King Kaufman's Sports Daily

It's still possible to look past the ugliness in sports and be a fan, but it takes effort. Plus: It was possible to love Pete Sampras too, but it took more effort than most were able to give.


Salon Staff
August 28, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

I have a confession to make. I'm still a sports fan. Even college sports. I buy tickets.

I've written a lot in the last few months about the corruption and hypocrisy that doesn't just invest the foundation of college sports, it actually is the foundation. I've written about how professional teams routinely treat their customers with contempt, that the one person who can count on never being catered to by the sports industry is the die-hard fan, because the industry cynically figures the die-hards will always be around no matter how badly they're treated. And I've written about how public financing of stadiums and arenas is a boondoggle, a form of corporate welfare that's always sold to the taxpayers with bogus claims that the investment will pay off for the community.

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And yet, there I was last weekend, driving the width of Missouri to watch my alma mater, California, get beat by Kansas State in the Black Coaches Association Classic in Kansas City. I didn't go as a sportswriter, wasn't even pretending to do some sort of background research. I bought a ticket, piled into a car with three other sports fans, ate enough barbecue to cripple a lesser man and then spent three and a half hours yelling at guys in yellow pants who I was supposed to believe were college students on a field trip. I was yelling because they weren't tackling the guys in purple shirts with sufficient efficiency.

Reader Robert J. Dewar of Ottawa, writing about the Oregon Legislature voting to approve $150 million in bond financing for a baseball stadium in Portland, captured the contradiction perfectly for me.

"I am a lifelong sports nut who is generally sickened by the amount of money the public is willing to invest in sports," he wrote. "Education, healthcare, the environment and other issues receive scant attention from the public until there is a real crisis. But all hell breaks loose if there is even a mention of moving a team.

"Sports fanaticism is OK if you are a 15-year-old. It seems like a bad joke when you are 40. Still, the beginning of the NFL season always stirs something in me ..."

Exactly. What he said. It's almost morally indefensible to be a sports fan these days, and yet ... I have tickets to Saturday's game between Missouri and Illinois here in St. Louis. I'm not covering it. I don't even care who wins. I just like to go.

I think there is a compelling argument to be made about public spending on sports, to wit: Building this ballpark is going to cost this city $8 million a year (or however much) for the next 30 years, but we think that's worth it. For all of the benefits, mostly intangible, that a team brings, $8 million is a fair price. I don't agree with that argument, but I think it's a fair one.

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The thing is that it never gets made. It's the huckster argument that the new stadium, arena or team is going to be a cash cow that's so offensive it can make a person doubt his sports fandom, makes it seem almost wrong to be the type who just really likes to sit in a large crowd and cheer for great athletes playing games. I am that type. I just don't think that you, who may or may not be that type, should have to subsidize my hobby with your tax dollars. If that new stadium or arena, the one in Portland or any other one we're talking about, is such a sweet deal, such a moneymaker, why don't smart business people want to invest in it?

It's hard for us sports fans to forget about these things as we set up our tailgates, paint our faces, do whatever it is we do to enjoy our favorite pastimes. We manage, but it isn't easy. It would be nice if we didn't have to make such an effort.

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Pete Sampras, the riddle [PERMALINK]

Has there ever been anyone as great at a sport as Pete Sampras while also being so bone-jarringly uninspiring? I don't think so.

Sampras officially retired at a sweet, tearful ceremony at the U.S. Open this week, and I doubt there are too many parents who are having to comfort crying children because of it.

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I found it interesting over the years how Sampras was consistently able to keep me and millions of others from really caring about him. I tried. Here was a superlative athlete, possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, dominant during his prime. I'm usually fascinated by athletes like that as long as I can even stomach watching their sport, and I can take tennis, especially during the late rounds of the Grand Slam tournaments. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova are all tennis players I've enjoyed watching.

Sampras always struck me as a fine champion, a solid, unassuming, humble kind of guy. His lack of showmanship and controversy surely limited his popularity, but there have been other great athletes who were low-key without boring the public quite the way Sampras did. Even in his own sport, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg and Steffi Graf moved the needle on the interest meter quite nicely without being terribly exciting. Tim Duncan leaps to mind as a guy seriously lacking in charisma who doesn't have the same soporific effect on the masses as Sampras. The guy just filled us with inertia.

I've always felt a little guilty about my lack of interest in Sampras. I've said often that I don't really care what kind of person an athlete is, I just want to watch him or her perform. I don't need to care about these people as people to appreciate their athletic talents. Sampras was a test of that sentiment, and one I always failed. No one was better, but there was just something about him that made me not care, and I still don't know what it was.

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