The sports section of a daily newspaper, once a refuge from reality to which readers could turn for amusement, often reads today like the rest of the paper.
A sports fan can no longer retreat to his little corner and escape the bad news. Often, in fact, he can't even get a good laugh.
The precise moment that sports, and the reporting of them, became less fun cannot be documented, but somewhere along the line, sports turned into a business as cold and competitive as the oil or steel industries, and many of the people who played them lost their senses of humor.
Many sportswriters today lament this loss of humor and innocence in the games they cover. They tend to be the older ones. Many young writers seem to be as serious as today's athletes, attacking the flaws in sports with the journalistic zeal of political reporters.
The young writers' pursuit of athletic sins is not entirely a bad thing, of course. The scandals in games and the frailties in the character of athletes were overlooked and covered up for too long by sportswriters who cheered in the pressbox, played cards with their heroes and wrote their biographies.
Still, games ought to be fun, for crying out loud, and not treated as seriously as the national budget, abortion or arms control.
What changed the character of sports was not serious journalism, of course--that only made them less fun to read about. Money, probably, altered them the most, although a strong case could also be made for the obsession with winning. One leads to the other.
Athletes always had good hours, and they made more money than most of us while working half the time. It was hard for a fellow working on an assembly line, driving a truck or selling shoes to liken the playing of games to toil. Most people played them for the sheer joy of it. So did most athletes, probably, before the great money machine, television, came along.
When all that money started pouring into the owners' pockets and remained there, the players became restless. Finally, they formed unions to free themselves from bondage and collect their share. Reasoning that they could make more on the open market, they took to court the rules binding them to one team and won the fight. Sports and sports pages haven't been the same since.
Although their freedom to make a living in the marketplace, as other citizens do, was long overdue and financially rewarding to athletes, it drastically altered the fabric of sports. Some baseball players became mercenaries, using their newly won freedom to sell their services to the highest bidder every year or so. Teams began to lose their identities as players moved from one team to another. Even such revered heroes as Pete Rose and Steve Garvey left their loyal fans for more money.
Agents and strikes intruded upon sports. Salaries and prize money grew markedly, often becoming bigger news than the events. Sports pages began to look more like the business section than a review of fun and games. Not all readers were pleased. Sportswriters were criticized for devoting more attention to money than the games they covered.
In The Times' sports section recently, for example, a story on Page 1 said building contractors had filed a $7.7-million lawsuit against Hollywood Park and, for the second day in a row, there was an account of sports entrepreneur Jerry Buss' alleged financial problems.
On Page 2, a headline read: "Lloyd, Navratilova Will Play for $112,500 Prize." The money was to come, the story said, from a purse of $1.8 million. In the same story there was an account of another tournament that had a purse of $40,000, but in only one paragraph did readers learn how well anybody played.
On Page 4, high in a story on the Daytona 500, it was reported that the race had prize money of $1.28 million. On Page 5, the score of only one golfer was reported before the tournament's purse of $400,000 was mentioned. One player had won $116,262 of his career income of $454,627 in the tournament, the story said.
On Page 6, readers learned that former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier had won a $243,621 tax fight with the Internal Revenue Service, that the San Diego Padres had offered to pay $450,000 to a pitcher seeking $750,000 and that arbitrators had awarded catcher Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers a salary of $435,000 and had given pitchers Doug Sisk of the Mets $275,000 and Jerry Koosman of the Phillies $600,000.
It was a typical day. The dollar sign clutters the sports pages of most newspapers every day. Horse race results look like stock tables. There are claiming prices, purses, mutuel pools and payoffs for win, place and show, and daily doubles, exactas and the Pick Six. Races are often identified by the amount of the purse, as in the $265,000 San Antonio Stakes or the $157,400 Sierra Nevada Handicap.