Muhammad Ali, the Munich Olympics, and all those millionaire athletes -- these are the most enduring memories from a decade filled with momentous stories in the world of sports.
Ali was the towering, all-encompassing figure whose combination of superb skill, bombast, and sense of theater molded him into the most famous and popular sports figure of this and many other decades.
The 1972 Olympics can hardly help bringing to mind the tragic incident when Palestinian terrorists invaded the Israeli quarters in an attack that claimed 19 lives.
The big-money spiral in pro sports, with everyone from superstars to journeymen getting long-term, multimillion dollar contracts, was Topic A among the general public as the 1970s came to an end.
And of course there were countless other memorable events and figures moving across the stage throughout the entire 10-year period.
There were historic achievements such as Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home-run record, Mark Spitz splashing to those seven gold medals, and Bjorn Borg winning Wimbledon four times in a row. There were breath- taking moments that even now produce chills when seen on TV replays -- scenes such as Franz Klammer's incredible charge to victory in the downhill ski event at Innsbruck. Or Secretariat thundering to that awesome 31- length Belmont Stakes victory to become the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century. And of course there were the athletes -- many of them such household words that one name or even just a set of initials suffices to identify them: Ali, Billie Jean, Wilt, O.J., Pele.
Yet even with all these big moments and fascinating personalities on view, it can be argued that the most important and far-reaching events took place off the field -- in the negotiating rooms, the courts, and the halls of government.
All in all it was a 10-year period unlike any that preceded or is likely to follow it. And perhaps as good a way as any of sizing up such a complicated and and vital decade at the end is to look back at what things were like at the beginning.
As the 1970s dawned, for instance, Ali was a forcibly retired ex-champion with a most uncertain future; few had ever heard such names as Borg, Olga Korbut , Nadia Comeneci, or Bruce Jenner; Howard Cosell was just another announcer; and "Monday Night Football" was still only a gleam in Roone Arledge's eye.
That gives you the general idea, but there's much, much more. Politics had intruded on the sports stage at times in previous decades, but to nowhere near the extent it was to intrude in the next 10 years. Female athletes were poorly paid and largely ignored. The occasional jogger on a roadside path gave no hint of the coming explosion of running and other participant sports. Television limited itself almost exclusively to weekend coverage, with no awareness yet of the huge prime-time audience for big athletic events. And only the first rumblings were audible of the player revolution that would soon shake the very foundation of professional sports.
And so despite 10 years filled with more than their quota of triumphs, tragedies, and individual heroics (Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert, Bobby Orr, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Reggie Jackson are just a few of the additional names that come immediately to mind), any assessment of the decade must really begin by looking at all these changes that have taken place. And what better place to start than labyrinthine legal battlefield wherein was created today's "instant millionaire" athlete? The big-money game
The successful revolt by professional athletes against the idea that they were "owned" by the teams for which they played began in baseball on the eve of the decade (December 1969) when outfielder Curt Flood launched a suit challenging the so-called reserve clause, which bound a player to one team unless he was sold, traded, or released.
Flood's suit went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where he lost, but the battle lines had been drawn. Other athletes began challenging similar rules in their sports, while pro basketball, hockey, and football players acquired a second and equally effective bargaining tool -- the emergence of new leagues rivaling the established ones and creating a competitive market that pushed salaries up dramatically.
It was in this atmosphere that baseball pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally decided to play without contracts in 1975 and become free agents -- a concept that defied established baseball custom. Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in their favor, his decision was upheld in court, and the free agent scramble was on. Slugger Reggie Jackson sold himself to the highest bidder (the New York Yankees) and promptly helped them win two straight world championships. Other clubs weren't so successful with their acquisitions, but the price kept escalating anyway, reaching $800,000 a year for Pete Rose this past season and now hitting the $1 million-a-year mark in the case of Nolan Ryan. Less famous players have been able to get proportionate increases, and the average major league salary has leaped from approximately $25,000 at the beginning of the decade to more than $120,000 at the close. Salaries in basketball and hockey have shown similar huge increases, and pro football pay scales have also risen substantially, though not quite so spectacularly.
