The true role of sports in American life finds striking expression in the bogus promotion of the World Heavyweight Championship Tennis matches on CBS television. The episode confirms the general impression that sports are a thing apart, a special enclave in the national experience.
The special thing about sports is that, almost alone in American life, they aspire to represent the stark value system associated with pioneer America, national development and free enterprise. In sports, as distinct from real life where misfortune is generally cushioned and achievement mitigated, success is rewarded big, and defeat entails heavy penalties.
The actual story of what on in the heavyweight championship of tennis has been laid out in detail in a report to CBS by its lawyers. The report, a copy of which has been made available to this columnist, is the basis of an investigation into the conduct of CBS executives by the Federal Communications Commission. But far more interesting than the question of their culpability is what the report says about the expectation of sports fans as perceived by sports promoters.
The heavyweight championship of tennis centers on matches between Jimmy Connors and four different challengers. Connors played Rod Laver on Feb. 2, 1975, at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He met John Newcombe in the same place on April 26, 1975, and Manuel Orantes, also at Caesar's Palace, on Feb. 28, 1976. Most recently he played Ilie Nastase on March 5, 1977, in Puerto Rico.
Connors won all the matches. By advance contractual agreement he received $100,000 for beating Laver, about $450,000 for taking Newcombe, $500,000 for the Orantes match and another $500,000 for whipping Nastase.
The losers didn't do too badly either. Laver took away $60,000 from the first match. Newcombe made $280,000, Orantes seems to have cleared $250,000 and Nastase $150,000.
Anyone would suppose that those big sums, not to mention the quality of the matches and the fame of the players, would make a sure-fire success. But that isn't the way the promoters saw it in managing both the pre-match publicity and comment during play.
The publicity for the matches, on the contrary, underplayed the amount going to the winner, and totally forgot about payoffs to the loser. As a result the matches were made to seem like dramatic encounters with an unkind fate winner-take-all events.
Thus in the Connors-Nastase match, one of the announcers, Pat Summerall, acting on information given to him by the promoters, referred three times to prize money of $250,000 and twice to a "winner-take-all" match. One of the advertisements prepared by CBS for the Connors-Newcombe match asserted:
For a Quarter of A Million Dollars Winner-Take-ALL.
The instinct behind this misrepresentation is not in doubt. The purpose was to make the televise matches correspond as much as possible to a life-or-death struggle. Not only would the winner rake in a tidy sum; moreover, the loser would be dumped in the dust, shut out as losers ought to be.
And what, pray tell, recommended that kind of all-or-nothing encounter? the answer is that sports are supposed to be different from reality . Sports are not like the welfare state, where losers get help; not like corporate life, where colegial relations govern everything.
No, sports are an idealized version of the way it was supposed to be in early America. So big chances have to be taken and ample rewards distributed and no room left for losers. And if that doesn't happen, if real life takes over as it does in big-time tennis, then at least there must be preserved the illusion of the illusion.