Stuff in Sports We Actually Used to Care About
Sports fans still care about a lot of things, but many of us have become jaded, to some degree.
Some of us are tired of getting riled up about things that will never change, or we’re tired of debating the same old tired storylines, or we just can’t muster up the energy to care about certain things anymore because we’re too exhausted and too disappointed.
In some less offensive cases, the things we used to care about just aren't relevant anymore, like hockey. Times have changed.
We, as sports fans, are a passionate bunch, and we like to talk, but when it comes to some topics, we just can’t even anymore.
Here are some of the sports-related topics and controversies we actually used to care about.
20. The Underdogs
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We still root for the underdogs, but rarely do they win. True, if the underdogs won all the time, it wouldn’t be as exciting, and people like me wouldn’t weep on cue upon hearing the words, I’M MIKE ERUZIONE! I PLAY FOR TEAM USA!
But it seems like team owners have things figured out these days. They know what it takes to build a championship contender, and in the vast majority of cases, there are two strategies: be bad enough for long enough and stock up on an insane number of top draft picks, or pay.
And usually, the teams that pay are the teams that win.
Moneyball is a great story and all, but the thing Hollywood kind of left out was the fact that it doesn’t work. The A’s haven’t won a title with the Moneyball approach. They’ve certainly done a good job developing star players, but they haven’t been able to keep them, and star players—plus the gigantic salaries they command—are the best bet at a ring.
Look at the Heat. Look at the Lakers. Look at the Yankees. None of those teams are underdogs, and teams like that are the ones that tend to win.
Someday, another out-of-nowhere, Miracle-esque team will pull off an impossible upset, and it will set the world alight. But until then, we’ll probably be watching the Heat rack up another 10-15 titles.
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This isn’t to say that boxing is completely irrelevant in contemporary times, just like hockey isn’t completely irrelevant these days. But do people still care about boxing like they used to? Does it still provide fans with the same blockbuster, can’t-miss fights that it used to?
Will any boxing-related storyline provoke a Hollywood hit movie sometime in the next decade? Can any casual sports fan name more than two boxers in today’s landscape?
Some people want to care about boxing like they used to, but truthfully, there are only two guys who are capable of making people care, and cynics want to believe that the only reason there’s even talk of those two guys getting in the ring together is because boxing is on life support and there's a need for some storyline—any storyline—that gets people interested again.
Of course, boxing still has its die-hard fans, just like any sport—but in terms of sparking the interest of average sports fans, boxing hasn’t been able to do what it once could.
18. The Athlete-Reporter Relationship
This could be one of the few changes for the better on this list. Back in the day, beat reporters had a very different relationship with the athletes and the teams they covered than they do now.
These were the days before athletes became unwaveringly skeptical of the journalists covering them; these were the days where media exposure was far less intense and players weren’t as worried about public perception.
And as a result, journalists cared very much about their friendships with athletes, because that’s what they were—friendships. The reporters and the players would go out for beers together after games. Star athletes would talk openly about their lives behind the scenes.
But how can you be objective about a player, or about a team, if you’re friends with the key players involved? Journalism obviously requires an objective eye, and that eye can be clouded by close, personal relationships. It used to be important for writers and athletes to have good relationships, but these days? Not so much.
So even if the Lakers’ beat reporters may not be BFFs with Kobe Bryant—and even if they secretly wish they were—it’s probably for the best. The news is more untainted that way.
And if reporters were friends with athletes, we wouldn't be exposed to tremendous clips like the one above.
17. Horse Racing
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Even horse racing has been sullied by PED scandals galore—and that certainly took its toll this year.
It’s hard to get Americans interested in hockey today, so it seems like a stretch to say they’d be interested in horse racing, where the “key” players change completely from year to year as horses get older, get injured or retire.
There are certain aspects of the sport that people are interested in—college kids love going to the Triple Crown races, though that often has nothing to do with the races themselves, and gamblers love betting on them.
But as for avid fans of the sport, they are pretty tough to find, and it’s understandable. It’s hard to get really excited about a sporting event that you could miss in its entirety by running to the bathroom.
And it didn’t help that this year—one of the first years in decades that people really, truly cared about the outcome of the races—was marred by a doping scandal.
