For six nights on campus in late February and early March, Olympic medalists, professional athletes, television commentators, academics, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and reporters tried to assess the state of sport at the turn of the century. How to account for the ubiquity of all kinds of sports on television and the flood of money invested in having men and women play children’s games?
David Halberstam, whose most recent book is Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That He Made, began the week of discussions that were the centerpiece of this year’s annual Public Affairs conference sponsored by Brown and the Providence Journal. In his keynote speech, Halberstam argued that the great success of so many sports in the United States reflects the American love of all types of competition. "When I was thirteen," he said, "sports were a perfect reflection of how America was and how it would change. There was one major professional sport – baseball – all of the players were white, and games were broadcast on the radio." The invention of the television then led to the rise in popularity of professional football, a sport ill-suited to radio. More recently, the success of such all-sports cable channels as ESPN in the late 1970s is what saved a then-struggling National Basketball Association from failing as a result of lack of exposure and fan support.
David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Washington Post and the author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, opted for a closer look at the competitive fervor that sports fans love to experience, if only vicariously. After writing a book on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, Maraniss turned to Green Bay Packers coach Lombardi and discovered that great football coaches and U.S. presidents share the desire to crush their opposition. Lombardi, whose name, Maraniss said, is synonymous with "all that’s good and honest in American sports," has in fact left a darker legacy. Lombardi’s integrity and his win-at-all-costs mentality embody the great paradox in our view of athletics.
Lombardi is hardly original in having such a conflicted legacy, argued Frank Deford on the third night of the conference. The well-known sportswriter claimed that hero worship has always been integral to the ways in which we think about sports. From boxer John L. Sullivan, on whom countless Irish immigrants pinned their dreams, to Joe DiMaggio, who did the same for Italians, "America needs heroes because they bring our large, amorphous self together," Deford said.
In the ESPN era, sportscasters have become larger-than-life figures as well. Chris Berman ’77, host of ABC’s Monday Night Football Halftime Show, addressed college athletics and commercialism two nights after Deford’s visit. "I’m a little idealistic," he said. "But if you don’t start with being idealistic, what do you have, anyway?" According to one of Berman’s co-panelists, Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of Unpaid Professionals, such idealism may not be justified for much longer. Zimbalist is particularly concerned about the blurring of the once-classic distinction between amateur and professional athletes. For example, the NCAA has repeatedly redefined its regulations to accomodate the business of producing winning teams. College athletics these days, Zimbalist said, "clearly have nothing to do with any Greek ideal."
On the conference’s final night, retired athletes such as Green Bay Packer Willie Davis, Boston Celtic K.C. Jones, and tennis pro Pam Shriver discussed what happens when it’s time to stop competing. "It’s a passion in the person that makes them excel in athletics," said former Celtics guard and coach Jones. "If you can transfer that to your next career, it becomes a critical ingredient."