These days, athletes have moved from the sports section to the front pages of our daily newspapers—not for their heroic feats on the playing field but because of their thuggish and even felonious behavior. Think of boxer Mike Tyson, who bit a chunk out of an opponent's ear in the ring and raped a fan out of it. Think of Tonya Harding having rival skater Nancy Kerrigan knee-capped and Yankee Darryl Strawberry's countless suspensions for drugs. Think of tennis bad boy John McEnroe, with his trademark profanity-laced tantrums on the court. Sports fans can list hundreds more examples, amounting not to a series of isolated lapses but an unmistakable pattern.
And a deeply disturbing pattern. Once upon a time, after all, the public—and coaches and team owners too—expected athletes to stand for certain ideals of civility, self-mastery, respectability, and fair play that provided an example for all citizens. But when pro football players are implicated in brutal murders, or a millionaire basketball star assaults his coach—such incidents now seem to crop up weekly—it's a sign that something has gone awry in sports and in the culture as a whole. It suggests, too, that sports have become not just a reflection of cultural decline but an active agent of debasement.
Sports have always been a repository of a culture's values, mirroring and shaping society. At least since the time of The Iliad, sports have been a kind of ritual with a meaning. They have simultaneously celebrated male (and today even female) aggression and competitiveness along with civilization's triumph of channeling and containing that aggression within elaborate rules and ceremonies. As any true fan will tell you, the rules are crucial: "sports events do not really exist at all unless there is a certain order and fairness—justice—in each event," writes social thinker and football enthusiast Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports.
Respecting the rules was central to sports' most noble creation: the sportsman. Broadly, the sportsman exhibited sportsmanship: a code of conduct centered on fairness and on graciousness in winning and losing. Going further still, a real sportsman upheld certain standards of clean living, civility, and decorum off the playing field; as a figure of public respect, he was respectable.
Journalist Glenn Dickey once compared the sportsman with the Western hero of the movies: both were chaste, kids loved them, and—Dickey cynically added—both were myths. Of course, Dickey is partly right: many athletes never lived up to the image. Baseball great Babe Ruth, for one, was a notorious boozer and womanizer, and lots of athletes have cheated or have been sore losers. But what's important, what Dickey ignores, is that the ideal of the sportsman inspired athletes and spectators as a standard to live up to, despite occasional lapses, for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
And some sports stars really did exemplify the ideal fully, like New York Yankee outfielder Joe DiMaggio. Popular historian David Halberstam describes DiMaggio, who retired in 1953 and died last year, as "the perfect Hemingway hero," exhibiting "stoic grace" under pressure, modest, reserved, meticulous about his appearance—he always came to the ball park dressed in a custom-tailored suit with a white shirt and tie—and always respectful toward fans, other players, and even the press. Nor was DiMaggio alone: Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams in baseball, Oscar Robertson in basketball, Sammy Baugh in football, and other successful athletes behaved with dignity and grace in and out of uniform. These were larger-than-life figures, whom kids (and grownups, too) could admire.
Though thankfully the sportsman hasn't completely vanished, he is an endangered species today. Three sweeping changes, all beginning in the sixties, have hastened his decline.
First is the elevation of winning above the values of sportsmanship. The prime mover of this change, ironically, was himself a great sportsman: Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of pro football's Green Bay Packers during their championship seasons in the sixties. Lombardi's famous dictum, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," had destructive consequences its author never intended.
Because Lombardi's win-or-nothing imperative brought success on the field, it swept though American sports, elbowing aside the ideal of the sportsman. It even had a huge effect on school sports. Writer James Michener lamented in his mid-seventies book Sports in America that coaches were applying it to kids, robbing youth sports of civility and fun. Michener tells the troubling story of a Kentucky high school that showcased students who quit its football team in a conspicuous "hall of shame," humiliating the teens in front of their peers. Author Buzz Bissinger's 1991 Friday Night Lights vividly describes how the obsession with winning is so powerful in a West Texas high school that it has shattered some young football players' lives.
