In recent months, I've taken on a variety of current sports issues through this column. My topics have ranged from concussions in sports, to pay-for-play in college athletics, to the racist nature of the Redskins nickname, to tyrannical and demeaning coaches, to fighting in the NHL, to the professionalization of youth sports, to the decline of physical education in our schools, to name but a few.
There certainly is no shortage of important issues in the world of sports to address. Unfortunately, there aren't enough people trying to address them.
We need more sports activists and reformers in this country. But unfortunately, most people who love sports don't want to get involved. They're afflicted with what Howard Cosell termed "Sports Syndrome."
Sports Syndrome is a condition that describes people who are diehard sports fans and participants; people who love sports unconditionally, and who prefer the blind sanctification of sports to a fair analysis of sports' impact -- pro and con -- on our culture. People beset with this affliction too often look at sports through the starry eyes of their youth, when, from that perspective, all was well with the world of sports.
"It's tough because when it comes to sports people basically want to be entertained," says veteran sports journalist Robert Lipsyte. "They just want this pleasurable escape from reality."
The fact is, sport is a huge industry and a major socio-cultural institution. It impacts our society in numerous, significant ways, across all demographic categories. As such, we need to look at sports seriously, and conscientiously examine today's sports systems and infrastructure so that we can work to enhance the positives and mitigate the negatives.
But we can only do that if we individually and collectively overcome Sports Syndrome.
As a society, it is the thinking that sports are nothing more than fun and games, and thus, not worthy of serious analysis -- that has continued to haunt the development of an honest, in-depth exploration of modern sport and its social, cultural, economic, health, and legal ramifications. We need to separate our love for the games themselves, from our concern for the issues surrounding the games.
That holds true for players, coaches, administrators, fans, journalists, educators and politicians.
Yes, politicians belong on that list. They've allowed our professional sports leagues to, in effect, operate as self-regulated monopolies, free from anti-trust oversight and other restraints. Our elected officials regularly give the wealthy owners of professional sports franchises sweetheart stadium deals while allowing physical education and intramural sports programs to be slashed. Why? Sports Syndrome.
There is nothing comparable in the United States that impacts our way of life as much as sport does, yet receives such a lack of serious analysis and inquiry. We have hundreds of public policy "think tanks" across the areas of politics, health care, economics, the military, energy, foreign policy, education, etc., yet only a few small entities that would be considered close to being sport policy "think tanks" in any meaningful way.
College professor Bruce Svare became a passionate sports reformer and activist after becoming fed up with the sports abuses he saw on both the local and national levels. He ardently works to get others involved.
"By promoting reforms in countless community, state, regional and national sports organizations, average citizens can be the instruments for change," says Svare. "All causes require this kind of grassroots effort, and sports reform is no different."
Activist sports journalist Dave Zirin agrees.
There are a lot of things the average fan or participant out there can do to make sports more fair and just. We have to stop letting the big honchos of sports set the agenda for the system. We need to make our own demands regarding how sports can be. I think there are three basic ways for people to get involved: 1) Get involved with organizations that are working to make the sports experience better; 2) Get loud and vocal about the sports issues that bother you, locally and nationally; and 3) Pressure lawmakers to step in and be accountable. We all have every legal, moral, and ethical right to be heard on these issues.
We need a sports revolution, according to Lipsyte.
"More people are waking up and realizing that we need watchdogs and activists in sports," says Lipsyte. "Each person who cares about sports, through acts of moral courage, needs to work for small changes locally, in their schools, and with their community sports organizations.
"Unless reform starts happening in a small way at the grassroots level with progressive, enlightened people, it's going to be difficult to accomplish. Any revolution starts in the countryside, with the peasants rising up. The influence of the power holders in sports won't change unless the peasants rise up.
"We need courageous individuals who are willing to take a stand with their local sports power brokers -- the little league directors, school sports administrators, etc. We need excited individuals to start reform in every state, to build state-by-state grassroots organizations. If we focus on sports reform at the lowest levels there will be positive ramifications all the way up to the pro level."
Citizenship through sports activism.
That's the ticket.