A Divine Right

A Divine Right

The games used to be ours. We played them in the streets, our backyards and our parks. Now, we play officially-licensed digital versions of them, learning the names and ratings of every single player on every single tean, using the very same set of plays as our heroes, with Sprite-sponsored cutscenes and executive production by Jay-Z (which, awesome).

That’s why, for me, it felt so weird that most of the talk in the world of sports this weekend focused on the concept of “keeping things in perspective”. This was in light of the unfathomable tragedy that occurred in Kansas City; but, at its core, it spoke to a fundamental problem in our culture, one that extends far past the field of play and the luxury boxes to the parking lot and our television screens. It is that which we choose to ignore — to our minimal gain in the short run and to our great detriment in the long run — about this thing we love.

We are all aware that sports are a business, and while it’s a number of other things — a place where people come together, where participants can lift themselves and those close to them out of poverty, and where the important lessons of teamwork and perseverance are taught to an inspiring number of young men and women throughout the world — the way in which it is presented to us is through this prism of commerce.

But like a prism, this perspective — shoved in our face day after day on show after show on specialized sports network after specialized sports network — is refracted or focused upon us, telling the vibrant and colorful story of the beauty of sports or forcing upon us the harsh light of the “real world” juxtaposing itself against the decidedly unreal world of organized games.

And with this shifting perspective, we’ve started to lose our grasp on understanding of what is and isn’t important. We’ve lost sight of the fact that it is unreasonable to murder foliage or attempt to murder fans of your rivals. The reasons behind this are myriad and complicated, but like the political discourse in this country, they boil down to a divide and conquer mentality, where individuals with competing agendas use the masses to play an high-stakes game of 3D chess, with the fans as pawns.

***

Take, for example, the story of the Spurs, who after sending four of their five starters back to San Antonio — instead of taking on the defending champion Miami Heat “properly” in a nationally televised game — were fined a staggering (albeit not unprecedented) 250,000 dollars for their “transgression”.

Transgression would be putting it lightly if you were to listen to the statements made by David Stern before and after the game, however. Stern judged the choice by coach Gregg Popovich to sit Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green — while coaching an aging team playing their fourth game in five nights on the road and an incredibly important divisional matchup against the best team in the league two days later —  to be an “unacceptable decision” that would be met with what he referred to as “substantial sanctions”.

This was before the Spurs managed to play as well as anyone had played against the Heat in Miami this season, narrowly losing to LeBron and company after James took over in the last two minutes to outlast San Antonio,105-100. After watching them manage to nearly defeat three of the twenty biggest stars in the game (and do so with exactly one player — Paddy Mills — averaging  double digits in points) Stern upped the rhetoric, calling the move by Pop to be a “disservice to the league and our fans”, without explaining precisely how a five-point margin decided in the last two minutes of a meaningless game tarnished the reputation of the league or left the fans wanting more.

Thankfully for Stern he didn’t need to, as archenemy/Maverick owner Mark Cuban came to his aid. Cuban, who has been fined millions of dollars by Stern in the past, publicly supported the commissioner. He even explained his reasons for backing Stern’s actions: the game’s place as a national television showcase and the importance that television contracts play in the health of the league, calling them “the biggest difference in the league being profitable or not by a long shot.”

But bubbling under the surface of this is the role that stars play in the financial health of the league. Basketball — more than any other sport — relies on their star players to market the sport and to a larger degree than is healthy, dictate the style of the league. Isiah Thomas’s Bad Boy Pistons developed in response to the run-n-gun styles popularized by Bird’s Celtics and the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson. Those brutal Heat/Knicks teams were created in direct response to the intense physical nature of the Chicago Bulls and their roster of destructive defensive players lead by Michael and Scottie. The Era of the Big Three was begot by Boston’s introduction of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Celtic faithful.

As a result of this, the game find itself feeling especially empty when the stars don’t show up, giving the sensation of a cover band playing deep cuts off their subject’s most popular album. Which is why Stern and company were so adamant about punishing the Spurs for the sporting equivalent of letting Lez Zeppelin play in the place of the genuine article. They fail to see the inherent danger in the power we give players — through no fault of their own — to dictate the happiness we find in games, to obscure what the sport really is.

By allowing players to dictate the popularity of their league, they have obscured the fact that while basketball is a game where the best players perform the best form of it, a true team, run by a competent coach, as part of a well-run organization can have more influence over the result of a game than LeBron, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh could ever have individually.

They don’t want the secret — that basketball is a beautiful game, perhaps the finest example of the type of dynamic teamwork required by modern life found in any line of work — to create a market they are unable to fill with the type of stars (big athletic men doing spectacular things) that they can easily market to peripherally interested fans.

Basketball has a long history of great teams toppling flashier opponents with bigger stars — the 2007 Golden State Warriors and the 1995 Denver Nuggets coming most vividly to mind —  with great teams beating great players nearly every time when the games actually matter.

Instead, the NBA continues like it always does, maintaining an unsustainable economic system based entirely on stars.

And in order to keep the (highly profitable for a fortunate few) system going, they fine those who speak up, punishing teams in the name of the fans, all the while jacking up the prices of marquee games — that in theory require no additional costs, and perhaps even less because of the marketing done by sports networks — in order to turn an even greater profit.