Today's parents seem squarely in Lombardi's camp, too. "I've seen parents screaming at their kids, pushing them too hard to perform; children fighting in games, incited by their parents; kids crying on the mound because their parents embarrassed the stew out of them," the head of a youth group told the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year. As the Monitor reports, a few concerned Little Leagues have tried to restrain out-of-control parents: parents in Los Angeles, for example, must sign a promise of good behavior, and in Jupiter, Florida, parents must take a good-sportsmanship class before their children even can play. One Staten Island father doesn't seem to have learned the lesson correctly, however: complaining last month that the coach's "Vince Lombardi philosophy" of winning at all costs had traumatized his ten-year-old hockey-playing son, he broke the coach's nose with a hockey stick.
The pressure to win at all costs has led many athletes to cheat by pumping up their performance with banned substances like anabolic steroids. Illegal drug-enhanced athletic feats have become epidemic in Olympic competition, and nearly half the respondents to a recent survey of college athletes by the National College Athletics Association claimed that the use of banned substances was a significant problem in college sports.
Vince Lombardi, seeing the considerable damage his winning-is-the-only-thing ethic had wrought, renounced it shortly before his death in 1970: "I wish to hell I'd never said the damned thing. I meant the effort. . . . I meant having a goal. . . . I sure as hell didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality."
The second solvent that has eaten away sportsmanship is money, lots of it, as TV turned sports into big business in the late sixties. As historian Stephen Fox recounts, television contracts for Major League Baseball, totaling $16.6 million in 1970, exploded to nearly half a billion dollars by the nineties. Pro football's TV revenues passed the $2 billion mark by the early 1980s. Players' salaries, given a huge boost by free agency, rocketed upward: the average baseball player's pay, just $19,000 a year in 1967, was over $1.3 million by 1997, with the average National Basketball Association player bringing in $2.2 million by the late nineties. Other sports, including college athletics, began generating big entertainment money, too.
The flood of money strengthened Lombardi's winning-is-everything imperative, as teams grasped that victory brought high TV ratings and high revenues. Owners cared whether a given player helped the team win games and bring in cash, not whether he showed sportsmanship. So teams began to put up with the likes of the NBA's pierced and tattooed Dennis Rodman, whose rebounding skills helped the Chicago Bulls win three championships but whose offensive antics included flagrant fouls and verbal abuse of officials on the court and transvestism and a squalid, much-publicized fling with Madonna off it.
Professional athletes of times past retained some of the amateur sportsman's ethic of playing for love of the game, not just for pay. Baseball's last .400 hitter, Ted Williams, for instance, once gave part of his salary back to the Boston Red Sox after he had a subpar season. That ethic is a far cry from today's millionaire basketball stars who boycott training camp because a rival is suddenly making more money, or to baseball greats who charge a fee for an autograph.
The third solvent that corroded the ideal of sportsmanship was the counterculture. Here the key transitional figure was Joe Namath, the dazzling quarterback of the National Football League's New York Jets. The victory of the Namath-led Jets over the favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl was heavily symbolic. Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was a devout and temperate Catholic, who lived with his wife and four kids in the Baltimore suburbs—the very model of civility and respectability. Hard-drinking playboy Namath, who lived in a penthouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, reportedly bedded a different starlet every week. By besting Unitas, Namath brought sports into a Brave New World, where an "if-it-feels-good-do-it" ethos didn't preclude being a winner (see "Who Lost Super Bowl III?" Summer 1995). As sportswriter Glenn Dickey sums up: "Namath . . . publicly defied all the sexual taboos of sports and thrived."