It's not only in the team sports, though, that the money has escalated to undreamed-of heights; the same thing has happened in sports like golf and tennis , where the players have always been "free agents." Thus it would appear that the truly most important factor in the big-money game of the 1970s has been the fact that a great deal more cash has been available than ever before. And this, in turn, brings us to the next major development of the decade. TV sports goes prime time
If the 1950s were the decade in which television began covering sports in a big way and the 1960s the period when the still relatively new medium started acquiring more clout, the '70s were the time when it began dominating the entire scene in ominous fashion -- even to the point of manipulating, staging, and/or creating some of the events itself.
The change in the whole relationship of sports and TV has come about largely because of the vastly greater amounts of money involved in recent years. When the networks start throwing around rights payments of $100 million and more, they also begin seeking -- and getting -- more control. And the principal reason for all the extra money is that Madison Avenue finally discovered the prime-time sports audience.
It was in 1970 that ABC launched "Monday Night Football," -- the first regularly scheduled prime-time sports show. And Roone Arledge, then the head of ABC Sports and now president of both its news and sports operations, was quick to realize that if you want to succeed in the ratings at this hour, you have to appeal to a general audience on the entertainment level -- not just to the dyed-in-the-wool sports fan.
From the beginning the network emphasized its show-biz types in the booth as much as the action on the field. And with the controversial Cosell as the catalyst, it worked.
The success of ABC's venture opened a lot of eyes. One year later, baseball tried its first World Series night game and quickly moved to the current format where all but the weekend games are in prime time. This has sparked considerable criticism, especially when the raw, cold fall weather has ruined the caliber of play and the comfort of the fans, but the difference in the size of the audience between weekday and week-night telecasts is so huge that continuation of the system is a foregone conclusion.
Olympic coverage has followed the same trend, with more and more prime-time hours each time and, consequently, more potential revenue. By the time the rights were offered for the 1980 Moscow games. NBC won them with an $80 million bid which many thought was excessive -- but which looked downright picayune compared with the $225 million ABC put just a couple of years later to nail down the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
As for the charge that all this big money enables TV to run the show instead of just covering it, officials of the networks and the various sports operations deny it. The party line on both sides is that it's just a case of everyone cooperating to achieve the common goal -- getting more people to watch the program in question.
A darker side arose during this past decade, however, with such things as misleading advertising about alleged "winner take all" tennis matches and irregularities surrounding some network-run boxing shows. There also has been the unfortunate proliferation during the '70s of such shows as "Celebrity Superstars," "Battle of the NFL Cheerleaders," and other pseudo- sports programs , which are really just entertainment fare. Politics in sports
The intrusion of politics into sports was nothing new in the 1970s (those black power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics and Muhammad ali's anti- Vietnam war stance were two major examples in the previous decade), but they took a far more ominous and tragic form at Munich with the terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli athletes and eight other persons dead. No further incidents of that nature occurred, thanks partly to the much stricter security measures at subsequent Olympics and other international competitions, but major sports events were still used frequently as forums by those seeking a worldwide audience for their protests or causes.
Before the start of the Munich Olympic Games, in fact, a threatened boycott by African nations induced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to belatedly bar Rhodesia from competition although that country was still a member at the time and had a team at the site. Four years later at Montreal a similar group of third-world nations demanded the ouster of New Zealand because of its sports relations with South Africa. This time the IOC refused to act, and 29 nations walked out on the eve of the games in protest.
The "China question" also arose at Montreal when the Canadian government, acceding to a request by the Communist regime which it recognized, refused to allow Taiwan's athletes into the country unless that nation would agree not to to call itself China or to use its flag or anthem. The IOC went along with the Canadian move, but Taiwan withdrew rather than accept these conditions, South Africa, which is no longer a member of the IOC, was the target of protests at the Davis Cup because of its apartheid policies. Another controversial event was the 1979 World Boxing Association heavyweight championship fight held in Pretoria between John Tate, a black American, and Gerrie Coetzee, a white South African -- a bout that some thought should not have been held because of apartheid but which others saw as a wedge toward lessening South Africa's discriminatory policies. Then there was the case of Sydney Maree, a black South African runner who is excluded from international competitions in an ironic reverse twist to the ban against his country because of its discrimination against his race.
Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova defected to the United States in 1975 to further her career and saw the move pay off with progressive success on the women's tour, culminating in successive Wimbledon championships in 1978 and '79. Another famous defector was Soviet chess grandmaster viktor Korchnoi, who reached the 1978 world championship match against former compatriot Anatoly Karpov but failed in a bid to wrest the title from him. Great progress by women
As the 1970s dawned, female athletes, discouraged by their peers and discriminated against in opportunity, equipment, training, and facilities, were still pretty much second- class citizens on the American sports scene.
