Professional Sports, Ethics, and a Question of Priorities

In the interest of avoiding a long string of back-and-forth comments, I’ve decided this one should just have its own post.  This is in response to Jeff’s response to comments made by myself in response to Chase’s post from last week.  Got all that?  Good.

First and foremost:  Jeff, commendable rebuttal; it was well thought and well written.  Coming from the guy that loudly (and frequently) proclaims his own general literary ineptitude, it was anything but inept.  Well played, sir, well played indeed.  That being said, of course I feel the need of my own rebuttal, partly because there are still certain things I disagree with, and partly in the interest of maintaining that notorious Chouinard stubbornness.  However, I do agree with you on a few accounts, so I’ll try to keep this short (good luck with that, right?).

I absolutely agree that professional sports are a business, and as such, their job is to make money; hence the qualifying term “professional”.  At the same time, and as professionals of every other industry will tell you, being a professional doesn’t give you carte blanche to do whatever you want and call it business.  Being a professional, whether it be an athlete, engineer, doctor, lawyer, or whatever, you are bound to a code of conduct and a set philosophy (called ethics; remember those, America?) that dictate your obligations to your clients/customers/fans, as well what is and isn’t considered professional behavior – in a perfect world, of course.  This is why (again, in theory) we have professional organizations such as the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Bar Association, and the American Medical Association.  Now, obviously these institutions have other functions besides just codifying and enforcing ethics in their respective professions; nonetheless, this is a big part of what these associations do and a big part of why they were founded in the first place.  The same should be true of the professional sports league associations; however, like all corporate entities, they seem to get caught up in the cycle of making more and more money each year, at the cost of losing sight of their founding principles.  Basically, it comes down to a question of priorities.  When the priorities change from providing the sport in a pure, unadulterated form for the enjoyment of the people and the betterment of the community, to bringing in as many dollars a year as possible, regardless of what it does to the actual game, the players, and/or the fans…this is the problem.  And here I think I’m getting back to the message of Chase’s original post:  the game is no longer pure, because it has been turned into Big Business.  As to your argument that “[Pro sports teams] have one obligation.  Make butt loads of money,” it’s exactly this type of thinking that is ruining the sports we love.  Their obligation should be, first and foremost:  Play the game the way it was meant to be played, and make it so that people are able to enjoy it, without creating a culture of greed and ego that will inevitably corrupt.  This is why leagues like the NFL were founded in the first place, and I doubt that Jim Thorpe and Leo Lyons would be exactly thrilled to see the amount of control businessmen have over the game and the league they worked so hard to cultivate.  Of course, lacking a time machine, I can’t actually ask them their opinion.  Yes, the leagues need to make money to continue to operate.  No, I don’t think the players should work for free.  Nonetheless, I think that we’re allowing greed to overcome the reason these sports exist in the first place, which is to entertain people, bring people together, and make a positive contribution to our culture.  If they make a positive contribution to our local economy and their own bank accounts as well, no one can blame them for this, and I’m not trying to do so.  It’s great what a local sports team can do for a city; hell, you know I’d love to see a pro hockey team here in Seattle, and we of all cities should have one.  Do you know which was the first American team to win the Stanley Cup?  The Seattle Metropolitans.  If any city in the US needs to have a pro hockey team, it’s Seattle; as you said however, we are a city that seems to care f#*%-all for pro sports (I’m paraphrasing here).

Regarding your comment that it’s not the responsibility of pro sports leagues to make sure our poor, thankless, and underpaid teachers are paid a fair wage, I wholeheartedly agree.  I never said it was their responsibility, nor was I arguing that it’s their responsibility to cure cancer and end war.  What I was driving at (and what you and Jason seem to have overlooked in quickly jumping to the leagues’ defense) is that we, as a society, have completely skewed our priorities in favor of an industry that doesn’t do any of the above-mentioned things (the Christmas Truce was, after all, a result of Christmas and the culmination of the live-and-let-live philosophy that had been growing globally during World War I – the soccer game among combatants was just a happy side-effect).  This is the entire point of my previous comments and this post.  We should be worshiping teachers, firemen, policemen, scientists, engineers, and doctors.  Instead, we venerate pro athletes, actors, and rock stars.  This, my friends, is a true question of priorities.  If we, as a society, faced extinction tomorrow, which of these two groups would be the ones in a position to prevent it?  Unless we’re faced with an alien species of exceptionally good ballers challenging us to a game of winner-take-planet HORSE, I think the answer is clear.  So when you say blame the deadbeat parents, or our elected officials, or the fans that can’t control their anger or remember that it’s just a game…this is, in fact, what I’ve been doing all along.  I’m not blaming the institution for what we’ve turned it into, I’m blaming the people that have made it this way, and I’m pointing a finger at why, in my humble opinion, it has become this way.  You can’t blame cancer for the death of a loved one; you can’t blame war for the devastation it causes; you can’t blame ignorance on the ignorant (leaving aside willful ignorance, another thing at which we Americans excel).  No, you can only blame the cause.  Greed is what has caused the loss of purity Chase lamented in his post that started this whole thing.  So cap the friggin’ salaries, scale back the industry to a more manageable size, split the damn leagues so we have something like pro football the way it began in the ’20s, where the athletes played for love of the game (note that I’m using football in the analogy – no copyright infringement, Misters Costner and Raimi), and not for a multi-million dollar contract.  Bring back hockey the way it was before the ’94 lockout, or better yet, before 1926, when the Stanley Cup was actually a “challenge” cup to be awarded to the best amateur team, and not solely the championship trophy of the NHL.  This meant, essentially, that the Cup was open to all comers, and skill and heart were the only things a team needed to win, not a cordon of lawyers, business executives, PR reps, and accountants.  There is a reason why all the professional sports leagues started from the ground up: because the games used to speak for themselves, and people loved them for the excitement they brought, the skill of the players, and how the games brought us together.  Remember that Saturday night baseball game back when you were a kid?  Back before you knew anything about player contracts, league commissioners, salary caps, or steroids?  That is the reason we love sports; that is the way sports were meant to be seen and played; that is the innocence we have lost.

So when you say “vote with your wallet”, I am.  Is there a better way than by not giving money (which is, we agree, what they’re after) to something I don’t believe in?  Maybe by saying why I don’t believe in it, which is in fact what this is all about.  It’s not meant as an attack on several of my friends’ choice of entertainment, nor is it the childish complaint of “No fair!  I’m not playing!”  Just because the world isn’t fair doesn’t mean that we don’t have a right to want it to be and the responsibility of striving to make it that way.  So go vote for more funding for education programs already.  We might still have a chance of preventing this country from descending to the level of Idiocracy.


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