Namath ushered in a libertine era in sports, as teams dropped any pretense of enforcing sexual decorum, or indeed any decorum. By the mid-seventies, the professional athlete became a sexual conquistador, surrounded by groupies like a rock star. Basketball's only player to score 100 points in a game, the late Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain, scored plenty off court as well, boasting 20,000 sexual partners during a long career. In 1991, basketball superstar Magic Johnson retired from the Los Angeles Lakers after announcing that he had contracted HIV from having had sex, he claimed, with countless women. The inimitable Dennis Rodman crudely but vividly describes today's groupie scene in his "book," Bad As I Wanna Be—a title that can serve as sportsmanship's epitaph. "Management, coaches, the league—they know guys are going to go out and f**k," he boasts. "They're going to find girls that are sexy as hell, good-looking, sweet—all that. And they're not going to think for a second about the consequences."
The worst consequence has been the breathtaking number of illegitimate children pro athletes have sired, as Grant Wahl and L. Jon Wertheim document in a much-discussed 1998 Sports Illustrated article. The NBA has the most sexually irresponsible athletes—perhaps, they conclude, because so many of the players hail from single-parent, inner-city families, where live-in fathers are few. One sports agent who spends most of his time defending paternity suits estimates that there are easily more illegitimate kids born to current NBA players than there are players in the league. Cleveland Cavalier power forward Shawn Kemp, 28 and unmarried when the SI article appeared, led the list with seven illegitimate children born to six different women. Some of the players have nothing to do with their kids beyond court-mandated child-support payments. Len Elmore, a former NBA player, worked a while as a sports agent, but quit in disgust because of the players' "lack of responsibility."
The counterculture's influence, intensified by the street-hardened backgrounds of increasing numbers of pro athletes, made drug use common in sports, too. By 1982, says current NBA Commissioner David Stern, 75 percent of the league's players were using cocaine. At the same time, around 40 percent of the NFL's players were using it, too, according to former player Carl Eller, an ex-junkie himself. Because of public disgust and the obvious drug-induced deterioration of many players' skills, each of the major sports leagues began to implement drug policies of varying degrees of effectiveness in the eighties. In the fall of 1988, for example, 24 NFL players, including superstar Lawrence Taylor, received suspensions for substance abuse after failing random drug tests. Several NBA stars—including crowd-pleaser Michael Ray Richardson—wound up booted out of the league permanently for repeated drug violations. As a result, nobody thinks that the substance-abuse problem of sports is as bad today as it was 15 years ago—but no one thinks it is solved, either.
In place of the sportsman, the gladiator has appeared, substituting naked aggression for the sportsman's fidelity to rules, restraint, and civility. Ferocity has invaded even kids' sports, necessitating police intervention. In 1997, for example, 18-year-old Gilbert Jefferson, a New Mexico football player, received a six-month jail term for attacking a referee from behind after getting kicked out of the game for unsportsmanlike conduct. Chicago police last year charged a teen with aggravated battery for a vicious hit in a high school hockey game that left a 15-year-old boy paralyzed. In Texas, 18-year-old Tony Limon, a star basketball player for South San Antonio High School, recently received a five-year prison term for aggravated assault: he had elbowed an opponent so violently that he had broken his nose and given him a serious concussion. Limon's coach reportedly helped precipitate the assault. "He told me it's about time someone shed blood," the teen claimed.
The kids, though, are just following the lead of the pros. Each National Hockey League team, for example, now employs what sportswriters and fans call a "goon," a player whose job is to intimidate the other team's stars. The goons of rival teams regularly clash in gory punchouts. The league has tolerated the violence for 30 years, because many fans revel in it. But the gladiators, bigger than ever, get ever closer to killing each other. In a chilling incident in February, Boston Bruins tough guy Marty McSorley downed Vancouver Canucks goon Donald Brashear with a hockey stick to the temple. Brashear suffered a bad concussion and has yet to return to the ice. McSorley now faces assault charges in Vancouver.
