Why are we here? Is there a God? Who won the Tour de France from 1999-2006?
Life poses us with unanswerable questions in our waking moments: Why are we here? Is there a God? Are our experiences real or imagined? Why was music so whiny and spineless in the 1990s? We may never know the answers.
Lately, I’ve found myself questioning whether or not major events in sports ever took place, because when historians – or aliens who visit what’s left of Earth in 200 years – look at the record books from 1990-2013ish, there will be a lot of holes. There was no World Series in 1994. The Indianapolis 500 was contested from 1996-1999, but none of the top teams in the sport showed up. The 2004-05 NHL season didn’t exist. The NBA played two shortened seasons in a decade. There’s only one year, 2005, when there wasn’t a Heisman Trophy winner. Joe Paterno won more Division I college football games than anyone, but ranks 12th on the all-time list. Marion Jones won three gold medals in the Sydney Olympics, and five overall, but there’s no record of that. No one won the Tour de France from 1999-2005, or in 2006. Some of baseball’s best home-run hitters, and the all-time leader in hits, aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Manti Te’o’s girlfriend isn’t a real person.
Normally such gaping holes in sports history are filled in with bullet points like “World War” or “flu epidemic” to explain why, for example, there were no Wimbledon champions from 1915-18 or from 1940-45 and no Stanley Cup champion in 1915. Simple, it’s easily understood that sports took a back seat while countries were bombing the bejesus out of each other or people were dying in large numbers from a really bad cold.
Now try summing up why, in 1994, baseball players and owners just scrapped the World Series because they couldn’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, or why the NHL canceled an entire season because millionaire players wanted more money from their billionaire owners. Sum up that Reggie Bush won the Heisman, but had to give it back because someone bought his parents a house. Worse yet, try to squeeze in a bullet point that reads “Joe Paterno forfeited a bunch of coaching victories because his assistant coach was a convicted serial child rapist.”
There have been more asterisks in the last 20 years than the previous 100 when leagues were fractured, growing into the organizations we recognize today. Cheating on a molecular level, lying about fraud, financial squabbles that make the U.S. Congress appear responsible (a little bit) and scandal of the most perverse proportions corrupted our pastimes to such a degree that we can’t trust what we watch anymore. I saw Jones win those gold medals, I remember watching Paterno become the all-time wins leader and I witnessed Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis conquer the Pyrenees (which is kind of a fib because no one watches cycling on TV).
I have memories of these things, but in the annals of time, the events no longer exist.
At least three of baseball’s greatest players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame have yet to be inducted, and there’s no sign they ever will be because they violated the purity of the game (important to note here that the game itself remains pure, even if it’s inhabited by cheats, greed and egomongers who make Joffrey Baratheon seem modest). Their achievements remain in the record books, but their absence in Cooperstown is glaring.
All these transgressions against the trust of fans, if not the world, happened at a time when sports are at their peak in popularity. Never before in recorded history have games been such an important part of society and culture, and never before have trivial matters generated more revenue. Naturally, there’s a correlation between the previously unfathomable dollar figures and this awful trend, but there’s something sinister underneath it all that’s more worrisome. Not to suggest that sports figures before this wicked era were unimpeachable – i.e. George Herman Ruth – but too many of these modern-day athletes are going beyond the “lovable drunk” persona.
There’s a moral decay permeating our pastimes, rotting the I-beams and trusses to such a degree the structures can’t bear their own weight. The good news: The foundations are still sound. Basketball hoops are still the same height, baseball diamonds have the same dimensions, grid irons are still rigidly intact and hockey pucks are still made of vulcanized rubber. As bad as it’s been, we can take solace in the fact that the games have regenerative properties – able to shake and recover from diseases like Barry Bonds, Don Fehr or Jerry Sandusky.
We may be living in the worst era in organized sports, but as a society we have the power to change things if we want to.
Just sayin’: I was reminded of a great quote from “The West Wing” recently: “Well, golf’s not a sport. It’s fine. Don’t get me wrong, but let’s not you and I confuse it with things that men do.” — President Josiah Bartlett. ... Just a reminder, today what could be salvaged of the National Hockey League season begins. ... According to a story by Eric Olson of The Associated Press, scoring in NCAA Division I college basketball is 68 points per game, per team. I think I’ll skip March Madness. Again.
Chris Gill, sports writer for The Leader, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @TheLeaderGill.