Watchers versus Doers – The Enabling Role of Sports Obsession

The fascination with sports, sometimes bordering on an obsession, is puzzling to me. It can be seen everywhere with discussions of the weekend’s games dominating Monday morning conversations. Maybe it’s just that it’s easy and safe to talk about sports. Maybe it’s that in today’s fast paced, constantly connected world it’s increasingly difficult to see the distinction between winners and losers. Not so in sports. In a little over two hours, a winner and a loser is clearly identified. But, there’s more to it.

What I find hard to understand is not the Monday morning sports recaps that get things moving but the desire to watch sports seven days a week. Part of the problem, if it is a problem, is that technology has become the great enabler. It seems like just yesterday that the nation was a buzz about Monday night football. Imagine – pro football games on Sunday and one on Monday. Could life get any better? Enter cable television and ESPN. The world would never be the same.

Ubiquity of an experience diminishes perspective and now with sports available 24x7x365 it seems that many fans have lost perspective. The sports of today is not the sports of my youth and that is a loss on many levels.

Maybe it’s the perspective of age that is at work. When I was a child I looked up to the professional sports figures of the day. I have a hard time conjuring up anything close to admiration today. I suppose it comes down to it’s easier to idolize a sports figure that’s you father’s  age than it is to idolize one that is your son’s age.

Maybe the inflated salaries have made me cynical and cause me to question the motives of the professional players. One of the greatest NFL players of all times was the Bear’s Walter Payton. In 1986, “Sweetness” was the highest paid pro football player making $475,000 per year[1]. Compare that to Drew Brees’s 2012 payday of $40,000,000. To be fair, Payton’s 1986 inflation adjusted salary would be approximately $990,000 but that wouldn’t land him in the top 20 on the 2012 Bear’s roster.

The real disparity is seen when pro salaries are compared to median household income. Back in 1986, Payton’s salary of $475,000 was 21 times that of the median the median household income of $22,588[2]. Fast forward to 2012 and we see that Brees’ 2012 income of $40,000,000 is 778 times that of today’s median income of $51,400[3]. Does anyone think things may be getting a bit out of hand? As an irresistible digression, I have to note this “wage gap” is very reminiscent of the widening gap in salaries of CEOs versus employees. In 1978 CEOs made 26 times the pay of an average employee. In 2102 they make 206 times that of their average worker salary[4].

Pro sports players are actors on the stage of sports and as such their salaries are driven by market demand. I get that. Ultimately what is most troubling to me is that we are becoming a society of watchers and not doers.  I wonder if any of those obsessed with watching sports today will be on their death bed and wish they would have watched more sports during their life.

At the end of the day there is a huge amount of time and resources spent watching twenty something year old millionaires play games. All of this occurs in the shadow of pressing, monument issues in the world that remain unresolved due to lack of resources, commitment or interest. As a species, it seems rather short sighted. It is who we are.


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