AT some point in the past decade, America’s love of professional sports became an unhealthy obsession. Led by mind-boggling revenue deals garnered by the NFL and other major sports leagues, including the NCAA, U.S. culture came to elevate and glamorize sports to an unprecedented degree.
With pro football now televised Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights, the NFL will bring in $5 billion per year from TV alone through 2022. The NCAA garnered $1.5 billion for March Madness in 2013. Next season, the NBA must spend $57 million in salary per team.
Sports pages lionize athletes with language previously reserved for the most esteemed members of our society. Football players are “warriors,” basketball stars are “godlike” and baseball jocks are “super men.”
I am as guilty as anyone of indulging in this sports madness, watching all the local games and memorizing Seahawks and Mariners stats. I subscribe to the MLB and PAC-12 channels, and I’m proud of my association with Paul Allen’s Starwave Corporation, which created some of the first popular sports websites, including ESPN.com.
Most Read Opinion Stories
But the dark side of this love affair with sports has now begun to manifest itself in ways the public can no long ignore. New claims of domestic violence involving NFL player Ray Rice and child abuse involving another player, Adrian Peterson, have begun to crowd out the headlines of players’ activities on the field.
The crime report for some teams now rivals the injury report. Fueled by cash, alcohol and above all a sense of entitlement that they don’t have to play by the rules, these gifted young men far too often cross the line of decent behavior. And this only counts the reported cases, excluding instances where a friendly cop looks the other way to protect a team or a sports star.
The NCAA can no longer pretend that so-called “student athletes” are in fact more students than athletes, who are not be compensated for their services on the playing field. Northwestern University’s football team voted to legally organize as a union under the National Labor Relations Act.
UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won an antitrust suit against the NCAA, and it remains to be seen what type of revenue-sharing Division I teams will now have to make for their indentured servants.
When the child-abuse rampage by Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky was first reported, I wrote a Seattle Times guest column that absolute power accorded to any person or institution will, over time, result in the perversion of that power.
While Penn State football is now trying to wiggle out of the penalties imposed by the NCAA, the lesson of according tremendous power, fueled by sports revenue, to a college program remains pertinent. And professional sports leagues represent this power on steroids.
Should Americans really be surprised that the glorification of athletes and the permeation of sports in our culture have resulted in this set of behaviors? Just as the Romans once accorded tributes and lands to victorious gladiators, our society puts our sports stars on pedestals that are not only unhealthy for the kids who look up to them but to the athletes themselves. The apologists for Cleveland rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel for giving the finger on national TV in his last exhibition game only underscores how convoluted sports worship has become.
The antidote to our collective obsession is not to give up our passion for the home team or fail to recognize great talent but to engage in a reality check on our priorities.
If sports fans continue to fuel the overhyped worship of celebrity sports figures, we should only expect more of the same egregious behavior. American culture also needs to consciously promote nonathlete role models for kids as a viable path to their future lives in the workforce.
Only 5,000 young men will have the privilege of playing professional sports in any given year, but they crowd out the airtime for kids who might otherwise aspire to be doctors, scientists, craftsmen, entrepreneurs and other jobs that will build our future.
Alex Alben lives in Seattle and works in high-tech and public policy. He is the author of “Analog Days — How Technology Rewrote Our Future.”