At the general participant level, the number of girls and women involved in athletic activity was insignificant compared with that of boys and men. And at the top competitive echelon, women got very little of the fame and only a tiny fraction of the fortunes available to their male counterparts.
Australia's Margaret Court, for instance, was the world's reigning female tennis star in 1970, winning just about everything in sight including Wimbledon and the US Open -- and earning about $15,000.Three years later, amid the televised "Battle of the Sexes" hoopla in the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King got $100,000 for playing what amounted to an exhibition match against Bobby Riggs. In 1979 Tracy Austin, a 16- year-old high school junior, won purse money totaling almost $500,000 -- and she wasn't even the leading money winner on the tour!
That says it all as to where women have some financially, and although tennis is the "Big Momma," female golfers have made huge gains as well, with the success of Nancy Lopez in the last two years boosting the money structure of the entire LPGA tour while she herself earned about $200,000 each year.
Mrs. King was the mover and shaker who helped accomplish much of this, carrying women's quest for equality of opportunity and pay into the sports arena and organizing her fellow tennis pros to demand such treatment at tournaments like Wimbledon and Forest Hills -- and to back up their demands with the threat of a boycott.
Women broke into some previously all-male areas of sports, too, most notably with the success of auto driver Janet Guthrie, who battled her way onto the Speedway in 1976 as the first female driver in the famed Indianapolis 500 and two years later finished ninth in the field of 33. Another sport where women made huge gains was long-distance running -- especially the marathon. The appearance of female runners -- and good ones -- in big races became commonplace , and although their times were not up to those of the top men, they were improving at a dramatically faster pace. The climax of this surge came in the 1979 New York Marathon, when Grete Waitz of Norway broke her own women's world record with a clocking of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 33 seconds.
The most significant changes of all, however, have taken place not at the professional or top amateur levels but in the tremendous growth of participation in athletics by women of all ages and levels of ability.
The changing attitudes of society that led to this development were spelled out in 1972 with the enactment of Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act, a law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity -- including athletics. The gains made by women since the passage of this law have been substantial -- particularly in basketball and volleyball at both the college and high school levels -- and figure to be even more so in the future. Black progress and frustrations
Civil rights was another major social issue in which sports served as a microcosm of the "real world" -- with blacks continuing to achieve progress but still also experiencing frustration at times.
More than a quarter of a century after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's infamous "color line" as a player, the game hired its first black manager in Frank Robinson. A few years later Larry Doby, who ironically had been the second black player back in 1947, became the second black manager as well. Both were eventually fired, however, and the game entered the '80s with an all-white managerial cast.
In pro basketball, where Bill Russell had become the first black head coach near the end of the previous decade, the 1970s brought several more including Al Attles, K. C. Jones, Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed, Bob Hopkins, and, of course, Len Wilkens, who led Seattle to the 1979 NBA championship.
Pro football still had not broken this particular barrier, however, and black progress in other sports at the playing, coaching, and administrative levels continued to move relatively slowly.
Barriers continued to be broken here and there, however, most notably at the Masters gold tournament in Augusta, Ga., where Lee Elder became the first black competitor in 1975.
On the college scene, the decade saw a major influx of black athletes into the big-time football and basketball programs of Southern schools like Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas, which had once been all white and had moved only gingerly toward integration in the previous decade. Growth in participation sports
The phenomenal growth in participant sports -- spearheaded by the nationwide running and jogging boom -- has certainly been another of the decade's most significant developments. Golf, bowling, and swimming have continued to attract their devotees. Skiing has shown substantial increases, especially the cross-country version of the sport. Tennis enjoyed a tremendous boom during the early and middle part of the decade. A variety of indoor racquet sports such as squash, paddleball, and racquetball have all been showing "boom" signs. And there are gymnastics, where the successive Olympic heroics of Olga Korbut in 1972 and Nadia Comaneci in 1976 resulted in a steady increase of American youngsters taking up the sport.
But all of these advances pale beside the incredible jogging/running explosion that has engulfed the country in recent years. And in addition to the millions who run primarily for fun and exercise, impressive numbers are also entering competitive events -- as evidenced by the huge fields of 10,000 and more that break records year after year in such events as the New York Marathon.
