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Politics in Sports

19 Jan

Professional sports have been a refuge for the common man because the sports arena was one of the last places were a man was chosen to do a job solely on his ability to perform that job. But, the scope of professional sports have changed in the last 40 years. There was a time when people could believe in the purity of sport. Then, fans knew that the best players were on the court because the coaches and management wanted to win games rather than just make money. In fact their job security was contingent on their ability to find the best players and get the most out of them. Now, sports teams are more concerned with their investments than they are with winning games. Keeping a star player with a lot of  name recognition has become more important to professional sports franchises than the records of their teams. Revenue has replaced tradition, and finance has supplanted loyalty and merit. Sports is no longer pure, and is now fueled by politics.

Big sports franchises, especially in the Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association have lost the core values of competition and become dedicated to turning a dollar rather than improving their teams. Teams spend finances on talented players that underachieve rather than building teams made of players that compete for championships every year. It is much more lucrative for franchises to funnel money into one exciting player that pulls in greater attendance, than to draft diligently and better the team with key players. The irony of this is that the steady improvement of any franchise generally leads to more consistent revenue for the team including league bonuses for advancement through the playoffs and the consequent ticket sales and merchandise that are sold once a community gets behind a team. The finances given to star players has unexpectedly given the big names in the games more power than most of the management team. In every sport, franchises are much more likely to get rid of good coach on a team that is in upheaval than to get rid of the star that may have caused dissension in the locker room. The players are just more valuable, so there is an immediate rift between coaches and players. Big contracts have also unexpectedly caused dissension between players too. The players with larger contracts have more authority on their respective teams than the players earning less money. And talent is often suppressed in favor of big contracts because owners want to see returns on their investments. Gilbert Arenas, a perennial All-Star before a few serious injuries, could not sniff the court at the beginning of his career because he played behind Mookie Blaylock who signed $30,000,000 contract in the late 90′s. Arenas regularly blew past Blaylock in practice, but had to settle for limited minutes and thus underwhelming statistics for three years until Blaylock was released. Taj Gibson, a third year player for the Chicago Bulls needs 47 blocks to surpass the career block totals of Carlos Boozer, a ten year veteran who plays the same position and starts ahead of him. He is taller, with longer arms and more explosiveness, plus he scores and rebounds at a higher rate than Boozer too. Yet, he is relegated to the bench. Not surprisingly, Boozer is in the middle of a 5 year, $76,000,000 contract. The starting job in a franchise used to be defined by how well the player performed on the court in the past. Now, the contract decides the minutes. Professional sports have become like all other businesses.

Sports are now far more political and business driven now than the sportsmanship model that existed just twenty years ago. In any good business, investors get the most out of every investment and move the investments with diminishing returns quickly. And, professional sports teams are beginning to follow suit. In the seventies and eighties, players that carried their teams to championships could look forward to reverence within the organization and retirement in that city. It was common for players to finish their entire careers with one team because there was real loyalty to players. But in the nineties, something changed. Franchises began integrating corporate business strategies and practices to maximize their profits. These new policies included aggressive player trades when the players’ skills and statistics dropped. Basketball legends like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird retired from their teams in the cities that drafted them. But, Joe Montana, possibly the best quarterback that ever lived was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in the twilight of his career. The 49′ers, the team that drafted him, traded him rather than allowing him to finish his middling career in San Francisco. Trading players has now become standard practice in sports. Players are made promises by management and find out that they have been betrayed and traded from the media. This leads to an attitude of mistrust and disloyalty between players and staff. As players begin to understand their roles as commodities to the franchises, they have learned to capitalize in negotiations with their teams in contract years. Staunch negotiations lead to bitterness between both sides which further exacerbates problems within the club.

This lack of loyalty is not exclusive to professional sports either. The NCAA is a bastion of hypocrisy, making billions off the backs of athletes but persecuting them when they attempt to change schools or when they take even the smallest concessions from boosters. They equate a $40,000 scholarship with adequate payment for an athlete’s services for 4 years. The NCAA eschews all tenants of free enterprise like the basic philosophies of capitalism. The people with more talent should get more money and opportunity.

Sports used to be completely about loyalty, sportsmanship, and fair competition. But now, sports is only about money and the the game suffers because of it. Politics and finances now decide competition instead of talent and it has to change. The best players should be on the court and competition should always decide who plays and what that player is worth.

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