Have Sports Improved or Regressed Over the Decades?

Andrew LongworthCorrespondent IApril 2, 2011

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 27:  DeAndre Liggins #34 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after shooting a three pointer against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half of the east regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Prudential Center on March 27, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Like most sports fans, I am not above making comparisons between the best teams of today and the dynasties of yesteryear.

The ultra-modern computer games that have the ability to pit the greatest teams and players against each other aside, you still can’t help but wonder what would happen if the diamonds and gridirons were not animated and digital.

In baseball, you’ll have the recurring discussions whether the all-white 1926 Yankees could compete with the integrated 1975 Big Red Machine.

Could Jim Brown’s Cleveland Browns lay the wood to their direct descendant, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens?

What if Bill Russell had played against Shaq O’Neill? Would Gretzky have been as efficient without protective head gear?

Although I would love to side with the purists here and claim that today’s sports are more foam than beer, progress is simply a fact of sports life.

With time, the games have all become more sophisticated, and it’s this progress purists will ignore at their own peril, whether you’re a coach, a player, or a fan.

The only exception has been basketball, the prime evidence for it being this year’s edition of March Madness. This is the one sport where no discussion is necessary.

This is where you know that the teams of yesterday would slaughter today’s basketball teams, pro or college.

But before the old-timers can give each other an arthritic high-five, let’s briefly examine some of the elements of progression within the four major sports.

Baseball has the four pitch starter backed up by 90-100 mph fireball relievers, a far cry from the pitch-till-your-arm-falls-off philosophy (today better known as Tommy John surgery) that saw pitchers on the bump routinely lob over 150 or more pitches per game.

Granted, to equalize this apparent imbalance, the ballparks have been moved in, as if today’s bigger and faster batters actually needed that.

True, greedy owners plus a willfully blind commissioner ignored the steroid age that saw players’ numbers and hat sizes balloon as mysteriously and quickly as Enron stock prices, a shame that can never be undone.

All things being equal, though, it’s difficult to see how the all-white teams of the Dead Ball era and beyond could possibly compete with the more versatile integrated all-stars from dozens of different countries today.

In football, it is one four letter s-word alone that would put the Giants of the 50’s, the Packers of the 60’s, and the Steelers of the 70’s to shame: size, plain and simple.

Here it matters little what the intangibles are of a Jack Lambert, a Sam Huff, or a Herb Adderley. Against the average line weighing more than 1,500 pounds, these Hall of Famers (and these are among my favorites, no less) would stand little to a fat chance.

Add the 250 pound tight end and the six and a half feet wideouts, and the steel curtain will melt like butter in less than a quarter played.

Besides that, you need to examine the advances made in coaching and their playbooks that have become bigger than the yellow pages of the New York metropolitan area.

How would the late great teams fare against the West Coast offense? And this is just the offense.

For the defense, I will roll out only one piece of evidence, the 350-pound nose guard clogging up the middle. Size happens.

Speaking of hard-hitting contact sports, how about hockey? Not much different here. Yes, so the wusses of today have added all that extra gear that makes you wonder whether you’re watching a hockey game or the 21st-century edition of American gladiators.

Newsflash: anybody see the hit by Boston’s Zdeno Chara against the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty? We can argue until we suffocate on our own righteousness over whether it was legal.

For the case of argument here, let’s simply imagine what would have happened to Pacioretty if he had not worn a helmet and shoulder pads. We might have very well witnessed the first decapitation in the history of hockey.

Again, all the heart and soul will not match the hits dished out by the dozens of terminators posing as hockey players out there.

Which brings us to hoops.

The only way basketball has evolved is that players are no longer stuck in those ridiculous short little hot pants.

This might be one sport where size hasn’t evolved as much. The championship team of the 1986 Boston Celtics, for example, trotted out guards Dennis Johnson (6’4”), Danny Ainge (6’5”), forwards Larry Bird (6’9”), Kevin McHale (6’10”), and center Robert Parrish (7’), size that would be more than adequate to face their counterparts 25 years later.  

Aside from that, basketball is not close to competing with the Wilts, the Russells, the Magics and the Birds.

Two reasons: the dunk and the three-pointer, oddly enough competitions the NBA likes to showcase during the annual All-Star weekend.

The dunk is ludicrous, to say the least. Here the average player has gotten taller while the hoop has remained at the same height. This is akin to leaving the same little guppy in its aquarium even though it’s become a shark decades ago.

I also can’t recall when I have seen more blown lay-ups in a single tournament than this one. Kids nowadays will spend more time dunking the ball than practicing free throws, a recipe for disaster.

The dunk is not nearly as atrocious as the three-pointer.  How many times have you seen a guy retrieve a ball from 18 feet out only to backpedal the extra five to attempt another dreaded three that (predictably) clanks off the rim?

Don’t get me wrong, you still have the all-around players like Kobe or Derrick Rose or Paul Pierce who have not come down with the three-point or dunk flu, but that is a slim minority.

The overall abilities of basketball players have decreased drastically. Most two guards can’t even make a simple outlet pass anymore, let alone forwards or centers. It’s faaaaan-tastic? I love this game? How about kill the skill?

Remember the College finals between North Carolina and Illinois in 2005? Illinois then was ranked number one, and I will never figure that one out under hypnosis.

In the finals, they lost by (only) five despite (or very likely because of) 40 of their 70 shots being from downtown. There was a long stretch where the Illini had nothing to offer but the shot from behind the arc.

This past weekend, Butler made a whopping 9 of 33 treys (less than a third) and won the game. Remarkable, considering a total of 60 shots were attempted.

Fast forward to the UConn vs. Arizona game: 20 seconds left, Arizona down by two. The play that was called? Uh, none really. A couple of threes that go clank clank, see you and thanks for coming.

The Wildcats needed a single, but struck out trying to go yard twice. If your bread and butter play is a shot that is successful less than one-third of the time, then you are hurting in the worst way.

For the pros, we need to look no further than the FIBA World Championship semifinal loss against Greece in 2006, the long overdue receipt for not honing fundamental skills that were a given for our seemingly inferior European counterparts.

This was the first edition of what is now known as Miami’s Big Three, with Wade, James, and Bosh teaming up with other heavyweights like Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony in an ultimately futile attempt to bring back the gold to the United States.

You could certainly make the case that the competition had improved vastly. But no amount of ink will ever convince me that the Dream Team had not gotten worse.

So this is where the old-timers have it right. Take the best 10 players today and pit them against the best ten of 1985, and the result wouldn’t be close.

In fact, I would even like their chances today if they came out of retirement. Or take the Louisville team of 1986 against this year’s champion. Questions?

The saying is that many teams live with the three and die with the three.

I’ll upgrade this to the death of an entire sport. The whole game has died with the three, the college game in particular. Time to evolve, basketball.