Here we are, in the best window of the sports year: the NCAA’s March Madness, baseball’s Opening Day nearing, quickly followed by the Masters golf tournament, and the NHL and NBA seasons in full swing. This excited fan turned on three sports radio talk shows in a row, to find all three breathlessly discussing … NFL quarterbacks. As though after five months of the actual season and playoffs, plenty of us fans weren’t already sick and tired of the same guesswork drivel about one player out of 24 positions (including kickers), one player out of 53 on a roster.
Blame it on the National Basketball Association. Its marketing mavens figured out some time ago that focusing attention on a single superstar was a big-time moneymaker, in more ticket sales, TV dollars and promotional gimmicks. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant— and many others, since their heydays — overshadowed not only their teammates but also the franchises they played for.
In a five-man sport, where one or two brilliant players can lead teams to championships, the technique isn’t senseless. These days, it works even in the absence of success. In an era when the Los Angeles Lakers are a losing, barely relevant franchise, we hear about them incessantly because they have the fading but still otherworldly talented LeBron James.
Transported to other sports, like football, the elevation of the individual performer over team considerations irritates by crowding out more interesting topics. But it’s also discouraging; in a society permeated by sports figures who embody self-absorption over collective commitment, who cultivate their personal “brands” at the expense of collective success, we are sending unhelpful messages to a culture in need of better examples.
Is the American work ethic slipping? It won’t be buttressed by the sight of NBA players sitting out regular-season games to “pace” themselves for the playoffs. The practice, as such behaviors do, is drifting downward. In recent years, star players in college football have increasingly declined to participate in bowl games — abandoning their teams — to eliminate any chance of injury and save themselves for possible professional opportunities.
It’s hard to resist asking: Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? That spectacular player was every bit the celebrity that even today’s lesser talents aspire to be, but he wore the mantle very differently. He almost never sat out a game, even when the Yankees were as usual cruising to another pennant, once explaining, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”
Are American employees these days more demanding of personal perquisites, less engaged with others at work and less loyal to the enterprises that pay them than they once were? Watching big-name athletes walk away from contracts they freely signed, often for unimaginable amounts of money, surely doesn’t cause second thoughts about such behavior.
And then there’s the matter of simple personal conduct. Watching third-graders “woofing,” hushing imaginary crowds and otherwise imitating their self-promoting television heroes, one only hopes they encounter an old-school Little League coach who will drum the strutting out of them before it becomes an ingrained habit. There may be no “I” in “team,” but there’s also no “us” in “me.”
A top athlete can consort with criminals, brandish guns in public and litter the landscape with illegitimate children in whose lives he has no intention of playing a father’s role, seldom with career consequences.
Of course, there are also plenty of high-profile players — Stephen Curry and Patrick Mahomes, for example — who, admirably, haven’t succumbed to the me-first temptations of modern sports.
But all this has caused me to have an even greater appreciation for women’s sports and for their rising visibility on the media landscape. Whether at the amateur or professional levels, graciousness and team play predominate over individual histrionics. It’s hard to recall many examples of brazen personal misconduct. Today’s female stars appear to retain a sense of responsibility to inspire not just athletic interest but also responsible, admirable conduct in the young women observing them.
NBA star Charles Barkley once memorably declared, “I am not a role model,” noting it is parents who have that duty, not that he was free to set a negative example for the young people captivated by his terrific basketball skills. Still, one can hope that the examples set by icons such as Mia Hamm and Tamika Catchings, and their successors, occasionally register with young men as well as their female contemporaries.