I’ll Have Another won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but in the couple of weeks before the Belmont—where he had a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years—his trainer, Doug O’Neill, was constantly in the news for “milkshaking” his horses, or force-feeding them an illegal mixture of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes to fight fatigue.
And to add insult to injury, I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the Belmont with a leg injury.
For once, people were interested, and it all ended in scandal and disappointment. It should be no surprise, then, that horse racing has faded into the background.
16. 'America’s Team'
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Simply put, there really will never be “America’s teams” anymore, if only because America will never be able to agree on what teams are their teams. Fanbases are much more ruthless now then they were 15 or 20 years ago; they take things more personally, they’re more resentful of teams/coaches/players who win a lot.
Because of that, any team with a lot of history and a lot of championships in its past is a team that is far more likely to be the subject of hatred and jealousy than the subject of admiration.
The Dallas Cowboys were once America’s Team. According to the their official NFL Film, that characterization lasted from 1960 to 2003 (conveniently ending before the Tony Romo era took its toll).
Back during the glory years, the Cowboys set records for the most consecutive sell-outs, the highest television ratings for a Super Bowl game and, of course, they earned those five championships from 1971-1995.
But for too long, the Cowboys have been mediocre. Since going 10-6 in 2003, they've been .500 or worse three times and have registered 10 or more wins just twice. They've choked in the postseason. America has officially stopped caring about them, as evidenced by a 2011 poll in which the Packers usurped them as America's alleged team.
But the Packers won’t last as the nation’s team, either, because as soon as they start winning too much, the public will turn on them. Either that, or they’ll have a bad season and the designation will be lost.
15. Hometown Loyalty
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There was one a time when a player who made his name with a certain team was expected to remain a part of that team for all of eternity. His jersey was supposed to hang from the rafters at the stadium forever; the fans were supposed to forever discuss that player as though he was a close relative.
Celtics fans, for example, will forever lay claim to Larry Bird. Dolphins fans will forever lay claim to Dan Marino.
But these days, star athletes don’t seem to be all too concerned about sticking around in a city that was theirs for most of their careers. And why should they?
When better opportunities (and better paydays) linger elsewhere, most players can’t help themselves. LeBron James, Brett Favre, even Michael Jordan all ditched their beloved “hometowns” for greener pastures, or so they thought.
But it isn’t all on the players. Owners, too, seem to grow tired of their star players. They don’t care about how much an athlete loved being a part of that particular team; they care about the next big thing on the market. (Exhibit A: Peyton Manning and the Colts).
They aren’t too concerned about loyalty, either, so the blame for the lack of longevity is on them, too.
14. The Importance of a Coach
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Star players rule the sports-loving world these days. Coaches come second. When it comes down to Star Player vs. Coach, the coach always loses. And to think that these guys are paid to teach the players how to win.
In the present day, the coaching carousel seems to be turning a lot faster than it ever used to. Very few coaches are revered by their players, the media and the fans; as a result, very few coaches stick around long enough to develop the kinds of reputations guys like Red Auerbach, Knute Rockne and John Wooden developed.
By present-day standards, Wooden probably would’ve been exiled from UCLA right after the Bruins went 6-6 in conference play in 1952-53.
And perhaps because of the enormous expectations levied upon today’s coaches, they have little to no leverage when it comes to dealing with their stars. The Red Sox clubhouse is in shambles because the players would rather eat fried chicken than try to win? Terry Francona’s out of there, despite the fact that he might have been Boston’s best manager ever.
Dwight Howard decides he doesn’t like Stan Van Gundy? He’s gone, too. Even the Lakers treated Phil Jackson like he was Rick Pitino this month when they were trying to replace Mike Brown.
Sometimes, it’s not all about having the biggest stars. It’s about finding the coach that can get the best out of those stars. But that takes time, and today’s owners (and fans) just don’t have the patience to wait and see.
13. Player Pride
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Professional athletes perhaps have the worst reputation right now than they ever have in the past. Whether it’s deserved is another story. But right now, there are a lot of fans who can’t bring themselves to care about the game—whatever it may be—like they used to because they don’t think the players care as much as they used to, either.
Part of this ties into the fact that a lot of players don’t stick around with the same team as long as they used to. They don’t build the same type of reputation with the fans and the media as many of their predecessors. But back when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were in the game, it seemed that all they cared about was winning.
