Sports as GREED

The latest news about the steroid problem among many players in baseball and the measures that have been proposed and/or already installed to stop the use of drugs in all sports is instructive. For one thing, the very fact that the issue could become a congressional matter indicates that baseball in particular and all sports in general have acquired an importance out of all proportion to their actual worth to the society. Notwithstanding all the hype attached to sports with regard to their enhancement of the participant’s persona, both physically and morally, they are merely avenues of entertainment to the vast society, which often accounts physical prowess as more important than intelligence, morality, or most anything else. To run fast, throw hard, jump high, swing a bat successfully, shoot hoops has become the end-all and be-all of the educational experience as seen by many a school-board in this country, especially in certain regions. The same holds true in many colleges and universities, and educators who should be administering the proper functions of the learning endeavor are often bogged down in trying to straighten out matters in the athletic department, usually accruing to violations of the rules set up to keep sports “clean.”

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that “winning at all costs,” despite all the protestations to the contrary, is what drives sports. Whether to a greater or lesser extent than has been the case formerly, this mantra is operative now. Athletes have totally wrecked their later lives through the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in order to command fame and demand fortunes. There’s nothing wrong with an intense desire to win, but the only place/time that winning at all costs matters is in the time and place of war. Coaches who describe the football field or the basketball court as a battleground dishonor the people who actually know what a battleground is.

Item: In 1996, University of Kentucky football coach Bill Curry, after highly successful stints as a player and coach in other places but who the powers-that-be decided did not win enough games at UK, was paid $600,000 to quit, whereupon he gravitated to ESPN to grab another windfall. Item: In 1999, it was decided by Athletic Director Tom Jurich that University of Louisville football coach Ron Cooper did not win enough games, so he was paid a flat million dollars to quit. Item: In 2001, Curry’s successor at Kentucky, Hal Mumme, although compiling respectable records, was given in order to quit payments totaling $1 million, the payment of his legal fees, and the use of a 2001 Cadillac Seville and a 2000 Toyota Celica until June 1, 2002. His “program” had collided adversely with rules and regulations of the NCAA, though he was not charged with anything. To this day, one of his assistant coaches at the time has been in the process of suing some entity(ies) over this matter, and just lately generated subpoenas for five more people to show up somewhere. (Unfortunately, the New Mexico ACLU has recently filed a grievance against Mumme/New Mexico State University, where he now coaches, regarding Mumme’s conversations with a Muslim player about Al Qaida and where it is the custom that the players recite the Lord’s Prayer after practices and before games. The player was expelled from the team, reasons not given, though his scholarship is being honored.)

Coaching salaries and attendant perks reach into the seven-figure category now, so winning at all costs is the name of the game in the coaching profession. According to Sports Illustrated of June 2003, University of Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith had perhaps the sweetest deal in college basketball – an eight-year, $20 million pact. Even athletic directors get in on the act. University of Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, after months of haggling, finally signed a contract in 2003 that now amounts to over $500,000 a year, including a “forgivable loan” of $100,000. He receives two cars for business- and personal-use. He gets at least $30,000 if the football team appears in a bowl game, and another $25,000 if either the women’s or men’s basketball team makes the NCAA tournament, which the men’s team does routinely. An appearance in the final four nets him another $25,000. In the unlikely event that the football team appears in one of the four major bowls, he collects a cool $100,000. Is it any wonder that rules are bent all out of shape or that semi-literate “students” are given full college scholarships while deserving students are welcome to sling burgers at McDonald’s?

So…the incentives on both the playing- and coaching-levels, fueled ever more furiously by the huge sums made available through television, are so financially staggering in the amounts of money to be cadged from both commercial and tax-supported institutions that sports, for all intents and purposes, are nothing more than enterprises totally pegged to either profit, personal income, or both. Young athletes, naturally feeling indestructible anyway, take the risk, never mind all the available information connected to the guaranteed dangers of their use, in trying drugs as surreptitiously as possible to build their bodies and their abilities artificially. The coaching profession includes mentors who turn the other way when such things as academic preparedness or other requirements for becoming/remaining students show signs of being questionable. This is not even to mention the well-documented episodes of actual payments to supposedly amateur athletes, either in cash, clothes, or such things as “services.”

This not a denigration of sports, only a lament that the main element connected to it, no longer attaching to the high purposes sports once could afford, at least in the main, is now cheating, whether with regard to documents, bodies, financial considerations, or most anything else. In fact, now, anything goes, and the devil take the hindmost, physically as well as figuratively. In the process, both the bodies and the psyches of athletes have become inured to the business of delivering as much pain as possible upon the opponent, the quickest, easiest way to “win at all costs.” For the coaches, the “anything goes” concept is operative, and the last guy to laugh all the way to the bank is an outright idiot.