"Sport" vs. "Business"

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 28, 2005 at 7:03 AM

This started off as a comment over at Chris Lehmann's site, but it grew so long that I decided to bring it here and trackback it instead.

It's in response to this post, where he talks about a CBA team that's hired Dave Bliss, the former coach at Baylor who told his players to lie to investigators of the death of one of his players.

The key phrase in Lehmann's post, the one I'm really responding to, is, "Sports can be embody the best of who and what we are... and sadly, too often it embodies the worst."

This is one of those places where professional sports crosses that line between "sport" and "business," where "business" really means "make money at any cost to ethics or downfall of society."

Bliss coaching this team doesn't do anything to the actual sport of basketball, thankfully, because those kids at Rucker are going to play their hearts out whether he's coaching or not. That is the nice thing about professional sports, in some sense: no matter what awful things they do, they can't touch the sport that's at the heart of how they make their money. Now matter how crummy the experience is at your average major league baseball stadium these days ("Clap now, mindless drones!"), the game, the sport itself, remains pure and unchanged at the center.

In that sense, then, I don't think that this actually is an example of sport's embodiment of the negative aspects of our culture, but rather the commercial world's doing so. Enron and WorldCom also reflect poorly on us, and I think the Dakota Wizards, in this situation, fall more into their category than that of, say, the power of the Little League World Series to introduce a bunch of kids from Louisiana to a little place called Guam.

This doesn't mean that Lehmann's statement is wrong, of course. Sports certainly can reflect negative aspects of our society: ultra-competitiveness, for example. You play sports to win, usually, and too often people forget that you live life to do more than just beat other people.

That said, I think it's helpful to remember that professional sports leagues and teams exist to make money. That sounds obvious, but too often (and I'm not accusing Lehmann of this, I want to note, because he's quite notably not hysterical in his writing in general) people decry something or other that a league is doing as the downfall of that sport. "They're ruining the game!" they cry on their national sports networks.

No, they're not. Maybe they're ruining their league, though that depends on whether people will still pay to see it. Whether baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy is effective or not (for example), the game itself, the sport of baseball invented in mysterious circumstances who-knows-how-long-ago, is not ruined.