That was it. Their entire lives were basketball. They were so intense about it that, at times, they were borderline unlikable, but in the best possible way. And because of that dedication to the game, they were adored and respected.
Now, it doesn’t seem like anyone cares enough about winning to be unlikable. It seems that, for the most part, athletes care more about a payday than building a team that can accomplish great things. Or they’d rather join an already-stacked team so that the work required to earn a championship ring will be less grueling.
Again, that’s fine; everyone wants to win. It’s human nature. The older guys, especially—the Ray Allens and Steve Nashes of the world—want a chance to win before time runs out for them, and that’s fine.
But that wasn’t always players’ primary concern. Some of them cared more about building the teams they loved into contenders instead of leaving the teams they loved for more money and empty promises.
12. College Athletes Getting Degrees
It seems so rare for college athletes to stay in school long enough to get degrees. The problem is at its worst in the world of college basketball, where it’s almost a given that the best players are going to be one-and-done’s.
It barely even makes sense for them to go to college at all. They’re rentals; they're only going to be around for a year, and for some of them, making it to their classes doesn't seem to be a priority.
In football and hockey, the situation is similar but not much better. Some players who leave school early for the draft half-heartedly commit to returning to school someday to finish up, and a precious and admirable few attempt to graduate early, but for the most part, those players aren’t at school for a diploma.
They’re at school for their minor-league development, so to speak, but that's not their fault. It's the way things are now.
Truth be told, it would be unfortunate for guys like Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant to stay in school, suffer career-ending injuries and never get a shot at the pros.
But it’s equally unfortunate for the Greg Odens of the world, who leave school early, suffer career-ending injuries early on in the pros and don’t at least have degrees. Scholarships really are big opportunities for student-athletes, but a lot of times, they aren't taken advantage of.
11. Super Bowl Halftime Performances
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Sometime right around when Janet Jackson flashed millions of people, the NFL became far more concerned with putting a stop to wardrobe malfunctions and controversy than giving the people a halftime show they actually wanted to see. Now, it seems like no matter who is selected to deliver the performance, the people are impossible to please.
Ever since Janet and Justin, there was a lengthy stretch of performances by people who would certainly never flash anything, mostly because they were old and male. Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who—all in succession—were quite obviously the league's attempt at bringing something wholesome-ish and old-school to the table.
Personally, I loved it, but then again, my personal hero is Grace Slick. And while it was fun to see the classic rock legends do their thing, those performances were completely irrelevant and mostly unexciting to the youth of America. As a result, halftime performances quickly became irrelevant, too.
For the last couple of years, the league made an attempt at relevancy again, sending the Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Madonna, Cee-Lo Green, LMFAO and assorted others out into the wild to mixed reviews. Perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce can get people interested again this year.
10. Athlete-Celebrity Dalliances
It used to be a big story when a star athlete started dating a celebrity. Fans loved ribbing the players, as did the media; the players would pretend to be annoyed, but secretly, they loved showing up on Page Six and in People.
But it’s not fun or exciting anymore when Player A becomes involved with Pop Star/Actress/Model/Reality TV Star B. Everyone does it, and it rarely lasts for more than an hour.
Eva Longoria and Mark Sanchez? Nobody cares. Tim Tebow and Taylor Swift develop a Christian Singles connection? Whatever. Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari produce a funny-looking baby? Awesome.
The celebrity/athlete connection is so hackneyed that it’s become the latest major plot point on ABC’s latest hackneyed drama (which, of course, I love).
Gone are the days when Jessica Simpson showing up to a Cowboys game in a Romo jersey or Gisele going off on a bunch of Giants fans is a news story. These days, it’s just … eh.
9. The Sanctity of College Sports
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There’s no denying that college sports are nowhere near as fun as they used to be. There’s always some kind of scandal threatening to ruin the fun—whether it’s a coach getting busted for recruiting violations, or commotion over whether or not the BCS should be abolished, or one school threatening to jump ship to another conference.
On top of that, there’s always debate over whether college athletes should be paid. People seem really eager to treat college athletes like they’re professionals, and it takes away from the enjoyment of it all. Whether it’s coaches offering bribes to five-star recruits or pundits complaining that stars are being taken advantage of, it's always a story.
