Ever since television stumbled onto the fact that athletes could be as popular as Uncle Miltie, the One Great Scorer in sports seems to have operated under the rule: "It matters not who wins or loses but how you sell the game." Ordinary golf tournaments become classics; tennis resembles pro wrestling; harmless hype evolves into lies.
Simply being a sports fan involves a degree of naivete, a willingness to be led into believing that, say, George Allen is a superior human because he coaches the Redskins. Or that the greatest sporting thrill is watching Jack Nicklaus or Reggie Jackson when in truth, it is repairing your own ball mark on the green or coaching third base in T-ball when your son is rounding second and the outfielder has disappeared from sign chasing his hit.
By now even the most gullible fan ought to be at least somewhat jaded, especially since the Fight Game now seems to be the networks vs. Don King, the NFL and NBA offer less meaningful seasons at ever-higher prices and losers in "winner-take-all" tennis matches get $150,000.
It is possible to be both promoter and reporter, but not for the sort of cash the networks dangle before the blossoming crop of hustlers in the wide world of sports; not when the networks themselves lay the groundwork for lying by creating all manner of Phonysport.
ABC, the unquestioned leader in Phonysport, got its nose bloodied by the U.S. Boxing Championships; CBS, which hired the fellow who brought off the ABC stunts, now has been embarrassed by a good tennis match that apparrently had to be a galactical tennis match to sell.
Jimmy Conoors vs. Ilie Nastase, March 6, seemed attractive enough, except that sort of thing seems to take place every other day. Even what they reportedly were guaranteed, Connors $500,000 and Nastase $150,000, would seem enough of an attraction.
Not really. Even though thousands of high-school basketball games draw as many customers as sold-out pro tennis finals, something more dramatic had to be connected. It was promoted as a $250,000 winner-take-all affair; it was nothing of the sort.
The wonderful news here yesterday was that Alfredo Evangelista can in fact see Muhammad Ali. Reports of a cataract condition were false, a Maryland doctor said. Whether Spanish Rocky can see Ali's punches May 16 in Capital Centre is another matter.
Whatever, the spiciest bouts at the moment are the ones among CBS, NBC and ABC, with the main event all three against King. Everyone clearly wants to reap the harvest of interest in boxing after the Montreal Olympics and the last ounce of sass form Ali.
Because Ken Norton beat Ali last year in Yankee Stadium in many, if not the decisive, eyes at ringside, his 12-round test against Duane Bobick Wednesday in Madison Square Garden is considered attractive.
And their shows, the Garden and NBC trumpet, are "clean," although a few hundred showcards managed to show up around New York with Bobick listed as the No. 1 contender in the world. Until near-midnight Wednesday, he still is in the white-hope stage.
The selling of Ali vs. Evangelista is viewed here as only slightly less irritating than much of what has been publicly revealed about Kings other production, the suspended U.S. Boxing Championships. Historically, though, heavyweight champs have been allowed their occasional farces, and the sporting hustlers may well have learned as much from Ali as television.
And he tennis hustlers are reaching for previous unexplored angles Tuesday in Baltimore when the mixed and Bobby Riggs takes on Billie Jean doubles tandem of Rence Richards King and Gardner Mulloy.
Anyone who scoffs at the pro wrestlers these days has not examined the rest of sport lately, has not seen Bowie Kuhn risk pneumonia for television, has not been the NFL add two more losers to its playoff formula, has not seen the slam-dunk contest during the NBA playoffs.
Also, keep in mind that when Lasse Viren immediately sat on the track, took off his shoes and held them over his head after winning the 10,000 meters in Montreal, it was not because his feet hurt. He has a shoe franchise in Finland.
No one needs to give such as tennis' Bill Riordan lessons in hustling. But the mood for much of what has happened in sports lately comes from such as Chris Schenkel's reverential reference to Ben Crenshaw during Saturday's Byron Nelson golf tournament a "classic" without Nicklaus.
"And now here he is," said Schenkel, "our hero."
Fortunately, television now allows Dave Marr on camera now and then, to muse with Dan Jenkins after Crenshaw later sank another birdie putt: "How many times have you seen that little rascal do that?" Play it again, Dave. And again.