I love sports. I always have, and I always will. But as I write this today, I have a real problem with the world of pro sports.
In one league, we have superstars who are literally holding the league and their teams hostage, creating public carnivals out of their desires to join forces in big markets and create superteams that will render the regular season useless, alienate half of the fanbase and leave us with All-Star playoff matchups between colluded superpowers that no one wants to see win.
Another league teeters on the edge of work stoppage, awaiting the result of negotiations between billionaire owners eager to build billion-dollar stadiums so they can charge millionaires more for their season tickets, and a players’ union made up of millionaires framing themselves as underdogs so they can get a bigger piece of a multi-billion dollar pie, while the players that paved the way for them rely on their wives working full-time to get health insurance of any type.
Gone are the days of high school and college players taking shop or bowling to earn their degree—soon every player will need to major in undergraduate law with a minor in business just to survive in the NFL.
Other sports are not exempt either. Golf remains dominated (in press, not performance) by a fading superstar who pretended for years to be something he was not, then expects us to love him again after a canned apology, even while continuing a pattern of boorish spitting and swearing on course, and congenial dismissive arrogance off of it. NASCAR ignores its fans while homogenizing its sport to cater to networks and sponsors. Hockey continues to walk its fine line between beauty and thuggery.
Has there ever been a group of people to whom so much has been given, yet so little expected? While you may or may not agree with the specifics or the morality behind the recent ruling at BYU, their overarching point is valid—it is about keeping a commitment. The players and students make a commitment to that university when they enter, and they are expected to represent themselves and their university in such a manner.
In my opinion, professional athletes and owners make a similar commitment. We will pay you millions, buy tickets to watch you perform, let our children wear your jerseys. You don’t have to cure cancer, act like Emily Post or give millions to charity (although some do...)—just don’t let us down. Don’t make us feel like idiots for supporting you. Try hard. Be nice to your fans. Don’t act beset upon that you have to perform in our towns, in our arenas, even if they’re not Madison Square Garden. Heck, just play, even if you don’t like your coach. Is this really too much to ask?
Don’t get me wrong. Sports are not alone in this situation. I’m already sick of talking about Charlie Sheen, but it is truly dumbfounding that a man who has been so relentlessly and unapologetically creepy continues to get publicity and get paid. The big bankers who were so universally loathed just months ago are quietly back to business as usual.
I’m not naïve; I understand that there are good people and bad people everywhere, and I understand that just because these people are good at what they happen to do does not mean that their personal lives should be broken open, smashed to bits and examined under a high-powered microscope.
It’s okay to love sports, warts and all. I still do, and as I said before, I always will. But don’t let me catch you calling these guys your heroes. Heroes save people from burning buildings. Heroes educate underprivileged children. Heroes spend years abroad fighting for their values and their country. That word is reserved for real-life stuff.
So, we’ll make a deal with you: We’ll acknowledge that we don’t expect you to be heroes, if you acknowledge that what you are doing is a pretty good gig in the grand scheme of things. Maybe high water floats all boats, in which case change must start at the top.
If this is the case, the owners and players of the NFL are presented with an opportunity. Do the right thing. Don’t let your league get dragged into the courts. Owners, forsake a few hundred million to take care of the health of your players, even as you ask them to play harder, faster and longer than ever before. Players, take care of your veterans, who simply can’t fathom the numbers being discussed.
And everyone, remember your fans, who continue to pay to allow you to make an unbelievable living do something you love—and who will have to spend the next year watching Charlie Sheen if you lock us out.