Depending on your perspective, sport is either thriving or disintegrating today. From a purely commercial enterprise perspective, sport has never been stronger. The business of sport is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the United States. Sport is nearly a $450 billion industry, bigger than the auto and movie industries and only slightly smaller than the retail food industry.
However, there is an increasingly dark side to the sport landscape. Too often, sport ideals and values are warped in the pursuit of less than honorable goals. The number of ethical and socio-cultural issues and challenges in the world of sport has never been greater.
Commercialization abuses are a key factor in this laundry list of problems. Blatant commercialism distorts the original reasons for sport -- fun, exercise, socialization, community, character-building, etc. - and leads to the "profit-at-all-costs" mentality which is at the root of many of the problems in sport today - even at the youth level.
The NBA's recent decision to allow advertising on its teams' uniforms is but the latest example.
According to a Forbes report, the average NBA franchise is now worth $1.25 billion, an increase of 13 percent over last season. That follows a 74 percent gain in franchise value the previous year, due to the signing of big new TV deals.
Despite this financial strength, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league's owners decided they were willing to deface, with corporate ads, iconic uniforms like the Boston Celtics' and Los Angeles Lakers' for a few more bucks. You can call it the NASCARization of the NBA.
Let's be clear: commercialization, in and of itself, isn't evil. Making money isn't immoral. In fact, commercialization in sport has created opportunities for athletes that otherwise wouldn't have been there. Little League baseball teams have long been sponsored by community businesses. Without these sponsorships, opportunities for young baseball players would have been curtailed, and even out of the reach of some families. In addition, commercialization has fueled professional leagues that have given amateur athletes, including women, opportunities to continue playing sport at a high level after their college eligibility has expired. Moreover, there are many instances where enjoyment levels for spectators have been enhanced by commercialization.
However, the problems start when business and entertainment ethos are in the driver's seat and sport ethos and what's in the best interests of the game become nothing more than an afterthought. At the professional and Division I college levels today, athletic departments, which are supposedly non-profits, are conducted based on entertainment and business principles rather than sport principles. This approach is trickling down to the high school and youth sports levels, where too often educational, physical, emotional and spiritual developmental goals are being brushed aside by the commercial ethic and win-at-all-costs mentality.
Professional sport is increasingly a grotesque distortion of what it could be at its best. We're moving steadily toward overt commercial spectacle, and away from sport; closer to professional wrestling or the XFL than pure athletic competition.
College athletic departments have become stand-alone business empires at many Division I campuses. They are autonomous, for-profit entities operating under the guise of the university's non-profit umbrella. Presidents have surrendered their oversight responsibilities, pressured by alums, boosters, and boards of trustees who want to see State U. win and the dollars flow in.
To fill monster stadiums and arenas, including fancy luxury suites and club seats, elite athletes must be recruited. Plush "athletic centers" with massive weight rooms, locker rooms and other facilities are constructed to lure these athletes. The academic qualifications of these athletes are a secondary consideration for most big-time college programs. The goal is simply to get superior athletes into school at all costs. Once inside, these athletes must be kept eligible. In too many cases, grades are manipulated, integrity is shattered and academic corruption is the result.
Sadly, these commercialization and professionalization abuses are progressively impacting our high school and youth athletes. With televised sport proliferating on network, cable and satellite television, youngsters are learning the "values" of commercialized sport at a very young age.
The growth of private club sports organizations and national AAU travel teams are a significant part of the problem.
Youth athletes are increasingly specializing as pre-teens. For example, many 10-12 year old soccer players, boys and girls, are pressured to play competitive year-round soccer and give up other sports. The issue certainly isn't limited to soccer. The same phenomenon can be seen across other youth sports as well.
Parents are putting more and more time, money and effort into their kids' sports activities. Many families, most often middle and upper middle class suburbanites, will have spent tens of thousands of dollars on club teams, personal training, travel leagues, etc., by the time their child's a senior in high school, all in the hopes of landing a major college athletic scholarship or a spot on an Olympic team. When it's all said and done, these same parents could've sent their kids to some of the best private universities in the country for the money they spent chasing the elusive athletic scholarship.
With the allure of college scholarships, media attention and other riches at the end of the sports rainbow, a growing number of young athletes are turning to legal and illegal supplements, including creatine, androstenedione, and steroids. And it's not just the boys. The highest percentage increase in steroid use today is among teenage girls.
The bottom line is, commercialization and professionalization abuses are threatening the essence of sport, its ideals, values and traditions. At some point, the caretakers of sport have to say, "Not everything in sport is for sale." The problem is, in the United States, the caretakers of sport are also the barons of sport, those with a vested economic interest. There is no sports ministry or regulatory oversight as there is in other countries. In effect, our pro sports leagues and the NCAA are self-regulated cartels.
Sport is a socio-cultural practice of much value. For something having as much impact on our society as sport, the moneymakers shouldn't be the sole policymakers. The barons of sport must realize that they operate American sport in trust. This trust sometimes requires putting self-interest second. And what's best for sport and all its stakeholders first.
As commercialization and professionalization abuses continue to increase, we're witnessing the corporate takeover of one of our most cherished cultural practices, sport. In effect, the "joy of sport" is being hijacked and spit out as just another form of mass culture entertainment.
All of us who care deeply about sport and what it represents at its best must resist this creeping commercialization and professionalization. Sport is one of life's greatest pleasures. We can no longer stand idly by and surrender sport to those like Adam Silver and NBA owners who see sport as "just another way to make a buck."