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Should some latter-day Gibbon write a Decline and Fall of the
American Sports Empire, the 12 years just past will fill the
first volume, with the passing of the Indianapolis 500, an
annual World Series, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns,
meaningful college bowl games without sponsors' names in their
titles, heavyweight championship bouts that matched the world's
two best fighters on free TV, and baseball seasons that opened
on Opening Day rather than the night before (or perhaps not at
all). Each of these was a fixture as recently as 1984.
Improbably, that now looks like a Golden Age.

America confers protective landmark status on her historic
buildings and officially observes national holidays. She does
this because her citizens, left to their own capitalistic
devices, cannot always be entrusted to preserve those
institutions worth keeping. Alas, the treasures and traditions
of American sports are not protected by any force of law. That
is why there will always be a Memorial Day weekend but not an
Indy 500 worthy of marking it.

As you surely know by now, auto racing's greatest spectacle has
been rendered ridiculous. On Sunday the sport's biggest
names--Andretti, Unser, Fittipaldi, Penske et al.--were
performing in the inaugural U.S. 500 in Brooklyn, Mich., while
more than half the drivers zooming around the Brickyard were
rookies. And another one bites the dust. In assessing the
survival prospects of various American sports traditions, one
might now stamp ENDANGERED across Indianapolis.

The Kentucky Derby and the Masters endure, to be sure. George
Steinbrenner has not yet acted on his annual extortionist
impulse to remove the Yankees from New York. But how many other
institutions of stature and long standing remain?

The Super Bowl, you say? Funny. Just as the NFL season
culminates with the Super Bowl, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
president Tony George would like his 500 to serve as the
season-ending capstone to his new Indy Racing League (IRL),
whose drivers would be guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots at Indy.
The Super Bowl analogy is his own. Race in the IRL, George all
but told drivers from the existing CART circuit, or do not race
in the Indy 500. So they did not race in the Indy 500. It has
come to this: an event with a proud sports heritage wanting to
emulate the Super Bowl, a vulgar, big-revenue spectacle that is
often boring and uncompetitive. For the want of Roman numerals,
Indy--with its 80 races dating back to 1911 and four Victory
Lane celebrations by A.J. Foyt--has sacrificed itself.

Our Gibbon will want to watch the videotape of actor and race
fan Paul Newman asking with genuine perplexity, "Where does all
that tradition go?" Newman is the kind of quaint relic who gives
vastly of his time and personal fortune to charity, and so he
cannot be expected to understand what moves today's rainmakers
of American sport. Where does all that tradition go? It goes
where Willie Sutton went: where the money is.

It has ever been so. Still, when Walter O'Malley moved the
Dodgers from Brooklyn, he at least blew smoke about being
motivated by something other than naked greed; the move had to
do with America's manifest destiny in the West, right? (Yeah,
that's it.) Free agency was nominally about "freedom," even if
what it really meant was that Albert Belle would be free to
reject a $43 million contract offer from the Cleveland Indians
and seek one more nickel elsewhere.

The pretense that money was not what motivated the barons of
sport was finally dispensed with in 1984, when, under the cover
of darkness, Robert Irsay fled with his Colts from the people
who had loved and supported them in Baltimore. Since then owners
have been free to wear their true thoughts on their
sleeves--perhaps literally so, in the case of Marge Schott's
famous armband.

As a result, franchise free agency has become as widespread as
athletes' free agency, further fraying our traditions. When
clubs change cities as if changing managers, and players change
teams as if changing socks, then only team uniforms remain
constant. It is all that's left to root for. Basically, says
comedian Jerry Seinfeld, we're "rooting for laundry."

Seinfeld said that a few years ago, when one could at least
cheer for the same laundry season after season. Nearly two weeks
ago the Detroit Pistons ditched their traditional blue, white
and red uniforms in favor of new ones in a tired teal, bearing a
redesigned team logo that features an anatomically bizarre horse
and tailpipes. Days before, the Minnesota Timberwolves had
unveiled their new uniforms, which carry a meaner Wolf logo. The
team did this rather than keeping the old unis and putting
meaner Wolves on them, a concept that would not address one of
the seven-year-old franchise's primary concerns: that there
aren't enough sheep buying Wolves' clothing.

