Noting, as I did in this column last week, that President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to outlaw football after the carnage players suffered in the 1905 season, a friend who was a starting receiver for a major college program in the 1950s and I shared our thoughts on the sport, and sports in general today.
He was on the receiving end of the passes of one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks in his day, Stanford University’s Dick Norman. He took his share of lumps on the field, but was tenacious, quick and tough.
Back then, college sports were so much different. I experienced my playing days in a similar way, playing college baseball on an athletic scholarship in Southern California.
There was no pressure to do weight training in those days. My friend did a little on his own, but it was not expected. Actually, in those days, the concern was that lifting weights too much would make one “muscle bound” at the expense of agility.
There were big crowds at sporting events, to be sure. But there were college football games, no more than 10 in a season, on Saturdays and pro football on Sunday. One or two a week would be nationally televised.
There was a lot more to people’s lives than the massive overdosing of exposure to what has increasingly become like ancient Roman spectacles. That trend kicked off with the advent of Monday Night Football in the late 1960s.
About that same time the entire national ethos went through a shift, a kind of emotional hardening. The idealism of the 1960s shifted into a self-centered cynicism in the 1970s, when the very notion of social progress through empowerment of the disadvantaged became a source of derision.
There was an emotional numbing, accompanied by the rise of “post-modernism” in art, music and thought. Love became a word for sentimentalists. Sex was far more in vogue, lots of it with lots of people. Magic crystals became more fascinating than the boundaries of physics and putting men on the Moon. Sophomoric potty-mouthed television sitcoms began evolving into the drivel we have today.
Sports followed this cultural process, becoming more and more money centered and cynical. The introduction of steroids on a mass scale in sports was a by-product of a growing cult of the muscle-bound superstar, and the emergence of the mega-teams, those handful of college programs that attracted all the best players and formed a ratings-dominating fraternity of elites. The process filtered down to high schools and pee wee levels.
As a college athlete, when I coached summer youth sports, the idea of forming “select” teams of the best players was not only absent, it was distinctly frowned upon. That’s what they did in communist countries, we observed. They treated their athletes like chattel, taken out of the mainstream of society and subjected to non-stop training. It was un-American. But that was then, certainly not now.
When I played baseball and basketball in college, there were daily practices, a lot of road trips and exhaustion, and there was still time for classes, homework, a job and a life.
By the mid-1990s, when a young friend entered college on a basketball scholarship, it had become completely different.
What he entered was not a major program, it was at a small college. But the regimen was crushing, as was the intimidation the coach brought. My friend saw how the seniors on the team had acquired, over the course of their years there, the personality of their coach, including his bullying and berating style.
He called me late one night after being there only three months. He wanted to quit. He’d been a star in high school and he’d put so much time into choosing the right college program, heightening the expectations of his family and friends.
I am glad he confided in me, because I supported his decision when others didn’t. He went on to a happy college experience, a degree and a successful life. He owes that life to breaking from the sports meat grinder.
In sports, the move has been away from agility to force and worse. None of its trends are positive. None.