4:32pm

Tue July 12, 2011
The Two-Way

Sports Loses Its Escapist Gleam In A Summer Of Court Dates

Sport is a contract. Of course, sports are replete with contracts, from the billions of dollars that the NBA and NFL are currently at an impasse over, to the tiny print on the back of a ticket to a ballgame.

But the greater contract of sports is between the fan and the games themselves. The contract says that for every winner, there must be a loser. This way the universe is in equilibrium, sitting at a .500. The sports fan's summer horribilis goes far beyond being a bummer. In fact, we're experiencing a rift in the basic compact, what L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustated calls "a sportspocalypse."

The carnage is all around us: the trial of Roger Clemens; the bankruptcy of the L.A. Dodgers; the N.Y. Mets' Madoff entanglements; the lockouts in the NFL and the NBA; the sad fade of Tiger Woods; and a Tour de France being held with a doping appeal hanging over the top rider's handlebars.

"Yeah we've had labor strikes and work stoppages in the past, and teams have gone into bankruptcy in the past — but not this daily drum beat," Werthiem says. "I'm abroad right now, and I'm noticing the Yahoo headlines are just enough to make you not want to come home."

Yahoo itself is noticing the effect its headlines are having. Jamie Mottram, who oversees Yahoo's sports blogs, says, "The intricacies and developments of NBA and NFL lockouts are not often making it into the Yahoo front page, because they are not interesting to a mass audience."

Mottram adds that fantasy football fans are particularly aggrieved that their seasons have already been disrupted, no matter what happens in the real world.

The fans' lament is not born of naiveté; they're willing to pay what amounts to extortionary prices for the product. But they are now, or may soon be, facing a denial of that product. Even when fans are not robbed of a season, they've been robbed of the normal rhythms of victory and celebration, as with a National Hockey League finals that descended into riots in Vancouver, just as members of the victorious Boston Bruins began sipping from the Stanley Cup.

Sports observers anticipated the NFL and NBA's labor trouble, though no one could envision just how a contentious divorce would push the Dodgers into bankruptcy. The thought was that Major League Baseball would be able to step into the maw and win the hearts of America.

In fact, "there hasn't been any great story to follow in baseball that isn't in a divorce court or in a bankruptcy court", says Wertheim. Even Derek Jeter's 3,000th career hit was a bit marred by having occurred within the context of this being the worst season of the Yankee captain's career.

Veteran reporter Robert Lipsyte has covered the struggles of daring but pilloried baseball free agent Curt Flood, and the controversial and heroic Muhammad Ali. Stories of those athletes, and others like them, may have depressed fans at the time, but they differed from our current situation because the players in question at least stood for something greater than the best way to divvy up a few billion dollars.

Those cases came at a time, says Lipsyte, "When we still had the conceit that sports was some crucible for character-building, or moral integrity."

Now, we've come to accept sports as pure entertainment. That's fine, perhaps even more clear-eyed but for one thing. These days, there's no entertainment to be had. If, as Lipsyte contends, "Sports for many people, and certainly for most male fans, is soap opera," then it must follow that we are living in scary times: The soap opera may be cancelled.

Perhaps American fans should look to Hope Solo and her band of resilient woman warriors as the tonic. The U.S. Women's World Cup team just dispatched the mighty Brazilians in a game that has been described as one of the greatest matches played by either gender on any stage. Their semifinal game against France might make people forget that the bill is coming due, literally and figuratively, in all the professional sports.

Otherwise, pretty soon, news consumers will be turning to stories of the Greek debt crisis, or the bleak U.S. jobs picture, to take their minds off what's being reported on the sports pages.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.