Sports World: Money, Fame, New Records

90 years of progress for women, blacks, but money often rules.

Sports over the past 90 years have been the perfect illustration, for good and ill, of our core thoughts - who we are, what we think, what our values are, what we aspire to, what we fear, and what we loathe.

They influence us enormously because they display themselves so dramatically in such bold relief on such huge public stages - the Olympics, Super Bowl, Final Four, Rose Bowl, World Cup.

We watch all of these events and more, and we see ourselves - in many cases - as we'd like to be. We see desire, strength, skill, perseverance, excellence, adulation, wealth, and victory. We also see defeat, which we identify with more easily.

Sports are a mosaic in which the elements demonstrate for all to see how our thinking has evolved concerning ourselves, blacks, women, television, technology, behavior, and money.

Consider that until 1920, there was no NFL. Hard to imagine. Each of the first 11 teams that formed the league was bought for $100 each. One of those teams, the Chicago Bears, has an estimated worth today of $400 million. The new Cleveland franchise recently was bought for $530 million.

Or put it another way. In 1962, the NFL had a television contract worth $4.65 million, which meant $320,000 for each of the then 14 teams, according to "The Law of Sports." This year - just 36 seasons later - television is worth $2.2 billion to the NFL, which means $75 million to each of the 30 teams.

Or put it another way. Premier sports agent Jack Mills says that in 1970, he represented four first-round selections in the NFL player draft. Each got a first-year salary of $25,000 and a signing bonus of between $40,000 and $75,000. Fast forward 25 years. Jack Mills represents first rounder Tony Boselli, a Jacksonville offensive lineman. Boselli got a first-year salary of $750,000 and a signing bonus of $6 million. Mills rolls his eyes.

We all do. But if we as a nation weren't fascinated by football, these numbers wouldn't exist. We'd never have met the Goodyear blimp.

It's not just football, of course, where money talks and often screams and yells. For example, the average major league baseball salary in 1976 was about $52,000; today it is nearly $1.4 million.

Sports over 90 years have become so imbedded in the culture that even the most dedicated nonsports fan can't avoid them. Almost everyone has heard of Muhammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio.

The 1920s were arguably sport's most important period. It was an age of larger-than-life heroes, like boxer Jack Dempsey, football star Red Grange, golfer Bobby Jones, tennis player Bill Tilden, the incomparable baseball luminaries Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Also in the '20s, a new profession - advertising and public relations - developed and sports were the perfect partner. A signal event occurred in 1927 when Dempsey fought Gene Tunney, a battle heard by 50 million people on 73 NBC radio stations. The prospect of what could be done with huge audiences like this turned heads of those in these fledgling businesses of selling and promoting.

This all dovetailed nicely some two decades later when something called television showed its screen. In 1949, fewer than 1 million families in the country had sets; four years later, 20 million did; by 1959, 9 out of every 10 families did.

Television and sports are a sensational union. It was ABC Sports executive Roone Arledge who was first to see how the two might dance; he created Monday Night Football. Suddenly, events we could only read about or envision as we listened to radio were events we could witness. We were there via TV when Reggie Jackson hit three consecutive homers in the 1978 World Series, when Joe Namath taught us how much we could love brashness if supported by talent and courage, when Pel astounded and when Michael Jordan astonished.

Regrettably, television also taught us how others acted and too many patterned their behavior after what they saw. In the early '70s, Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase started catering to television with colorful and often obscene outbursts. America's Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe watched and proved quick studies on inappropriate behavior.

Soon, television was showing us sleazy end-zone dances and players pointing to themselves in raging arrogance and fans painting their faces and more.

But while television, advertising, and sports scratched one another's backs, the most significant social change in sports over 90 years was the arrival of African-Americans. Pro football had a few blacks from its inception but the watershed was Jackie Robinson in 1947 becoming the first black to be allowed to play major league baseball - by far the dominant sport then.

In 1950, the Celtics were the first to draft a black into the NBA, Charles Cooper of Duquesne. Colleges seriously got the drift in 1966 when mostly black Texas Western whipped all-white Kentucky for the NCAA basketball title.

Those blacks early to sports integration were routinely abused, physically and emotionally. Ty Cobb was a notorious racist. But blacks found they could make it in sports for one reason: Their skill overrode bigotry. The record so far shows that in certain sports, such as football, basketball, and sprints, blacks often have dominated.

There was whispered concern that whites, who bought tickets, wouldn't go to see blacks. Dead wrong, as it turns out. Sports fans want to see great athletes play great.

Also significant is the emergence of women as full participants in sport. This was made possible by the passage in 1972 of Title IX, a congressional mandate that educational institutions that receive federal funds (essentially every one ) must provide the same athletic opportunities to women as to men. In the early '70s, 16,000 women competed athletically in colleges; at the start of this decade, 160,000 did.

Yet, the landscape over the years has been dotted with extraordinary achievement by women, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a multisport star who was named Sportswoman of the Half-Century decades ago by the Associated Press. That award, in hindsight, was too confining. There was skier Gretchen Fraser, figure skater Sonja Henie, tennis stars Mo Connolly, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova, and speed skater Bonnie Blair.

The 90 years have seen sports performance improve dramatically, as in 1954 when Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3:59.4 when it had been agreed nobody could run it faster than 4 minutes.

However, in other areas, technology was the impetus. Pancho Gonzales and Jack Kramer were amazing tennis players and they did it with wooden rackets. Golfer Ben Hogan was wondrous but imagine what he might have done using clubs with graphite shafts and titanium heads. Picture pole vaulter Bob Richards if he'd had a fiberglass pole to catapult himself over the bar.

Sports, so much like real life, have had sad moments, too. The horrific Black Sox baseball scandal involving White Sox players deliberately losing to Cincinnati in the 1919 World Series in order to collect from gamblers still troubles. Ditto a huge college-basketball gambling scandal in 1951. Thirty-eight died in a 1985 riot at the European Soccer Cup Final in Brussels. And in 1991, Magic Johnson told us he had tested positive for the HIV virus.

In the book "Sports Scandals" by Hank Nuwer, it is observed, "The lives of athletes show us human nature at both its best and its worst." Indeed, myriad athletes over four decades or so flocked to drugs, steroids, and myriad performance enhancers.

But the ups are much taller than the downs are deep: Maverick baseball owner Bill Veeck sending a 3 foot, 7 inch midget to bat for the Browns against Detroit in 1951; Don Larsen's perfect no-hitter in the 1956 World Series; the sudden world fascination in 1972 with Bobby Fischer playing Boris Spassky in chess in Iceland when most didn't know a rook from a bishop. And for 57 of these 90 years, the best sportswriter in history, Red Smith of The New York Times, made sports literate for a lot of us who didn't know literate from linguine. "Writing is easy," Smith said. "I just open a vein and bleed."

Often, the Olympics grip the world and demand its attention - never more so than in 1936 when Jesse Owens won four golds, which infuriated Hitler who wanted to showcase Caucasian supremacy. Thirty-six years later, swimmer Mark Spitz won seven golds in Munich.

The best athlete over the last 90 years? Probably Jim Thorpe, hero of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, who won the two most grueling events, the pentathlon and decathlon. Sweden's king told him, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe also excelled at football, baseball, track, lacrosse, tennis.

Thorpe would have been loved by pro football coaching legend Vince Lombardi, the moody architect of sport's most famous quote: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Thorpe, a semiliterate alcoholic, died broke. Points to ponder.

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