Sport and Society-Catching Up

Editor’s Note: “Sport in American History” is excited to cross-post Richard C. Crepeau’s “Sport and Society” column. This post was originally published on May 10, 2018. A full archive of his Crepeau’s columns can be found by clicking here.

By Richard C. Crepeau

It has been several weeks since I have taken to the computer to attempt another of these reflections on the current state of sport. In the time that has passed, March Madness has come and gone, and it was as “mad” as ever. The playoffs in both the NBA and the NHL have moved almost half way through the process without any major surprises except in the NHL. Baseball season began a week earlier than usual with the first pitch being made with a week remaining in March.

So what have we learned over the past few months? First, upsets remain the norm in the NCAA tournament and, for the first time a sixteen seed finally beat a number one seed. The usual suspects made the final four joined, as usual, by one outlier. In the men’s tournament Villanova was clearly the best team. On the women’s side the University of Connecticut is still good, but clearly no longer invincible. This is an indication of the growing strength throughout the women’s game, and more competition should generate more interest.

More important than all else, we learned that the corruption stalking men’s basketball has not hurt the popularity of the game and that it pays off with success on the court.

In the NBA, we already know two things, or rather have had two things confirmed. First, the Golden State Warriors are the best team in the NBA, and they have defined the path to success. Strong defense, rebounding, passing, speed, and shooting wins games. Second, we have seen once again that LeBron James is the player who has the highest level skills across the board. He is the best ever seen on a basketball court. He can do, and he does, whatever is needed at any given moment to lead his team to victory. However this does not mean that Cleveland will win the NBA championship.

We know from “A League of Their Own” that “There is No Crying in Baseball.” We now also know from the current NHL playoffs that “There is no Licking in Hockey.” We know this because Brad “The Rat” Marchand of the Boston Bruins has introduced licking into his NHL playbook. Marchand’s actions prompted an edict from the league office proclaiming that “Licking” is not acceptable in the NHL, even though this is a league that encourages fighting, features human collisions capable of loosening teeth and pulverizing bones, and denies any link between hockey and concussions. Apparently licking has greater long term consequences than human collisions on the ice.

The NHL has also produced one of the biggest surprises of this, or any other, professional sports season. The Las Vegas Golden Knights are an expansion team that has now reached the conference finals in the NHL and is only eight wins away from taking Lord Stanley’s Cup to the adult Disney World in the Desert. No other expansion team has had this level of success in any American professional sports.

In baseball, there have been a few surprises early in this season, and indeed there almost always are. Atlanta is better than expected, so far, as is Philadelphia, Arizona, St. Louis, and the Yankees. Most of these early surprises will not continue to ride high into September. Two teams are dreadful, the Reds and Orioles, and a few more are simply bad. These bottom feeders are likely to remain near the bottom come September.

The other notable development in baseball has been the success of Shoehi Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani was a young star in Japanese baseball as both a pitcher and a hitter. Most of the baseball “experts” predicted that he could not do this in the major leagues. So far he has, and he has done both extremely well.

Two more significant developments came from sports governing bodies over the past few weeks. The NCAA and the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) have issued reports which may or may not affect the sports they rule. The NCAA Committee investigating college basketball has produced a 53- page document of dubious value. The IAAF has laid down new rules on testosterone levels for female track athletes.

After nearly seven months of hearings and research, the NCAA Commission on College Basketball reported its findings. For anyone who has spent any time on this subject, the report is a major disappointment. A lot of old issues and recommendations are rehashed and repackaged, but little that is new is found in the report.

Prompted in part by the revelations of corruption surrounding major shoe companies, coaches, and agents, the commission offers little in the way of substantive change. In part, they cannot because the NCAA and the universities have long since sold their basketball product to these companies who offer another lucrative revenue stream to keep the intercollegiate enterprise growing and rolling.

The commission calls for an end to the one-and-done practice and asks the NBA to cooperate in ending that practice. Addressing the issue of paying basketball players, the NCAA rejects that notion arguing that it is important to maintain amateurism in intercollegiate athletics.

Several problems arise in this discussion as “amateurism” is never defined except indirectly by suggesting that pay for play would be a violation of amateurism and thus be a form of professionalism. A few paragraphs later, it is pointed out that the players are compensated handsomely with scholarships valued up to, or even in excess of, $50,000 per year. There are two problems inherent in this logic: First the figures are based on the costs at the most expensive universities, and second, the assumption is that a degree will be earned while mere attendance at a university to play basketball will result in an education. In either case, how does this not constitute play for pay?

Of a more serious nature is the report coming out of the IAAF dealing with the issue of testosterone levels in female track athletes. Having failed in their first attempt to implement sex definitions based on testosterone levels, the regulations were re-worked by the IAAF and levels reset and then applied only to middle-distance running events.

The technicalities here are difficult to unravel in the context of such limited application and murky standards, but the upshot is that only a few athletes running in the middle-distances will be affected. They are all women of color and that adds another issue to the mix.

Having examined the arguments on this issue, it seems to me that there is no clear evidence for the implementation of the new regulations. It may be that there is more than sex definition involved here, and the notion that somehow the regulations should only apply in a limited number of events seems much too thin to justify the imposition of these regulations. To require a small number of elite female athletes to lower their testosterone levels through drugs or other procedures based on this less than overwhelming evidence offered by the IAAF seems a clear case of regulatory overreach. In addition, the impact of testosterone at the levels being discussed is not at all clear.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don’t have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

 Copyright 2018 by Richard C. Crepeau.

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