Monday, June 09, 2008

The Good Old Days Part Two

Despite my post a few weeks back in which I detailed a search for "The Good Old Days," I'm inherently skeptical things are any better or worse now than they ever have been. Conventional wisdom seems to be that the world is a worse place now than it used to be. I saw my 80-something grandpa this morning, and he took the occasion to remark upon people these days not being responsible (for the record, he wasn't implicating me, but rather a customer of my dad's business who ended up in jail leaving behind a Uhaul truck full of stuff. Long story.) On the other hand, it's not just grandparents who tend to espouse such theories--I've read a number of essays by teen-agers and young adults in the last few years theorizing that society is in a precipitous decline.

Despite my unwillingness to make such ground pronouncements about life in general, I am willing to committ to a sweeping proclamation about an aspect of society. Sports in America just isn't as good as it once was.

I've harbored the suspicion for awhile, but a confluence of events this last week or so served to convince me. Between the Belmont Stakes, the French Open, the NBA Finals, and Major League Baseball, I pine for the way things used to be. Furthermore, I can pinpoint where things went wrong. I can summarize the problem in one word: "innovation". If we had left well enough alone, we would be more entertained.

Starting with the sport of kings, recent tragic fatalities have served to spotlight certain "innovations" in breeding that may have led to faster but less durable horses. Back in the "good old days" horses were bred to run, whereas now many are bred to breed. In other words, as more money comes from stud fees than race purses, horses are retiring to stud earlier. The problem with this is that we don't get a full sense of their durability, the way we used to when they would run for several years past the age of three. Big Brown's Belmont disappointment may have been the most dramatic, but he has been far from the only horse in recent times to falter in the third leg of the Triple Crown, which just happens to be the lengthiest race of the three. Until things revert to the way they used to be, I don't see this Triple Crown draught ending anytime soon.

I bring up the French Open not to use it as an example of what is wrong with tennis, so much as to point out how other events pale in comparison. For years people have been speculating as to why tennis is so much less popular than it was years ago. At a family gathering I attended this weekend, I was tossing around a tennis ball with a young cousin when someone brought up John McEnroe's name. Given that McEnroe was last a force on the tour 20-25 years ago, and given that he still is more recognizable than Roger Federer in an average American household, one has to consider the sport of tennis seriously passe. And while many have decried the lack of personalities in tennis recently, I (and this is not an original thought by any means) peg the problem squarely on the existence of high tech rackets that kill the length of rallies. The clay courts of the French Open serve to somewhat alleviate the problem, but until things go back to the way they were, I don't see Americans giving tennis much love.

As for basketball, if I were David Stern I would ask ESPN to please not show the 1980s Lakers/Celtics games on ESPN Classics. It only serves to show how much more entertaining basketball used to be then. The paradox of the NBA is that one reason it is less entertaining is because the players are more physically sculpted. Watching relative stringbeans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parrish patrol the post in the 1980s reruns, one can only shake his or her head and wonder how dominant Shaq would have been in that era. On second thought, Shaq might have had trouble getting up and down the floor back then. The more freewheeling less disciplined style that typified the 80s might spotlight a lack of coaching innovation, but boy, it was fun to watch.

Finally, I've blogged about baseball's problems before. Again it relates to players getting bigger. Back when weight training (and yes, steroids) weren't as well understood, and players were smaller, less home runs were hit, and baseball was more fun to watch.

But there is one sport which can only beneift from people getting larger, and it happens to be a sport where innovation probably won't come into play. After all, there are only so many ways you can beat somebody up. And until horse racing, tennis, basketball, and baseball figure out a way to return to the past, the Ultimate Fighting series will reap the ratings benefits.


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