The boom in long-distance running surely was helped along by Frank Shorter's Olympic marathon victory in 1972, and interest in the sport continued to grow as Bill Rodgers dominated the national and international scene the last couple of years. But whatever the reason, there is no denying that the sport has taken off at all ability levels ranging from easygoing joggers to world-class competitors. The memorable moments
Trying to name the biggest events, the most exciting moments, or the top performers for just one year in a single sport is difficult enough. Obviously, therefore, attempting the same thing for an entire decade in all sports is well nigh impossible. A few would make just about any list, though, so we'll at least mention those.
* Aaron breaking Ruth's career home-run mark when he hit No. 715 in 1974 and going on to amass a total of 755 before retiring two years later.
* Ali's epic duels with Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championships, as well as the victories over George Foreman and Leon Spinks that made him the only man ever to win the title three times.
* Borg's domination of tennis, including his incredible streak at Wimbledon.
* Spitz's gold-medal harvest at Munich.
* Little Olga Korbut, crying in defeat, exulting in victory, and generally captivating a worldwide TV audience at those same 1972 Olympics.
* The muscular Jenner and the tiny Nadia dominating the headlines at Montreal in 1976.
* Jack Nicklaus dominating golf for most of the decade and winning eight major championships.
Bobby Orr revolutionizing hockey with his high-scoring feats from a defenseman's position and his brilliant all- around play.
* Montreal dominating the National Hockey League with six Stanley Cups, but also the growing strength of the Soviet Union as a power rivaling Canada in this sport, as demonstrated by a near-victory over an NHL All-Star team in 1972 and a decisive defeat of a similar squad in a 1979 series.
* Three straight World Series victories in 1972-73-74 by the Oakland A's and their mustachioed cast of heroes.
* Reggie Jackson's fantastic World Series of 1977, capped by his Ruthian feat of three straight home runs in the final game.
* The continuation of UCLA's unprecedented college basketball domination with five more NCAA championships, followed by its end in the second half of the decade.
* Chris Evert's domination of women's tennis through most of the period.
* All-time soccer great Pele coming out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos and finally getting the United States interested in the world's most popular sport.
* Bobby Fischer winning the world chess championship from Boris Spassky in their famous 1972 match in Iceland to break the USSR's 25-year monopoly on the title, then withdrawing from competition and eventually giving up his crown by default.
These, of course, are but the tip of the iceberg when one thinks of the decade's momentous events -- not even scratching the surface of so many other memorable World series, Super Bowls, basketball and hockey playoffs, Indianapolis 500s, golf and tennis championships. Many Olympic thrills
The Olympics, as always, produced many of the decade's big moments, and although Spitz, Jenner, Olga, and Nadia achieved the most public recognition, there were numerous other brilliant performers and dramatic events worth citing.
At Munich, for instance, there were Finland's Lasse Viren winning both the 5, 000 and 10,000 meter races, the Soviet Union handing the United States its first Olympic basketball loss in a wild and controversial finish, and the emergence of East Germany, a nation of only 17 million people, as a major athletic power rivaling the US and the USSR.
Four years later at Montreal, Cuba's Alberto Juantorena became the first man ever to win both the 400 and 800 in the same Olympics while the amazing Viren again swept the 5,000 and 10,000.
The 1976 Winter Olympics also produced some memorable moments including West German skier Rosi Mittermaier's near-sweep of the Alpine events, and Dorothy Hamill's figure-skating victory. Many baseball highlights
Aaron's record-breaking homer was undoubtedly the top moment in a baseball decade that saw many outstanding performances. Pete Rose was recently named by the Sporting News as the Player of the decade, but as always with such awards, you could get plenty of arguments for other candidates such as Rod Carew, Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench, Jim Palmer, Lou Brock, Carl Yastrzemski, and of course the inimitable Jackson, who was the sluggling leader of five world championship teams. Pro football's great strides
O. J. Simpson's running feats, topped by his record-breaking 2,003-yard season in 1973, were easily the individual highlight of the decade in pro football, while the growth of the Super Bowl from a relatively new event to its current status as the nation's annual no. 1 single-game attraction was the most significant overall development.
Next: Consulting our hopes and not our fears