Ever since I can remember, I have been in a love affair with sports.
Sports used to be an out, an oasis and an escape from the hustle of everyday life. The puck would drop, the first pitch would cross the plate, the coin would be flipped – the world would stop. Families would put everything aside, huddle around the radio, circle around the television and root for their squad. Sports used to be fun.
But sports aren’t what they used to be. Sports aren’t fun anymore.
I grew up on ESPN, just like any prepubescent child whose life revolved around bats, balls and pucks. I could lie on my couch and watch SportsCenter for hours on end. The same highlights, in the same order, all day. John Buccigross, Jenn Brown, Karl Ravech, John Clayton, (a young) Chris Berman and, of course, the late legend Stuart Scott were how I got through my day and how I kept up with every game. They were my best friends.
Recapping the day’s highlights, the broadcast was full of catchphrases, celebrations and exhilaration. Kenny Mayne’s “I don’t know what that pitch was, but it tastes like chicken,” Boomer’s “back, back, back, GONE,” and Stuart’s “Boo-yah,” created a conversational, comfortable element. Sports were relatable, reliable and riveting.
Turn on ESPN today. Highlights have become analysis, and what used to be a small dose of analysis has become an excess of politics and speculation.
This year’s tense political season, along with Colin Kaepernick’s episode (I know, sorry for bringing him up), brought a massive bludgeon down on ESPN. Following a record loss of 621,000 cable subscribers in October, the company turned around and lost an additional 555,000 in November, as well as losing its primetime cable crown. Brutal. And in March, the proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” announced it was going to cut nearly $100 million of on-air talent. Even more brutal.
The numbers speak for themselves, but it’s not all ESPN’s fault; competitors like Fox Sports 1 are picking up their coverage, and sports have just lost some of their chutzpah.
We ’90s kids had it made. We had Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, the bad boys down at “The U,” bench-clearing hockey brawls, Kobe dropping 81 and the juice days of baseball pinnacled by Barry Bonds slapping his 756th dinger. Sports were fun.
Today, celebrations are hit with penalties, brawls are hit with fines and suspensions, “bad boys” are chastised and PEDs are, well, PEDs.
In an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio last week, Scott Green, the head of the NFL Referees Association, said even officials don’t enjoy throwing flags for excessive celebration after big plays, adding that the league is putting the referees in a tough position.
Thank you, Mr. Green. Fight the power.
That being said, there’s a limit, and I understand that. Should I be able to score on a deep toss down the sideline and proceed to mimic a mooning of the fans in the back of the end zone? Sorry, Randy Moss, probably not. But through the 14 regular-season weeks of the 2016 NFL season, there were 18 excessive celebration penalties. Eighteen.
This de-fun-ifying of sports extends beyond the NFL, and even beyond professional sports entirely. Let’s take a jump down to the lowest level of competition: the youth.
According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports from this time last year, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “It’s just not fun anymore.”
Let’s imagine Target found out that shoppers were leaving stores and swearing to never return. Of course, it’s not quite the same, but that situation wouldn’t be allowed to continue. The next day, Target executives would be working through the problem of customer alienation and how to fix it. Why aren’t we taking the same approach toward the decline in youth sport participation?
Instead, we’re increasing the cost of participation, focusing on too many specifics within athletics programs and placing too much weight on the result of a fourth grade pitcher’s little league outing.
“What we’re seeing is the ‘professionalization’ of youth sports,” Daniel Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, said.
What kid wants to play in a professional-esque atmosphere? What kid wants to play under all that pressure? I sure don’t, but that’s a separate column entirely.
At the end of the day, sports aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, sports were played on the field. Spectators either showed up to watch, or they didn’t.
That was before sports became a business. That was before sports became money-centric. That was before sports became politics.
The whistle would blow, the final out would be called, the clock would expire and everyone went home. That was sports. They were wild, passionate and fun.
Sports aren’t what they used to be. Sports just aren’t fun anymore.