and try to figure out what we will do instead.
What will kill pro sports is not the heavy hand of government, not the anonymous forces of the free market, but the behavior of the people who own and play on the teams.
The signs have been all around us for some years, but the past month has given us three last straws—assuming more than one is allowed. First, the Canadian Football League agreed to follow the dollar into the United States. Second, baseball teams and their players engaged in a combination of greed and bottom-line cruelty that tested the loyalties of fans everywhere. Third, the National Hockey League expanded into two American markets without bothering to tell anyone about it until it was over.
In the NHL case, one of the owners, Bruce McNall of the Los Angeles Kings (and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League) spearheaded the acceptance of a franchise bid by the Walt Disney Co., the acceptance of which means McNall will get $31 million in territorial fees. In any other area of life, McNall would have disqualified himself, on the grounds of conflict of interest, from the discussion and any subsequent votes. In any other area of activity, someone else at the table would have questioned his failure to do so. In the National Hockey League, the vote to accept Disney was unanimous.
Those who love sports always defend it on the grounds that it is one area of life where the rules of fair play, no longer much in use in the rest of society, still apply. And now?
Baseball’s bottom line is illustrated by the Toronto Blue Jays, recipients of a great deal of loyalty, love and, let’s not forget, money from the fans of the Toronto area. Of the 25 players who received a nation’s admiration and a city’s
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.
Fans know that they have been giving teams and players their loyalty, and they have been getting nothing back
adulation in October, half a dozen are already gone—traded, or simply allowed to wander off as free agents. The reason: money.
The case of Dave Winfield is particularly instructive. When the Blue Jays were paraded into the SkyDome after winning the World Series in Atlanta, the players were introduced one by one. Winfield was saved for last, as a demonstration of his importance to team and fans. The outpouring of emotion he received was as impressive as anything since Team Canada returned from Moscow in 1972.
Now, Winfield, along with Henke, Key, Cone, Gruber and Maldonado, will not be back. The team did not make an effort to sign him, Winfield told a news conference in Toronto. So much for the outpouring of emotion.
Whether he rebuffed the Jays or the Jays rebuffed him, the effect is the same. Either way, the extraordinary commitment made by the fans of Toronto was rewarded by a slap in the face. Will they make the same commitment again?
Toronto was not alone in this. Almost every major-league city lost an established star, cast aside because he was deemed too expensive. Winfield’s replacement, Paul Molitor, signed by the Blue Jays off the roster of the Milwau-
kee Brewers, had been playing in Milwaukee for 15 years. He became a free agent and the Brewers decided he would not be cost-efficient, apparently. There were tears in Milwaukee. How loyal will the people there be to the Brewers next season and the season after that?
Owners talk about the need to cut costs, to be competitive. Fans recognize the logic in that, but they also know that they have been giving teams and players their loyalty, and they have been getting nothing back. The fans of Toronto, who waited 16 years for a winner, giving a wholehearted commitment to some pretty awful teams in the process, are being given no chance to enjoy having a winner around. The moment the World Series banner was hoisted over the SkyDome, the process of dismantling the team and the assembling of a new, cheaper version began.
We used to go to sports for a break from the cares and complications of so-called real life. We liked the fact that there was a winner and a loser, good guys and bad guys. Where the rest of life was full of shades of grey, sports had clear choices. As fans, we liked the idea of an uncomplicated loyalty.
We knew that owners would trade top players for various reasons. More recently, we learned that players could become free agents. As fans, we adjusted to that, and worse. Deploring the greed of players and owners, offended by the sexual adventures, the drugtaking and drunken driving, we decided we would support the home team anyway— somehow.
Until now. Now, the breaking point may be near. In another area of life, we might protest actively. But sports is not politics; we cannot vote the owners out. Fan boycotts may not be all that effective either: the modem professional team is preoccupied with television revenues, and with the big bucks it gets from selling high-priced seats and boxes to corporations; what the ordinary fan does is of less consequence.
Anyway, boycotting means depriving ourselves of the game. As we ponder whether we can actually do that, it is worth remembering that the game is not far from boycotting us: the next major development in professional sports is pay-per-view, in which the game is taken off so-called free television and we are forced to pay extra money to see on television the team that we can no longer afford to see in person.
So what will we do instead of going to games, watching games on television, reading about them in the newspaper and talking about the home team instead of woiking? Some people have made that decision already. The number of people participating in sports, instead of merely watching them, is on the increase. More recently, the number of people videotaping the number of people participating in sports has increased dramatically, too.
So maybe that’s what will happen. Instead of watching pro sports, we’ll watch videotapes of ourselves playing sports. In terms of quality, it won’t be much of a substitute. But the players won’t be leaving town every year and we won’t have to pay extra to watch.
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