Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sports Will Never Be the Same Can 19th-Century Games Adapt to the 21st Century?

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sports Will Never Be the Same Can 19th-Century Games Adapt to the 21st Century?

Article excerpt

As the new year begins, the masters of sports find themselves bruised, battered and in altogether dire straits. 2014 will be remembered as a turning point, when those in charge of the multibillion-dollar athletic-industrial complex saw their control over the levers of power slip in decisive fashion. They are now a collection of Fantasia Mickey Mouses: sorcerers unable to corral and contain their own spells.

A bomb that had been ticking for several years exploded in 2014. The accelerant has been the power of athlete- and fan-generated social media to launch news cycles, spread video and audio at light speed and mushroom controversies.

As sports sociologist Harry Edwards said to me, "I'm not sure that, institutionally, this 19th-century institution of sport is really organized to handle, in this modern age of real-time communication, the kinds of concerns that are going to come up."

Mr. Edwards is right. Think about the sports stories of the past year and how distinct just about any of the narratives are from the established athletic hierarchies of the past century. Then consider the role that social communication has played in this process.

We saw Donald Sterling jettisoned after 30 years as an NBA owner for being caught on tape being a verbose racist. When the audio spread, players condemned him on social media, they organized symbolic protests and threatened to wildcat strike during the playoffs. Fans were outraged, and a new commissioner, Adam Silver, had him removed from ownership.

Keep in mind that Mr. Sterling had a 30-year record of racist detritus in his business and personal affairs, yet, true to past practices, it had always been ignored. The audio and the ground-up reaction changed the power dynamics, and a billionaire inside the country club became a casualty of public relations. The story stirred other owners to publicly express fears of their own vulnerability.

Then there was the viral elevator footage of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay. The NFL has a decades-long track record of covering-up or ignoring domestic violence. Roger Goodell has blithely continued that tradition and was ready to do it again in conjunction with Ravens management.

This was a commissioner who had suspended 56 players accused of domestic violence for all of a combined 13 games over his tenure. But one video conjoined with a mountain of dubious truths coming from his office turned Mr. Goodell - formerly lauded as the most powerful man in sports - into a national joke.

2014 was also the year that 109 sports figures - players, coaches and umps - went public about their sexuality, most notably NFL prospect Michael Sam. Sports has been known in recent years as "the last closet," a place where a top-down, homophobic, authoritarian culture made coming out risky as best. …

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