Friday, August 19, 2011

For the Love of the Game

By John Gilstrap
I hate what professional sports has become.

I blame free agency. Yes, I understand that from the players’ point of view free agency is the equivalent of emancipation, but I don’t think of sports from the point of view of the player. I’m a fan—a paying customer—and I miss the days when teams were about, you know, teams. I miss the teaching moment that was built around the pre-free agency notion that the individual was subservient to the team. That’s why we put our kids into sports, right? So that they can learn the lessons of teamwork?

Nowadays, professional sports is all about the money. Okay, it’s always been about the money, but I lament the migration of the prima donna from its former exclusive domain of opera to the gridiron and the baseball diamond.

In a few short weeks, I will once again, for the forty-seventh time, walk into the whirling propeller that defines being a Washington Redskins fan. Yes, Dan Snyder is Satan incarnate, and I won’t recognize eighty percent of the names on the roster, but dammit, this team is the descendant of Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer (yes, and Joe Thiesmann, but decent Washingtonians don’t speak of The Ego). The Redskins will yet again lure me into their web with early season wins, and they will yet again fall apart in mid-October. I’m not a sports stats fan, but I’ll bet bucks to buttons that no team on the planet has given up more fourth-quarter leads than the Redskins.

The disparity that separates real sports from their professional cousins is most widely illustrated this time of year during the Little League World Series, currently being televised on ESPN. It’s refreshing to watch 12-year-old athletes giving their all to win a game simply for the right to proclaim themselves winners. If you haven’t watched any of these six-inning games yet, you really ought to take the opportunity to do so.

First of all, it’s great baseball, complete with breathtaking offense and defense, but also littered with the occasional egregious error. I cannot imagine the thrill these kids must feel when they watch the recordings of themselves, complete with sportscaster commentary and instant replay.

And here’s the heart-wrenching part: Often as not, the losing team cries. These boys have put everything into the game, and while their athletic prowess might have matured, their emotions have not. They’re kids, and they’re all heart. Someday, the best among them will probably join the ranks of free agents, but for this brief slice of time, they’re just athletes, pure and simple.

There's a writing analogy to be made here--those who write for the love of the craft versus those who write because their franchise demands it--but I'll leave it to you, dear Killzoners, to connect those dots.


  1. Having grown up in Maryland, I of course loved the Orioles (and hated the Yankees--still do. 8-) But actually it didn't take many years before I became turned off of sports.

    Partly owing to the team concept but more because it's about the individual to me---during those core years watching the O's play, they had the same key players. But several trades and retirements later, the individuals I knew were gone and it was no longer fun.

    Same gig with tennis. I loved to watch tennis during the Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi years, but when they retired, so did my interest in tennis.

    So for me the comparison between sports and writing is a bit different--yes, for baseball, you have to perform as a team, or in doubles tennis, but moreso to me, it, like writing, is about individual performance, about pushing yourself to your utmost. And that's what drives my writing, far more so then the hope of publication. I simply want to know what I'm capable of producing.

    BK Jackson

  2. You don't have it so bad John. Try being a sports fan in Seattle.

  3. Jeez, John. I'm from the Detroit area. Lions???

  4. Remmeber, John, Sonny and am and Billy and Theismann weren't always Redskins. They all came from elsewhere. Players moved around just as much back in the day as they do now. The only difference was who made the decision to move. The Redskins are the most egregious example of the free agent as prima donna syndrome, due mainly to Snyder.

    I'm a Pittsburgh boy, born and raised, and still a Steelers fan. There are a few bad actors, but we have a lot of players who take less money to stay in Pittsburgh every year, because of the team and organization. (Same with the Penguins.) The team concept has to start at the top. If the owner treats the players as hired guns, he's going to get hired guns.

    Your writing analogy is well taken. Several months ago I realized I was not enjoying my writing because I thought it was fruitless. Even if I did get a contract, what I had learned to expect after that was not something I looked forward to. So I quit worrying about traditional publication and am in the process of uploading a book to Kindle. I'm not going to make any money, but I get to write on my terms alone, and it's fun again.

  5. You have Dan Snyder. I have Frank McCourt. I feel your pain.

    On the subject of your team of choice, I do like to see vilified players come back and show something, so I'm actually pulling for Rex Grossman.

    And speaking of Joe Theismann, he had one of the great on air quotes: "No one in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."

  6. If you need to pick a winner, the Cowboys can always use one more fan. ;D

  7. Points all well taken.

    Except for that ridiculous nonsense spewed by the Cowboys fan. Jeeze, I threw up a little just writing the word. :-)

    John Gilstrap

  8. During the lockouts, there were endless reports about owners and players splitting the billions among themselves. No mention of rebates for fans.

  9. Once a skins fan, always a skins fan. Know the fight song by heart. When I first moved to LA, I made my husband buy a TV just so I could watch the Skins Cowboys game on Monday Night football.

    So I have to ask: With Sonny and Glenn gone does everyone still turn on WTOP and turn off the sound on the TV to watch the game? Do people still bring coolers full of scotch and sodas to the games at RFK?

    Free agency or not, the Skins will always be the Skins. Warts and all.

    "Fight on, Fight on till you have won sons of Washington!"

  10. I grew up in love with sports.
    Team identity was meaningful. Players seemed to have a real allegiance to the organization and their teammates. And most of all, sports was an arena where class on the playing field was displayed and valued.

    Bart Starr, Johhny Unitas, Harmon killebrew, Jim Marshall, Soony J, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell and many more played hard and fair. Respect for your competitor and passion for the game were the rule.

    Enter the 'fab five' and glorification of "trash talk". Classless 'in your face' antics in basketball and football, etc.
    Coddled and self-absorbed 'stars' and erosion of great ideals and behavior.

    Perhaps I idealize the sports of my youth but i fear's "product" has lost much of its appeal for me. I am still a fan and love the displays of skill, effort, courage and drama that the games afford, but share your belief that many aspects have changed for the worst

    I don"t know how it relates to writing other than both undertakings generate passion for me.

  11. OK, here's how old I am. I was a Boston Braves fan, a fanatic as only a teenager with nothing else to think about can be -- my coming of age was when they left Boston (the first major league team to do so) because of MONEY. Not the fans, the money. What? Baseball is a business?

    Haven't followed a sport since.


  12. I have to wonder when people are shocked that sports is about the money. This is their job, just as we all have our own jobs. Don't we all try to maximize our incomes, and our employers to maximize their profits? Stadium, equipment, travel, training, scouting all cost. Ain't nothing free.

  13. I like rugby, but I also like the new semi-pro sports based on kids games but modified for a mature audience

    Some of my favourite sports:

    Duck Duck Goose - the full contact tackle version


    Red-Light/Green-Light - Terminator version


    Tag - with swords


    Jump Rope - using electified barbed wire


    Hide & Seek - in the woods, with guns

    Oh yeah, and did I mention I like rugby?

  14. (Basil is so freakin' funny!)

    Um . . . I'd write for love and to please my franchise (a.k.a., publisher.) I think it's the sign of a good player . . . um, writer.

    PS: Go, Jets!