The rough stuff has roiled many other sports, too. In the NBA a few Decembers back, New York Knicks' star Latrell Sprewell, then with the Golden State Warriors, choked and threatened to kill his coach P. J. Carlesimo after his boss "disrespected" him—an underclass response, notwithstanding Sprewell's $32 million contract. Similarly, "trash talking"—decidedly unsportsmanlike insults by opposing players—provoked so many fights a few years ago that NBA officials had to crack down on it.
The NFL has had to police the recent outbreak of unnecessary roughness and late hits that threaten to maim players. But many of the league's players are now doing their maiming off the field. Jeff Benedict and Don Yeager's new book, Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL, lists the league's known felons. Here's just a smattering: Cornelius Bennett (rape and sexual assault); Cortez Kennedy (domestic violence); Andre Rison (aggravated assault); Deion Sanders (aggravated assault and battery). Since 1997, law-enforcement officials have arrested more than 100 of the NFL's 2,000 or so players—average salary $600,000—for violent crimes.
Like O. J. Simpson before them, two of the league's current star players are now up on murder charges: Rae Carruth, wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, for allegedly masterminding the fatal drive-by shooting of his pregnant girlfriend; and Ray Lewis, all-pro linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, for allegedly stabbing to death two men outside an Atlanta bar with the help of two accomplices. The league's response? "We have fewer incidents involving NFL players than society at large has," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue tepidly observes in response to the two crimes. The league needs to answer why they hire individuals prone to commit violent felonies in the first place.
At the furthest extreme from the ideal of the sportsman are the gladiators of professional wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation has become wildly popular over the last decade by producing incredibly bloody and crude nightly matches. Its sky-high ratings may yet lead to its shock values infiltrating other sports: WWF's president Vince McMahon plans to launch a pro football league to rival the NFL—the XFL. The prospect fills New York Post sportswriter Phil Mushnick with disgust: "Given McMahon's record, the X represents a blend of X-treme violence and X-rated conduct." The XFL will sell itself, Mushnick believes, "through the careful removal of whatever civility remains in the NFL's product."
Emulating their heroes on the field, fans have become more uncivil and violent, too. Behaving like British soccer hooligans, rioting spectators at a December San Diego Charger football game attacked security workers and fellow spectators. Riots have broken out after championship victories in several cities. Speaking to a San Diego newspaper, John Byrnes, president of the Florida-area Center for Aggression Management, says that fans are "vicariously having adrenaline rushes through the players." As sports become more violent, Byrnes stresses, "it's no shock to me that it is occurring more in the stands."
Sportsmanship stands little chance of coming back as long as school officials forget that school sports should be as much about teaching sportsmanship as teaching skills, and as long as big league teams and officials aren't willing to enforce sportsmanship's values vigorously. Sports bosses' recent ham-handed response to Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's rant against New York's wealth of homosexuals, felons, welfare moms, and immigrants shows how far they are from remembering what those values are. After yawning over violence and felonies, they impose a 73-day suspension and a $20,000 fine over this? And they send Rocker to psychological counseling, as if he were crazy rather than merely loutish? Clearly what agitated them was his insult to political correctness rather than his outrageous offense against sportsmanlike civility, which they should have punished with the explanation that sportsmen just don't behave like this. But they seem no longer to have the appropriate moral vocabulary at their command.
Still, one can point to a few hopeful signs. First, authentic sportsmen still grace the world of professional athletics with their example—baseball's iron man Cal Ripken, golfing phenomenon Tiger Woods, and tennis great Pete Sampras, to name three, and, until recently, Michael Jordan, quarterback John Elway, and the late Arthur Ashe. Second, the first stirrings of a backlash may be occurring, most notably in Coca-Cola's withdrawal from sponsorship of the WWF in disapproval of its nihilistic fare (see "Coke Does It Right," Soundings, Winter 2000). Plenty more of the same condemnation is in order, not just from sponsors but from fans, the press, and the parents of young athletes. It's the kind of pressure that might make sports once more a powerful force that uplifts rather than debases our culture.