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When Sports Loses Its Soul
A League of Fans
by RALPH NADER

Why do many serious readers of newspapers go first to the Sports section? Maybe because they want to read about teams playing fun games by sports journalists and columnists, who have more freedom to use imaginative words and phrases than others in their craft.

The trouble is that ever-more organized and commercialized sports are squeezing the fun out of the games. I’m not just referring to struggles between multimillionaire players against billionaire owners–as in the current NFL lockout and the looming NBA imbroglio. I am referring to what our League of Fans Sports Policy Director, Ken Reed, calls the “win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) mentalities, policies and decisions that are resulting in a variety of abuses from the pros all the way to Little League.” When WAAC and PAAC run amok–and what’s best for the players, the fans and the game are shoved aside–“sport begins to lose its soul.”

In his first of ten “League of Fans” reports, Reed makes the case against this “soul sickness” in a 27 page Sports Manifesto (www.leagueoffans.org). The range of endemic and often worsening problems is startling for how often they have been exposed without anything significantly being done about them.

Here is a list of Reed’s choices for civic action:

-Academic corruption in college and high school athletic programs.

-Rampant commercialization from the pros to our little leagues.

-Publicly-financed stadiums for wealthy owners.

-The perversity of forcing loyal fans to purchase personal seat licenses (PSLs) in pro and college football just to have the right to buy season tickets.

-The sports cartel in Division I football known as the Bowl Championship Series
(BCS)–which limits revenues and opportunities (e.g., a legitimate chance at a national championship) for the conferences and schools left on the outside.

-Work stoppages in the professional sports leagues in which fans have no voice.

-Exorbitant ticket and concession prices at taxpayer-funded stadiums (where most, if not all, ticket, concession, merchandise and parking revenues typically go to the franchise owners). In addition, there are also television blackouts from these taxpayer-financed stadiums.

-A focus on elite athletic teams in high schools and middle schools at the expense of diminishing intramural programs and physical education classes for all students.

-The practice of requiring college athletes to pay their own medical bills, even though they were injured while playing for their university.

-Disparities in opportunities for females, disabled individuals, and people of color despite Title IX and other civil rights advances.

-The proliferation of youth club sports organizations that have a financial vs. an educational mission.

-The specialization and professionalization of young athletes at earlier and earlier ages.

-The increasing use of performance-enhancing drugs at all ages, by both males and females.

-The erosion of the core ideals, values and ethics of sports, resulting in escalating incidents of poor sportsmanship.

-An increase in sports injuries, most alarmingly concussions.

-A shocking increase in obesity, accompanied by a decline in physical fitness–especially among our youth.

-Dehumanizing coaches at all levels, most disturbingly, at the youth level.

As a college varsity player, a coach, marketer, teacher and author, Reed is in touch with many worried and upset sports lovers. They include parents, current and retired players, leading analysts, academics, educators, physicians, reporters and civil rights advocates. League of Fans, which I started, wants to build a strong and growing reform movement not just to curb the “excesses of the monied interests,” to use a Jeffersonian phrase, but to open up opportunities for more participatory sports right down to the neighborhood levels. We have too few players and too many spectators–a reality that sports journalism should pay more attention to regularly.

There is a problem afflicting sports journalism and its comparatively immense space and time devoted to professional sports. It goes beyond a largely indifferent attitude toward this imbalance between spectators and participatory sports. Even though the concerns of many sports-lovers are based on the occasional investigatory reports or columns documenting abuses, when people acting as citizens try to do something about them, their efforts receive little, if any media coverage.

So what’s the point to these exposes other than to make readers and viewers angry, cynical or frustrated, if when the readers use this information to follow up and sound the alarm to do something, the sports media looks the other way and gives the space to some athlete who is pouting or showing up late for practice?

Sports journalism has to introspect a little about a larger view of newsworthiness. Otherwise they continue to uncritically cover the big league sports business that, with few exceptions, knows few restraints to its greed and insensitivity toward fans whom they are increasingly turning off.

League of Fans wants to hear from you. E-mail comments/questions to ken.reed@leagueoffans.org or write to League of Fans, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036.

Ralph Nader is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.