Is Money Killing The Love Of The Game?

Yesterday, I had J. David Herman on my podcast (audio-only on iHeartRadio) and we talked about baseball. One of the topics that we touched on was money and its impact on the game. Mostly, it was about the massive size of the contracts players are getting. But we also touched on how much ticket prices have risen and how hard it is for a family of four to even go to a game.

Shortly after taping the interview, Andrew Luck of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts retired from the game at the age of 29. He cited that he’d lost his joy for playing due to the injuries he seemed to be constantly battling the last few seasons. Then came Ron Gronkowski, who retired after last year from the New England Patriots, who said he too had lost his joy for playing the game. Like Luck, he cited the injuries he battled as being the cause.

For them, injuries took a toll. But I’m wondering if a small part of it might also be the money aspect. They’ve got all the money they need now and won’t have to worry about making another dime. So why not retire and enjoy it while they are young enough to do so?

But there is another aspect to the money-side of sports. Getting that big contract seems to have replaced playing for the pure love of the game itself. Ezekiel Elliott has two more years left on his current contract, yet he may not be playing when the season opens next weekend. He’s in Mexico, holding out for a larger contract. He’s not the only player to do so and it has happened in the past many times.

We see parents sending their kids to sports camps at extremely early ages, driving them to become the next “star” in whatever sport they are participating in. Earl Woods had his son swinging a golf club before he got out of training diapers it seems. There was a TV show recently dedicated to covering football players in Texas – at the Pee Wee level. We used to have just ESPN as the only 24/7 sports network. Now, I wouldn’t even want to try to count up how many there are. And that doesn’t even include the Internet and the blogosphere.

cash-clipart-6A recent story in the news here in Omaha highlighted how much money the Big 10 schools spent on recruiting football players. This is just for the one sport out of all of the sports offered by these NCAA schools. Millions, per school, is spent each year trying to land that big-name player before the other schools do. There are over 100 schools in major college sports in its top division alone. There are several divisions at that.

TV contracts add even more millions into the mix. Games which used to be played in the bright sunshine – yes, I’m looking at you baseball – are now moved under the lights, Because that is prime-time television time and the networks and stations can charge more for those beer and razor blades ads.

Stadiums and arenas, that are more than capable of seating tens of thousands, some built barely a decade ago are now considered too small and obsolete. More millions are spent on their replacements. And in another decade, will they too become obsolete and need to be replaced?

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Texas Stadium on game day. It’s now an empty lot in Irving, TX.

I look at “Jerry World”, Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. I’ve been to a game there and I admit, it is an amazing building. And that monster TV screen that hangs over the field? Wow.

But I’d be more than happy to sit in Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas and watch the Cowboys play. Well, provided they hadn’t torn it down a few years ago. Luckily, I bought the seat I actually sat in the last time I was at a game. Its hanging on my wall, the seat and seat back that is, I didn’t buy the metal frame so I could sit in it.

I miss Crosley Field, Arlington Stadium, Tiger Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Candlestick Park and all of the old places where the legends of the game once roamed. But they weren’t able to draw the required revenue. Money trumps nostalgia.

And don’t even get me started on sports betting and fantasy leagues.

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Paul Larson (12) playing for the Univ. of California Bears in 1952.

I once interviewed Paul Larson for my book, From The Fields, and he mentioned that when he was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals to play quarterback in the NFL back in the 1950s, the then NFL Commissioner sat him down and explained to Paul that he was expected to have full-time employment during the off-season. This was expected of every player because they weren’t paid the ridiculous amounts of money we see even mediocre players get today.

You didn’t play sports for the money back then. And it seemed like the players – and the fans – enjoyed it more.

I wonder sometimes if some of today’s kids are only playing because they are being pushed into it by their parents, looking to land that multi-million dollar deal when the kid graduates from college and turns pro?

And when that is the primary goal, is the kid playing because they genuinely love to play the game, or because they feel it is their duty to?

I’m not about to sit here and demand that we revoke money entirely from sports. That would be an impossible demand. Sports have become big business and business demands profit and players demand a sizeable chunk of the sports money pie. They should, it’s their bodies on the line when you get right down to it.

But I can’t help but wonder what the sports world would be like today if those big piles of cash had never become as important to everyone involved as they have.

I have a feeling I’d like that world a lot better than the one we have today.

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