The unflagging effort to sell more souvenir jerseys has
literally changed the look of sports. It has led to some
baseball and basketball teams' wearing three or four different
uniforms each season. It's only a matter of time before American
teams follow the lead of English soccer champion Manchester
United, a.k.a. Merchandise United, which two months ago had its
players--true sartorial chameleons--change uniforms at halftime
of a match.

Such ludicrous things happen all the time on this side of the
Arrowhead Pond, of course. Consider that the owners of the
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim now also control that city's baseball
team. For symmetry and synergy, Disney allegedly would like to
call its new acquisition the Almighty Angels of Anaheim and
plans to release the team's new colors, logo and uniforms in
conjunction with a movie--the sequel to Angels in the Outfield.
It is Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner, not the Angels'
ballpark, that ought to be called the Big A.

Speaking of ballparks, those civic showpieces were once given
ennobling names such as Soldier, War Memorial, Veterans, RFK.
Remember? There also remain a few Forums and Coliseums that at
least make nominal nods to the spectacles for which they were
built. If those arenas all seem archaic now, it's because
today's buildings are erected for corporate tenants, then named
for corporate sponsors. And older ballparks are being
retrofitted with new corporate names. The results range from the
merely crass--evocative Candlestick Park becoming something
called 3Com--to the downright Faustian: Minneapolis officials
briefly floated the idea of stripping the Hubert H. Humphrey
Metrodome of its name and selling it to the highest bidder. What
the hell, Humphrey's dead.

So is Joe Robbie, which is why Florida Marlins, Miami Dolphins
and Florida Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga is now reportedly
negotiating the possibility of renaming Joe Robbie Stadium for
American Airlines. If the numbers crunched right, he would
probably peddle the Lincoln Memorial to Lincoln-Mercury.

Whatever its name, Joe Robbie Stadium will host the next Federal
Express Orange Bowl, a game that for the past 58 years was
played, oddly enough, in the Orange Bowl. But the Bowl Alliance
suggested that the bowl move or be iced out of the rotation to
host a potential national championship game. So, to remain as
prestigious as the Tostitos Brand Tortilla Chips Fiesta Bowl,
the grand old Orange Bowl has abandoned the grand old Orange
Bowl. That's one small step backward for Americans, one giant
leap forward for American Airlines.

Of course, if you have flown over downtown Chicago, you know
that Chicago Stadium has been replaced by a building named for
United Airlines, whose corporate logo covers the arena's vast
roof, diabolically advertising United to people already on its
airplanes. What you can't see from the air is the bronze statue
that stands outside the arena. It is a likeness of Michael
Jordan, testament to his literal landmark status in Chicago. He
is the athlete most worth watching today--in talent and legend,
the Ruth of this era--which is why the Bulls' free-agent-to-be
is shopping himself during the NBA playoffs. On May 20 he
publicly demanded $36 million for the next two seasons because,
he said of his employers, "they've made a lot of money here, and
it's time to give a little back." Jordan's agent characterized
the figure as laughably low and said it will take much more than
$18 mil a year to sign his client.

We are familiar with the rare athlete who accepts less than his
market value to remain on the team with which he is identified.
However, in a postmodern variation on that concept, Jordan said
he will take less money--as much as $10 million less--to play
elsewhere, should the Bulls not accede to his
take-it-or-leave-it demand, which is roughly 10% of the
franchise's value. "On principle," Jordan explained.

But he is confused. It isn't principle that interests Jordan;
it's the interest on the principal. And there is nothing wrong
with saying so. Money is why the Browns left Cleveland. It's why
the Fall Classic no longer happens every fall. It's why Brooklyn
is now better known as a town where the best Indy Car drivers
race on Memorial Day weekend.

They used to do that in Indy. Remember?

B/W PHOTO: FRED SCHNELL/LIFE [Crowd cheering Indianapolis 500 winner]