All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1992

Sports: The Great American Surrogate

Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.

There are many who trace the birth of big government to Franklin Roosevelt. While there is some merit in this, serious investigation will prove that the New Dealers were pikers when it comes to all-pervading, suffocating, nose-in-your-business big government.

The real monster was born in 1953 with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now Health and Human Services. HEW turned out to be a masterpiece of unwieldy bureaucracy that would grow to more than 100,000 employees and yield the Department of Education as a spinoff, like something to do on a slow day.

We have now completed nearly four decades of really big government, and it is clear that we are no better off for it. It is interesting, though, to note the parallel course of organized sports in this period. As the federal government has expanded, we have also seen the sports explosion: domed stadiums, Monday Night Football, seven-figure salaries, huge signing bonuses, and incredible television contracts. While federal, state, and local governments have been regulating just about every aspect of everyday life, the sports industry has grown to enormous size.

In baseball we saw the first two-million attendance figure in Milwaukee in 1954, followed by three more years in which this figure was reached. It was finally topped by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who eventually passed the three-million mark and then set a record of 3,600,000 in 1982. Major league baseball has expanded from 16 to 26 teams—soon to be 28—and only four of the pre-1953 stadiums are essentially as they were. The rest are either new or have been extensively remodeled.

Professional basketball was really born during this period, although it dates back to 1898. It was, however, a game played in high school gyms and National Guard armories until after World War II, when two leagues merged to form the NBA. The sport would soon feature the highest paid athletes in the world and present them in the Forums, Omnis, and Spectrums of today.

College football, already a force to be reckoned with, has shown phenomenal growth during this time, and more than twice the number of schools are fielding teams as in the “golden age” of Thorpe and Grange. It is playing before packed stadiums every week. The same is true in professional football, with the Super Bowl being the top television attraction of the year.

All of this has happened since the formation of HEW and its attendant big government. The parallel just cannot be ignored. Is there a connection? I think so, and the logic is that success invariably follows need. It is a simple truism that the better mousetrap is bought by people whose old traps aren’t doing the job.

With sports we see a definite need fulfilled. In another time, but well within the memory of middle-aged people, business was conducted by certain rules, unwritten but well understood. There was a system of rewards and punishments that benefited the industrious and worked to the detriment of the indolent. There was a way of doing things that was known and accepted, even by the losers. Now all this has been swept away in a big, mushy world of affirmative action, OSHA, discrimination suits, and protests for every conceivable cause. While never black and white, a onetime world of easily distinguishable dark and light grays is now a mélange of smoky middle-gray, where good isn’t really all that good and bad isn’t really bad at all, just misunderstood.

This is where sports enters the picture with something that we understand, represented by two teams competing under the same rules and resulting in a winner and a loser. It gives us back our dark and light grays. Anyone who has spent a frustrating day trying to cope with a mountain of regulations can come home, turn on the television set, and see something that is clear-cut and understandable: honest, straight-on competition.

First, he sees a team in which the coach or manager is allowed to play his best people. No one starts because he came from a broken home, nor are there any rules requiring representation by sex, race, or place of birth. This alone can be enormously satisfying after a day in the business world.

In sports we see clear and easily understood rewards and punishments. Grab a face mask and you are penalized; carry the ball over the goal line and you get a touchdown. A player can run as fast, jump as high, and throw as far as human limitations will allow, and there is no one to bring him down to the level of those who aren’t as good. People are free to excel.

We also see a true evaluation of worth. A .300 batting average says something. No one gets extra points for growing up in a tough neighborhood. Statistics are a record of performance. Twenty wins tells us that a man can pitch, and forty homers says that he has power. He is paid accordingly, and everyone understands why one player makes more than another.

The simple truth is that organized sports fills a need in the American competitive psyche that is lacking in the business world. What government has taken away, the Yankees, Bears, and Lakers have put back. We are a people who want to see good work rewarded, transgressions punished, and books balanced. We have turned to sports to find these things. It is a world that people understand and a world that people want. A touchdown is a touchdown, a home run is a home run, and a slam dunk is two points for the slammer.

Sports is our substitute, a surrogate for the world we lost when someone decided that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was a good idea. Athletic competition has become a replacement for the world we once knew and that many of us sorely want back.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.