Unsportsmanlike Conduct

For a few days in early February, Americans seemed surprised to discover that the entertainment industry peddles raunchy behavior over the public airwaves to a vast and impressionable audience. The Super Bowl halftime debacle, or, more to the point, the outrage the debacle inspired, prompted more than a few parents to wonder where everybody else has been for the last few years.

There is no reason to reprise the particulars of the now-famous controversy, except to observe that were it not for a single outrageous incident, the rest of the game’s halftime show might have passed without comment. And there’s the real outrage, because the Super Bowl halftime show served up only a small sampling of the lewd and grotesque images that invade the nation’s living rooms every day. Produced by the nihilists of MTV, the show featured and indeed celebrated explicit lyrics, sexual innuendo and antisocial behavior. It is sad to note that few commented on just how offensive the show was even without the Janet Jackson display. Apparently we’ve gotten used to this sort of thing.

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Sadder still, at least for naïve souls like myself, is the realization that big-time sports can no longer be considered a refuge from the excesses of popular culture. Indeed, the sports industry has become just another arm of Entertainment Inc., and as such contributes to the endless coarsening of American culture. At first blush, this would seem to be an odd statement. Some would argue, no doubt, that any culture that celebrates athletic prowess as ours does is, by definition, degraded. While it is true that nobody will ever mistake the Super Bowl or the World Series for high art (although they do have their operatic moments), I would argue that until recently sports, at least, offered a G-rated island of inspiration in a swirling sea of R-rated pop culture. Yes, there have been times when televised sports slipped into PG-13 country, especially if you’re a good lip reader. For the most part, however, the games rarely had parents scrambling for the remote to zap an MTV-like image.

But that is no longer true. The Super Bowl fiasco demonstrated what sports fans and parents have known for some time: the smarmy and self-indulgent values and attitudes of pop culture have infiltrated the nation’s playing fields. Athletes once were considered role models, in ways that mere actors or singers or even artists never were. They were thought to embody valuessportsmanship, a dedication to excellencethat we wished to pass on to our kids. Many athletes, of course, were as flawed as any of us off the field. But all we saw was their achievements on the field or in the arena. And what we saw, we admired.

In today’s world of shameless self-promotion and celebrity worship, where fame is fame no matter how it is achieved, dutiful parents are well advised to monitor those nightly sports highlights shows in the same way they might screen movies, sitcoms and unwanted e-mail. The image of today’s athlete is not far removed from the images of those so-called entertainers at the Super Bowl. The most successful and certainly the most famous are often the most outrageous, those with the most offensive attitudes, those who know how to call attention to themselves by any means possible. Sportsmanship does not play on ESPN’s SportsCenter; sportsmanship does not win huge endorsement deals. But when Latrell Sprewell, a journeyman basketball player, assaulted and choked his coach several years ago, he landed a multimillion-dollar sneaker endorsement.

Off the field, the corporate interests that control most sports franchises have greedily collected millions of dollars from companies whose products are not necessarily suitable for young audiences. I simply cannot watch a game with my kids without keeping the remote handy. The commercials, including the vulgar beer ads, are not fit for a family audience. Again, if you watched the Super Bowl, you know precisely what I mean.

It is hard to imagine another industry so willingly conspiring in the degradation of its own product. Most businesses jealously guard their brand, their image. But the professional sports industry has jettisoned the old, starchy images of sportsmanship and fair play for the modern ideal of buzz and bluster. Obviously it’s all about money, but I suspect the short-term gains may yet yield a long-term loss. Many parents I know have sworn off the teams and heroes of their youthbut not the games themselves. Rather than pay enormous amounts of money to have their sensibilities shocked at a major league baseball game, they go to family-friendly minor league games. Friends of mine often are in the stands cheering for St. Peter’s College and Seton Hall University, but they have yet to set foot inside the Meadowlands Arena to see the New Jersey Nets. (That’s not to say that big-time college sports are pristine, as any sports fan knows.)

I believe a fan backlash is imminent and will result in the folding of major-league franchises in baseball, hockey and basketball. The excesses, the selling out of old-fashioned ideals and the deliberate scorning of family audiences will, I believe, drive the core audience for sports to more wholesome venues.

Maybe we’ll even stop watching games and actually play them. A couple of days ago, my kids asked me if I’d join them in a game of pond hockey.

Well, it has been a few years, and I’m not sure if the old legs can handle it. But it sure beats sitting on the couch watching millionaires play the game.

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