Every January, jokes are made about the Super Bowl becoming an unofficial national holiday. Over 133 million Americans watched the 1998 Super Bowl broadcast, providing an example of the popularity of sports in today’s world. Millions of people are not just sports fans but participants as well, including 35 million Americans between the ages of six and twenty-one. Although most of these athletes will never gain much recognition or wealth for their efforts, some are among the richest and most famous people in society. Sports have an important place in society, but the question remains as to whether sports and athletes can live up to the expectations that are sometimes placed on them.
Many people believe that participation in sports can build character and teach values such as teamwork and perseverance. This view has its antecedent in the culture of ancient Greece. Katherine Kersten, chair of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative public policy institution, writes, “The Greeks viewed superiority in running or wrestling as an outward sign of inward nobility of character. Sport, for them, was a metaphor for right conduct in all competitions of life.” Today sports are still considered to be an avenue toward self-improvement, but they also function for many youths as an alternative to involvement with drugs or gangs.
At times, sports do live up to high expectations. When baseball player Cal Ripken ended his consecutive-game streak toward the end of the 1998 season, many sportswriters praised Ripken and the work ethic that had helped keep him in the Baltimore Oriole lineup for more than sixteen years. Other athletes are lauded for their charity work or for triumphing over troubled childhoods.
Sports are also praised for what they do for their fans. Sports can bring people together. The Green Bay Packers are considered by many to be an ideal example of how sports can unite a com- munity, because the Packers are the only team in the National Football League (NFL) that is community-owned, rather than in the hands of a wealthy owner who could move the team on a whim. Spectators of all races and social classes are able to unite to cheer for their favorite team. David Holmquist, the men’s basketball coach at Biola University in California, writes, “There is something enormously healthy about living in a world of clear and absolute allegiances—at least during a two-hour game. No one has to interpret for rooted fans or players what they are feeling. . . .We are consumed with a singular intention, and that is for our team to do well.”
In a perfect world, sports would live up to these and other expectations. But not surprisingly, many athletes, fans, and teams not only fall short of those ideals but also behave in ways that can be especially troubling. For example, some critics assert that too great an emphasis is placed on winning—participation in sports is not seen as the goal, but rather, doing better than everyone else is what matters. This emphasis can manifest itself in parents and coaches who push young athletes too hard, or athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs, or coaches who encourage their athletes to play dirty. D. Stanley Eitzen, a professor emeritus at Colorado State University and prominent sports sociologist, observes, “Sport has a dark side. It is plagued with problems. . . . In the view of many, these problems result from bad people. I believe that stems from a morally distorted sports world—a world where winning supersedes all other considerations.”
To some of these observers, sports are not always the best way for children to improve their character or better their lot in life. This issue is of significant interest to people who are concerned with the future of minority children and worry that some of these youngsters place too great an emphasis on sports as a professional career, disregarding other paths to success.
While some athletes are lauded for their behavior, such as Ripken and the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the sports pages of America’s newspapers provide numerous examples of men and women whose athletic talent is overshadowed by reckless, and sometimes criminal, actions. Stories about an athlete arrested for drug possession or spousal abuse seem to be published nearly every day. Athletes are also criticized for their greed—demands to receive higher salaries or be traded to a team that will pay them what they seek. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Joseph Perkins is among those who believe that athletes should behave more ideally. “Whether they like it or not, whether they asked for it or not, pro athletes are very much public citizens. The American people have a right to expect them to behave themselves in a socially responsible manner.”
The behavior of fans often also fails to live up to Holmquist’s praise. Racial epithets have been hurled during games. The World Cup has been the site of boorish behavior by soccer hooligans. Even success can bring out the worst in fans, such as riots after a team has won a championship. Eitzen is among those who criticize the more unruly fans when he comments, “Spectator behavior such as rioting and throwing objects at players and officials is excessive. . . . Spectators not only tolerate violence, they sometimes encourage it.”
The problems in sports pale in comparison to other current issues such as international conflicts or epidemics. However, the issues that are brought up by supporters and critics of sports provide society with an opportunity to compare an ideal world to the real world and perhaps find ways to improve the latter. Sports and Athletes: Opposing Viewpoints considers these and related questions in the following chapters: Do Sports Benefit Children? Should College Sports Be Reformed? Is Racial Discrimination a Problem in Sports? Is There Sexual Equality in Sports? Is Drug Use a Problem in Sports? In these chapters, the authors debate the role of sports in society and whether the expectations placed on sports can be achieved.