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Original Issue


Sport in the '80s was altered for richer and for poorer

The 1980s have been to the world of sport what a Veg-O-Matic is to the carrot: An entity has gone in one end whole and unremarkable, and come out the other end diced and rippled almost beyond recognition. Fancy stuff, great for consumption. But who's going to clean up the mess in the machine?

It's hard to believe, but before the '80s, instant replay didn't officially decide anything and an NCAA basketball tournament could be purchased with pocket change. Now "further review" tells us who wins in the NFL, and starting next season, the 63-game NCAA tournament will go for $2.3 million per game on CBS. That's $95,000 per player per game on each 12-man team. Oops, those rascals are amateurs, so naturally they're happy to be paid with course credits and character-building.

Just as naturally, the pros want cash—and haven't we given it to them? After routing the twin evils of collusion and reason, major league baseball players now get a million dollars a year if they can hit a curve, three million if they can hit it fair. The friendly ones will also sign autographs—at the going rate, of course.

Three quarters of a million dollars is now the average pay for an NBA player. But deal with this: Following a straight-line progression of NBA revenue sharing, based on increases since 1983, average pay per NBA player in 1999 will be $10 million. Honey, remember back in the '80s, when point guards didn't have Lear-jets and had to fly commercial? (Knowing laughter.) Did you hear Akeem Olajuwon is pursuing Mitsubishi? Of course, Pervis Ellison's group will take it private first. (Nods all around.)

Greed and me-first-ism prevailed in the '80s, and as a result we suffered through two baseball strikes and two NFL strikes. We got Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson and his steroid strut at the '88 Summer Olympics as proof that some illegal substances really work. Former Soviet swimming coach Serguei Waitchekovsky said recently, "From 1974 on, all Soviet swimmers were using banned substances. I'm an expert, and I fixed them all up personally so they wouldn't get caught."

Thank you, Serguei. Nice mustaches on the gals.

In fairness, though, his statement could have been made only in the wake of the shocking democratic reforms in the Soviet Union and several other Eastern bloc countries, reforms that will no doubt change the world of sport forever. Yet it was the remarkable win by the U.S. hockey team over the still evil Soviets in the '80 Winter Olympics that ushered in this crazy decade and showed us again how grand sport can be. If you can look at that Lake Placid victory photo even now—even forgetting flag and politics—and not feel the hairs on your arm move just a bit, then you probably don't like puppies or sunrises, either.

Through it all—including the jillion games and matches and tractor pulls and celebrity-mud-roller-skate-fishathons wired out by ESPN (born '79) and its cabled progeny—one quality of sport remained constant: At their best, the competitions lifted us all. The Lakers against the Celtics. Notre Dame against Miami. The 49ers against the whole NFL.

Sports heroes moved us too. Greg Louganis, Larry Bird, Mary Lou Retton, Nolan Ryan, Wayne Gretzky, Joan Benoit, Edwin Moses, Walter Payton, Magic Johnson, Mike Schmidt, Joe Montana, Chrissie and Martina, to name a few. They may not have been perfect guides—we don't declare many persons saints anymore, either—but by their deeds, they were generous providers.

Heroes fell from grace as well, each because of an earthly burden: Pete Rose and gambling, Len Bias and drugs, Steve Garvey and lust. We realized that in the past we may have asked too much of our sporting gods, that we may have been conveniently blind to what we didn't want to know. We have learned to welcome confession, penance and, when possible, rebirth from the fallen.

In the '80s we saw the first black quarterback start in a Super Bowl (Doug Williams), the first black head coach hired in the modern-era NFL (Art Shell) and the first black quarterback win the Heisman Trophy (Andre Ware), all of which reminded us that society can sometimes be proud of sport for results other than points and wins. We also noticed that the little town of San Antonio has become the ninth-largest city in the U.S. and that folks there would like an NFL team and a major league baseball franchise. Can they get them? Get in line, San Antonio. Maybe in another decade or so.

Ah, but not everything has been transformed over the last 10 years. Our country's favorite girl's name in 1979 was Jennifer; now it's Ashley. However, our favorite boy's name was, and still is, Michael. For that, I choose to thank Mr. Jordan, the sweet flying machine of this or any decade.