Thoughts & Views: The sporting life

The recent passing of Walter Byers, who built up a then-fledgling National Collegiate Athletic Association into a college sports dynamo, brought to mind a theme of American culture that we too often take for granted.

That is the dominance of sports – “amateur” and professional – manifested in our country, not only in terms of fan obsession but, of course, in cold hard cash.

Though he later came to regret what he perceived as the misapplication of the NCAA’s power to exploit “student-athletes,” Byers was responsible for negotiating the mega-buck TV contracts that put bigtime college hoops and football in the driver’s seat.

Division 1 schools reward successful football coaches with mega-million dollar paychecks, money for enormous stadiums and unlimited budgets for equipment and travel.

The National Labor Relations Board has opened the door to union representation for college athletes in a case involving Northwestern University gridiron players. And endorsement deals for college athletes are now on the table, thanks to a federal court ruling now under appeal by the NCAA.

As for the pro ranks, well, they’ve certainly come a long way from the days when players on the gridiron, diamond or hardwood relied on getting their primary income from an off-season job.

Today, team owners play a high-stakes game of labor management with unions and players’ agents to protect their investments and build new arenas in hopes of putting ever more fannies in the seats … with some exceptions.

Government leaders have been steady supporters of the mega-sports empire: For years, Congress allowed the Lords of Baseball to beat the anti-trust rap until Curt Flood’s lawsuit – followed by arbitrator Peter Seitz’s historic decision – broke the chains of the reserve clause and led to free agency.

Recognizing the influence of sporting events among the public, the President typically makes a congratulatory call to the winner of the Super Bowl or invites the World Series champs to the White House as special guests. Cities throw parades to honor their super heros. And so on.

And no wonder: It’s all about the money.

Check this out. An article on “The Impact of Sports on U.S. Economy,” published July 9, 2013, by the website, reported that, “The sports industry as a whole brings roughly $14.3 billion in earnings a year – and that’s not even counting the Niagara of indirect economic activity generated by Super Bowl Sunday …. The industry also contributes 456,000 jobs with an average salary of $39,000 per job.”

So we should not be surprised to learn that, according to federal prosecutors, FIFA officials allegedly committed racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering in demanding millions of dollars in bribes to deliver World Cup venues to host countries over two decades.

What’s happened to the notion that athletes play for the love of the game? I believe that passion still prevails among many players but the reality is that they still want to be rewarded for their labor. So they should get every opportunity to prepare themselves for success.

Fact is, we live in an era of specialization. Want to be proficient in the IT industry? Then you’ve got to familiarize yourself with every computer program in the book and maybe invent one of your own. Want to be a researcher? Name a field of study and you’ll probably find a graduate program dedicated to it.

So it should be with sports. If you have a student enrolling to play baseball or soccer or football, then let that activity be his or her field of study. If you want to include some humanities or applied science as part of the curriculum, okay, but don’t overwhelm the individual. Teach her or him about the history of the sport they’ve signed up for, its chief practitioners, and so forth. Bring in guest lecturers. Show them archival films. Assign them independent research projects. Immerse them in it. Their “lab” sessions, of course, will be on the field of play where their instructors will drill them rigorously and set common core standards for them to meet at their positions. And if they can’t meet the grade, well, then they’ll have to find another line of endeavor.

How will these schools be financed? Each professional sporting organization can dedicate a portion of its profits toward a tax-free building and/or endowment fund. A sports mogul can buy naming rights. I can see it now: The Hal Steinbrenner School for the Advancement of Men & Women on Base Paths.

Think of the great rivalries that will spring up between these great institutions. The Russian state school for ice hockey will pale in comparison.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the men and women who drive the engine of Sport will be tripping over themselves to outdo each other in the Halls of Academe.

– Ron Leir 

Learn more about the writer ...