It is getting easier and easier to ignore professional sports. In the end, it may be much better to see the reality of it, a sort of Picture of Dorian Gray look at the decaying soul of the thing.
Thursday night felt like an unobstructed look into Death's Robe when reports began crawling across the ticker that David Stern was going to "substantially sanction" Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs for sending home four of the Spurs' marquee players from their game in Miami for purposes of physical recuperation.
The Spurs were at the far end of a nine day road trip and had tired, depleted bodies that needed rest. But the NBA had them on national television tipping against the defending league champions.
It is the "Roman Circus" element of the squabble that gets me down—the sporting entertainment for the corporate aristocracy that management and ownership have conceptualized the game as, which exists as anathema to the high-stakes, long-haul competition to win a championship that coaches, players and true fans thought was the purpose. That is why the sporting fan watches—to see who is best in the end—and they are sympathetic to vital elements of long-term strategy in pursuit of that goal.
Real fans felt there was nothing to forgive Popovich for.
David Stern, the face of the money behind the game, was speaking, as always, for other interests.
The strategy here was simply Popovich trying to manage his team's health, a group with several high-mileage key players.
This is a four-time championship corps with a sunset on the horizon becoming blinding from its low angle. Mercenary players with a "get mine" attitude toward professional sports do not end up on a team like the Spurs.
This is not a troupe of half-trained clowns for the wealthy to blow a meaningless evening half-watching. This is a squad of dedicated professional basketball players and coaches with serious intentions—they are playing to win it all.
Listening to Stern's sacred pledge to punish the Spurs brought rushing back memories of watching the United States national team play Argentina in an exhibition game in Barcelona, Spain over the summer.
The Argentinians had several sizes of corporate advertising patches stuck all over their national uniforms. On their backs, where their names should have been, was a "DirecTV" silk screen patch from end to end. It was hard to look at.
That was in sharp contrast to the United States team, which wore not only stylish heritage uniforms from the 1992 Dream Team era, but whites that were sharply clean and free of all advertising except that which said USA across the front.
Over that same summer the NBA had floated the idea of advertising on their uniforms to generate more revenue. They may do it still. The thought that had gone immediately through my head, before even having the chance to check it, was, "It might be time to stop watching professional sports."
I will not watch with any interest an American game with corporate advertising on the uniforms.
It is as simple as that.
The team, you know, that thing you cheered for above all else, through coaching changes and forced roster turnover with your favorite players leaving to play for rivals and the years rolling by? It was still your team wearing their uniform, and nothing was there to constantly remind you otherwise.
There was something pure built into that relationship, and I believe it gave to our games a certain dignity, an appearance of playing for a nobler cause. If nothing else, there was at least that—they'd left us at least that.
You put up with the bickering about money and the loss of great players over contracts, and that obnoxious, unbelievable noise between two sides fighting over who got to keep the greater share of the purse.
Just leave us the games and we'll be happy. There is a standard for fair sharing, no doubt about that, but to see an actual season interrupted by the arguing over an Aladdin's Cave of treasures is sickening.
I am certainly part of a vast "lunatic fringe" here, so the professional games do not worry about people like me.
But isn't it bad enough that every element of these games is corporatized and thoughtfully, expensively designed to maximize dollar profits? It has become almost sinister in its time-wasting capacity.
Beyond the regular television commercial schedule, which you are given to understand sitting in "Corporation X Arena" as the game is artificially stopped every three minutes or so. But on the actual television you have to watch it all: sponsored timeouts, virtual, computer-generated advertisements laid across the floor, top-of-the-backboard advertisements, game updates brought to you by corporate partners and pre-game shows brought to you by some elemental product.
The most viscerally suggestive of the advertising opportunities is the flush little spot above what are aptly called vomitoriums, those awnings covering the tunnels to the concourses beneath the arena.
It has gotten to the point—as the august Mr. Stern made eminently clear last night—that with revenue streams, profits and growth projections cantilevered far out over a financial abyss, a professional basketball team can no longer be allowed to plan how it sees fit to win a championship if it means resting "star" players on a Thursday night in November.
It will, however, be forced to wear its athletes down in the regular season if it means entertaining its league's paying customers.
And you will pay good money to attend those games, plenty of it. There are regular season ticket revenues to consider when top players are sat-down, after all, and future fans who might have missed a chance to see something.
And there is also the merchandise. The merchandise is for everybody, especially the millions who cannot afford to watch the game in person. And when good players do not play, the potential for sales is depressed—the bottom line is hurt.
And what about advertisers? And suites? And the people who pay to see them play! How will the league keep growing and expanding and profiting?
Does it even matter to the moneyed interests behind the game that the Spurs' "back-up" professionals took the defending champion Heat down to the wire?
Are the actual games even that significant anymore?
Is it not valuable to Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs basketball team, to have several bench players road-tested against one of the top teams in the NBA?
It appears that, to David Stern and the corporate billions that make professional sports tick, the game and its players have no value beyond a commodity, and what is most important—by a shot to Mars and back—is their bottom line: Everyone else can either pay in or get bent.
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