YEAR-END SPORTS OP-ED: Sports Crazy (or Just Crazy About Things That Matter Very Little)

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon

By Arthur Solomon

Hopefully, our country is emerging from years of economic disasters, beginning with the horrific events of and the horrendous betrayal of the U.S. economy by Wall Street’s “masters of the universe,” whose credo seems to be “as long as we get ours," as evidenced by the quick recovery of their salaries while much of the economy is still in intensive care as we enter 2015.

People are still in recovery from losing everything by being misled into believing that they could afford houses that they couldn’t. Also many high and middle-income jobs disappeared and may never return as companies seek tax havens and low-wage employees overseas.  Adults have been forced to return to their parent’s houses and college students often find their diplomas are as worthless as the stock certificates hawked by brokers masquerading as financial experts.

But what often was the talk and read of the day during 2014?  Will Roger Goodell survive as commissioner of the National Football League because of his lax handling of spousal and child abuse cases? Does Goodell care about anything but “protecting the shield?”  Should Ray Rice be given another chance, as so many other NFL wrongdoer have been? Who is the better quarterback:  Tom Brady, Arron Rodgers or Peyton Manning? How good will A-Rod be when he comes back from his suspension?  Is Tiger Woods through? Or as the defenders of the NFL proclaim, spousal and child abuse is a societal problem, not just an NFL problem.  (This reminds me of what defenders of wrong doings by athletes used to say: “What athletes do reflects behavior in society.”  Except the average Joe or Jane doesn’t pull down those multi-million dollars paychecks for hitting a baseball, throwing a football or sinking a jumper.)  

Now don’t get me wrong. I like sports. My first job as a reporter was covering sports, before moving on to non-Toy Departments, as sports sections used to be called.   Since jumping the fence to the PR agency side as newspapers disappeared, I’ve managed and played key roles on national and international sports marketing and non sports accounts before, during and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, and also traveled internationally as a media advisor to high-ranking foreign government officials.

During my sports marketing career, sports have been promoted as if it is all milk and honey.  But  reality shows that sports isn’t and never was what athletic cabals, marketers, PR and ad agencies portray it as: an integral element of society that brings out the best in people.  That would be nice, if true.  But the many actions of athletes, team owners, leagues, coaches and governments disprove that depiction of sports.

Here are just a few examples:

Sports have always been used as a propaganda tool by governments:  the Nazi Berlin Olympics, the U.S. and Russian boycotts of each others Olympic Games, the Chinese Olympics and the Sochi Olympics provide prima facie evidenceEven the notorious human rights denier dictator Idi Amin of Uganda acknowledged the sports craze by hosting Pele, the great soccer star, during a state visit in 1976.

The obsession with sports is good news for the sports business crowd, including sponsors, advertising and PR agencies that see little wrong with what they, the leagues, the International Olympic Committee or the athletes do, like the excessive promotions of alcoholic beverages or accepting sports-induced medical problems. And the sports craze is prominently aided by the supposedly objective media.

The ugly side of sports is not limited to the college or pro ranks.

For years, young children have been physically abused by coaches who require them to perform athletic feats before their bodies are sufficiently developed, resulting in injuries. For years, parents have behaved unsportsmanlike at youth events, instilling the "win at all cost" attitude in their children that pervades professional sports and their minor leagues, the colleges, too many of which elevate sports above learning.  For years, the IOC has left cities in financial distress, washing its hands of the mess after the games.  For years, football players suffered concussions that until recently were largely ignored by team owners, coaches, team physicians and the pro leagues' hierarchy. For years, stadiums have been constructed with little safety concerns for the athletes or for citizens’ tax dollars. For years, athletes were given second, third and fourth chances for substance abuse and violent conduct that

probably would have resulted in prosecutions or loss of jobs for us non-athletes, because teams and leagues said "it was a personal matter and not team-related."

Have we morphed into a society that idolizes sports heroes to forget the real problems facing ourselves and our country?  The idolization of athletes reached the point that when Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox was honored (in 2010) by Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) for his long career in baseball other senators also stopped by for the ceremony in the Capitol, including Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Bipartisanship at last, in a situation when it matters not.

Want unequivocal proof that we have become a sports crazy society?  Think back to the absurd media hullabaloo (in 2010) regarding the LeBron James signing that continued right on to his first game back in Cleveland.  And on July 11, 2010, the New York Times, on page eight in its Week in Review section, devoted four of five Op- Ed articles to the James and soccer’s World Cup ballyhoo, despite it being a week that six more U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.  Also, in 2011, despite Congress slashing funds for needed social programs, millions of dollars for military sponsorship of motor sports were declared sacrosanct.  

The sports craze didn't go unnoticed by President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.  During his State of the Union speech in 2009, Obama said, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." And in 2010, The New York Times quoted Clinton saying that if Americans cared about the working of our government as much as they did about sports, they would be focused on facts. 

But maybe the most convincing evidence of the sports craze was when fanatics paid to purchase infield dirt from the game in which Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit (mixed with spit from the other ballplayers?), and during his farewell tour last season where anything Jeter touched became a marketable item. 

Despite all the travails of the NFL, as long as the money keeps rolling in and sports fanatics and marketers care more about what happens on the field than off the grid, none of the media-celebrated team owners have followed the lead of baseball’s Branch Rickey, when the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers decided a wrong must be righted and signed Jackie Robinson to a major league contract.

Maybe some day at least one NFL team owner will have the courage to admit publicly that for years the league was wrong in covering up concussion problems that resulted from its “game.”  And maybe some day at least one team owner will say that the commissioner was wrong, when for years he  doled out slap-on-the -wrist punishments to players who caused bodily harm to their family and strangers.  And maybe some day at least one team owner will say, “We need a new commissioner.”

And, perchance, when writing about the steroids, concussions and physical abuses committed by players, instead of congratulating the baseball and football commissioners for “cleaning up their games,” sports journalists will always include in their commentaries and stories that for many years  

the commissioners were accessories to the brain damage done to players   and the violent crimes of players by looking the other way.

So as we are about to enter 2015, what will the biggest sports story of the year be?  I’d wager a couple of bucks on one of the following: the continuing investigations by the feds about the use of painkillers in NFL teams’ locker rooms so players will not feel the affects of body-punishing blows during games; Congress holding hearings on the NFL deciding to be the supreme judge and jury in handing out punishment in violence cases instead of letting it be decided by civil authorities and the NFL Players Association bringing legal actions against the NFL for violating bargaining agreements.

And what will be the most disingenuous and ludicrous sports statements of 2014?  I don’t think anything can top the NFL’s Goodell’s comments that he had to learn from others how serious a problem domestic violence is (despite it being in the news for many, many years).

Not too many years ago being able to excel in reading, writing and arithmetic were considered the pathways to success.  Today, in our sports crazy society, a low high school or college ERA or a high BA is celebrated more than a B.A. or B.S.  That’s too bad.  

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Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.


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