Turning an even greater profit is the goal of any business, though, and the NBA certainly shouldn’t be blamed for trying to achieve this. What they can be blamed for is their long-standing insistence on a system that manages to leave the financial health of the league — and the thousands upon thousands of people who find themselves out of work every time there’s a labor dispute between the rich and the wealthy — and their insistence on blaming it on the fans when someone challenges it, while simultaneously price gouging them on the notion that a meaningless regular season game is worth paying an extra 25 dollars for the cheapest ticket.

This, despite the inherent long term advantages spite of focusing on teams and the sport itself, like the infinitely more successful football has done on both the professional and collegiate levels.

***

But college football has it own serious issues, and is certainly not without its own extreme bias in both coverage and control.

Northern Illinois’s entrance into a BCS game — the Orange Bowl, against 11-2 ACC champion Florida St. — has let slip the dogs of war, creating more fervor and indignation from former college players on ESPN than anything since the last time a non-Automatic Qualifying (AQ) conference team made it into the BCS. Starting last night, Kirk Herbstreit, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack have begun to make the rounds — and the case for AQ conference teams Oklahoma and Georgia (where Pollack went) —  on the ESPN family of networks.

They are being paid to shout to whomever will ask that schools such as Northern Illinois — who finished 12-1 and won the MAC championship against then-No.17 Kent State — have no place in the BCS bowls, as their strength of schedule and marquee loss make them the most prescient example of the “sad state of college football in 2012” according to Herbstreit, who also called the selection “the biggest injustice” since the network had begun covering the BCS.

This was said before acknowledging — as noted previously by Rece Davis in the interview with him— the involvement of a 7-5 Big Ten “champion” Wisconsin team in the Rose Bowl or the presence of 11-2  Louisville (whose 2 losses come in a conference — the Big East — which is sending the same number of teams to bowls — five — as their counterparts in NIU’s MAC) in the Sugar Bowl. Completely ignored was the real reason the Huskies were eligible in the first place: the two teams that would have lead the Big 10 (and been ranked higher than NIU, knocking them out of contention) were both ineligible. One (Ohio State) because of a scandal involving illegally procured tattoos and the other (Penn State) because of the systematic covering up of one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of sports. Two schools, who if they — instead of trying to maximize profits for their universities in the short run — had done the right things for the right reasons would not find themselves in such predicaments.

Of course, like Stern, Herbstreit, et al were not alone in their assessment of the BCS situation, with Alabama coach Nick Saban saying it was a “crying shame Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl game”. Like Stern and Cuban’s unlikely bedfellowing, Saban’s words came from a place of self-interest, as any time more teams from the SEC get into a BCS game it looks better for the league, and feels better in their pockets, as teams in conferences spread the money as they find themselves filled with the Holiday (Bowl) spirit.

Also like Stern, the three wisemen are not out of bounds in their annoyance — though I’d debate strongly that Kirk (who I love immensely as a commentator and analyst) could tone it down a bit. However, the idea that the inclusion of the Huskies, as Herbstreit puts it, prevents the BCS from “put(ting) teams we want to watch in games that actually matter” is the line of argumentation that seem the most troubling.

In that sentence, it became clear that intentionally or not, Herbstreit and his ilk found themselves arguing vociferously for monied interests, and doing so in front of a national television audience. Instead of focusing on the great story of Northern Illinois and their exciting QB Jordan Lynch “busting” the BCS, the discourse surrounding it devolved into a polemic on the divine right of prominent people and programs to be paid for playing in fundamentally meaningless games, that ultimately, what was meaningful was the enormous cash grabs that have become synonymous with the major bowls.

This also ignores the complete and total meaninglessness of these games, again the fault of a system focused on the short-term (and enormous) profits of a national championship game, with many of the financial rewards going to a mythical national champion. In order to make this game, they had to completely discredit every other bowl, and in doing so, did irreparable damage to an already bloated system, but one that at least helped raise all ships with a tide of money. Instead, like Stern and Cuban, fans are being used to prop up the meaningfulness of meaningless games, while simultaneously being forced pay extra for the privilege of watching them.

***

How we find ourselves where we are — with grown men arguing that millions of dollars deserve to go to well-endowed colleges to play a child’s game and hard fought games in November being called “disservices to the league and its fans” — is perhaps a question without an answer.

But if there was one, it may have grown out of the only tragedy, injustice or thing that mattered in the world of sports this weekend: the untimely death of a young woman named Kasandra Perkins and the orphaning of her three-month-old daughter.

Following the Chiefs emotional victory — their second in a season beset by bitter disappointment and one where the harsh light of the “real world” had already been shined upon the fans by OT Eric Winston earlier in the season — Brady Quinn managed to find faith and reason during a surreal time in a surreal place walking distance from where his former teammate ended his life in front of members of the Chiefs much-maligned management.

Quinn, when asked to make sense of a fundamentally senseless act, unintentionally offered insight into what has been missing in a sports discourse filled with bile spewed at the undeserving, while those in charge of the presentation of it decide how they want us to process and enjoy it. He did so by explaining us to ourselves, saying:

“The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people. I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it?  When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the inside than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis.”

In allowing ourselves to become attached to ourselves, to become attached to those that share our interests and only those people, we’ve lost perspective. We’ve lost the ability to tell the difference between the beauty of these things we watch and their importance to the world. In doing so, we’ve allowed those in charge to dictate how we should feel about these things we love and who “deserves” the rewards we give them. It’s time to take back our sports for the people that matter: the fans.

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