Without getting too Laura Ingalls Wilder, it seems as though there’s been a loss of innocence where college sports are concerned. Back in the day, when there were dynasties that were built with purity at schools like Notre Dame and UCLA, it was exhilarating to watch those teams dominate. It was fun.
Now that so many “dynasties” are built with violations, it’s hard to watch any dominant college team without a hint of skepticism.
8. The Good Guys
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Maybe there still are bona fide good guys in sports, and we just don’t hear about them all that much. But even if there were, would we really care? As fans, it seems that we don’t care about much else aside from winning anymore, and if an ex-con with a lengthy criminal record is the best route toward a championship, so be it.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we continue to revere the guys who have done bad, bad things in their own time; I’ve been a long-time proponent of the theory that off-the-field extracurriculars don’t really matter when it comes to the job at hand.
But it’s kind of sad when someone like Ben Roethlisberger is revered just as much now as he was pre-assault allegations, when he was a bright-eyed NFL newbie.
Or that Tiger Woods is still regarded the same way now as he was before his personal life imploded in his face. And yet, it’s a no-brainer that David Petraeus resigns immediately in light of his own adultery scandal. It's not even a question.
Athletes are rarely forced to take accountability for the things that happen on their own time, no matter how disturbing those things may be. And even more disturbing is the fact that they don’t seem to be any harder to root for.
7. The Sanctity of the Elite Quarterback
The term “elite quarterback” is annoyingly arbitrary these days. “He’s an elite quarterback” is thrown around with just about as much regard as Demi Lovato’s insistence that every X-Factor contestant is “SUCH A FUTURE ROCK STAR.”
And this is a very recent development. Even a decade ago, it was very, very hard for any quarterback to insert himself into the company of the elites—into the company of the Joe Montanas and Johnny Unitases of the world.
We used to care about the sanctity of the term. In the present-day NFL, there are plenty of guys who are good quarterbacks. There are guys who can rack up a bunch of wins year in and year out, but there are few who are truly special, truly dominant. These days, some people (including the man himself) consider Joe Flacco to be elite.
Not only is he the obvious beneficiary of one of the most consistently excellent defenses in football, but he’s never even won a single championship. Truthfully, he’s been remotely close just once. Even the present-day guys who are somewhat close to being considered elite (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers) pale in comparison to the legends of old.
Elite quarterbacks are hard to come by—or they were, once upon a time—which was why they were special. These days, the “elites” are a dime a dozen.
6. Epic Rivalries
Maybe it’s because players jump ship so often in the present day, often among serious rivals, but the biggest rivalries in sports just don’t feel the same as they have in the past. The media still plays them up and the teams still tend to sell more tickets to “rivalry” games than they do to the rest of them, but something’s different.
So many Red Sox have played for the Yankees over the last several years; so many “faces of the franchise” have left for new teams. When there aren’t any players who have stuck around in one place long enough to really develop a hatred for their biggest "rivals," it’s hard to pretend that the feelings are still there.
Take this weekend’s Patriots-Colts game. When it was Manning vs. Brady, it used to be the game fans and the media couldn’t wait to see. This year, it was fun to face Andrew Luck, but it paled in comparison to Patriots-Colts matchups of the past.
Today’s rivalries are nothing like Lakers vs. Celtics, or Yankees vs. Red Sox of old. Even the players are too diplomatic and won’t say anything bad about their rivals, probably because they want to keep all of their options open for free-agent time.
Could you ever imagine Bird considering playing for the Lakers? Or Yaz considering playing for New York?
5. Quarterback Controversies
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There are disgustingly few intra-team controversies these days. And it’s disgusting because those controversies used to be so fun! When Quarterback A would make a flippant comment to the media about Quarterback B while they competed for the same job, it would provide reporters and fans alike with endless fodder.
Now, everyone is so diplomatic. Everyone is so worried about ruffling feathers. Everyone is so desperate to avoid being a dreaded distraction that they’ve all become bland.
Is this a bad thing? Of course not. No team, in the NFL and beyond, needs the controversy that comes with an intra-squad squabble, and at this point, players have been coached enough by PR people so that they know better than to take the media’s bait.
But the “controversy” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow in New York, for example, isn’t much of a controversy. From what we’ve seen and heard throughout the 2012 season thus far, Tebow is perfectly happy taking a backseat to a guy who barely has the team on life support.
For more evidence, think back to when Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe in New England; we all wanted there to be behind-the-scenes drama, if only because it would be fun to dissect. But alas, no dice.
The controversies are fun to speculate about, but they’re much more of a product of our own imaginations than products of reality. And because of that, they’re hard to really, truly care about, if only because from what we see, they don’t exist.
4. The NHL
Poor NHL. It’s the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the major sports world, and nobody really knows why. It could be because ESPN doesn’t really cover it. It could be because it’s the most difficult sport to broadcast effectively.
Or maybe, just maybe, it could be because there seems to be a lockout every other year, so just when the league is finally starting to develop a consistent following, it goes out of business for a year and loses all of its supporters.
There was a time, at some point, when people cared about the NHL, though not to the extent that they cared about professional baseball or football or basketball.
There was a time, back when some of the best players ever were still on the ice in the ‘70s and ‘80s, that hockey was still something that interested a good number of people. During the days of the Miracle on Ice, people still cared.
Now, NHL fans are few and far between. There are some true die-hard fans, but they’re hard to find—and the rest of the “fans” only care once their team makes it to the Stanley Cup.
3. Winning a National Title in College Football
It’s not that winning the BCS championship is meaningless; it’s just that no matter who ends up ranked first and second, and no matter who ends up competing for “college football’s highest honor,” there are always going to be so many people complaining that the BCS got it wrong that it’s impossible to enjoy it.
The BCS rankings aren’t determined by anything objectively sensible, like, I don’t know, a playoff system (for now), so it’s impossible to say with certainty that the right teams ended up competing for the title.
This year, if Notre Dame somehow makes it to the title game without playing in a conference—never mind a hard conference—and without playing in a conference title game, there is going to be mass opposition, even though ND fans outnumber normal people by a ratio of about 500 to 1 in the college football universe.
But we’ve all been complaining for so long about the BCS—which will, in fact, be replaced with a playoff system starting in 2014—that we can’t even get fired up about it anymore. Just like we can barely muster any excitement and/or rage when college football’s champion is crowned, we can barely muster any excitement and/or rage when confronted with the inadequacies of this broken system.
2. All-Star Games
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It used to be a rather large point of pride for players to be named to the All-Star Team/Pro Bowl/whatever. It used to be something to strive for, and it used to be an honor. It used to be something the fans looked forward to. Now, it seems like most players see a trip to the annual festivities as a waste of time.
This is particularly pertinent to the Pro Bowl, an activity that players seem to equate with being forced to watch Never Say Never on repeat. More often than not, a handful of the top players are the players who are part of a Super Bowl team, so if the Pro Bowl happens the week before the big game, those players obviously aren’t taking part.
And if the Pro Bowl happens after the big game…well, nobody wants a part of that, either, because Hawaii is a hike for pretty much anyone in the continental U.S., and nobody wants to spend the first week or two of their vacations doing their jobs. In fact, the Pro Bowl in particular has become so irrelevant that this year's almost got canceled.
All-star games of any kind don’t make sense unless the top players take part, and lately, there aren’t a whole lot of top players who seem interested. And if the players aren’t even interested, how can you expect the fans to be interested?
1. Steroids (to Some Extent)
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The public is jaded when it comes to steroids. It’s true. There’s virtually nothing that can surprise us at this point. If someone came out tomorrow with evidence that Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant were all juicing, we’d probably shrug. If someone told us that Ted Williams was juicing, even though he's frozen, we’d barely blink.
When steroid scandals were all the rage back when the Mitchell Report was first released, the baseball-loving free world was horrified. Our heroes—including Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, some of the greatest players ever—were cheaters, or were alleged to be.
It was shocking and completely devastating to the sport, which already had enough problems keeping people interested. It didn’t need its most notable players embroiled in the scandal of the decade.
But since then, so many athletes—unexpected athletes—have dealt with PED scandals that it’s not even news anymore. Manny Ramirez, Marion Jones, David Ortiz and Lance Armstrong have all been involved in the madness, proving that PED abuse was far more prevalent than any of us expected.
And as a result, we can’t take any major accomplishment in any sport without a grain of salt.