Having made a living for almost 50 years covering politics, I've never been under any illusions about where it stands in the larger scheme of things. Politics has its fans, but it holds nothing like the fascination that sports exerts on millions of Americans.
That doesn't bother me. A country that tunes its television sets to the Super Bowl or the World Series in numbers that dwarf any presidential debate is probably healthier in its outlook and more sensible in its priorities than one where C-SPAN would outdraw ESPN.
But last week, I began to worry that sports and its side effects are metastasizing into something that is worryingly out of control.
Maybe it's just a seasonal overload. This week began with the NCAA men's and women's basketball finals, and will end with the drama of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta, Ga. The Major League Baseball season has begun, the National Hockey League playoffs have started and the National Basketball Association playoffs are coming soon.
But beyond these extravaganzas, I see too many small signs that sports is spiraling out of its proper channels and creating more problems than it should.
Take the announcement Monday of a seemingly benign cooperative agreement by leaders of the high school, college and professional basketball leagues that they are teaming with some of their biggest corporate sponsors on a $30-million program to promote youth hoops.
It's good that they can get together on anything, but I wonder if this doesn't represent a further blurring of the lines between professional, play-for-pay athletics and the supposedly amateur, extracurricular sports that are part of school and college life.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the ruling body of undergraduate competition, already is up to its neck in moral ambiguities. It promotes the concept of scholar-athletes and runs ads claiming that almost all the thousands of collegiate competitors "will go pro at something other than sports."
But it allows colleges that, year after year, fail to graduate most of their performers to compete for championships and the lavish TV revenues that are their rewards. Its coaches earn salaries that dwarf those of mortal professors, while the players are denied even a modest stipend for their hours of practice, as they await the big payoff for those who turn pro.
The NBA showed its bona fides by agreeing last year not to recruit players straight out of high school. Supposedly, it is demonstrating high principle by insisting that talented players spend one year on a college squad before cashing in.
The men's Final Four, like the Super Bowl and the collegiate bowl games, is a hugely expensive corporate entertainment and marketing event — an excuse for a party by some of the most affluent people in this commercialized economy. The players are in effect "hired" without pay to give the patrons a reason to travel to the cities where the revels take place.
Which brings us to the Olympics, the great-grandfather of all athletic spectacles. They bring out the worst excesses of all, starting with the unseemly competition among cities and nations to host the event and then the commercialization of every aspect of the program.
And the Olympics have taken on the uglier aspects of a political campaign. The protests of China's Tibet policies that have marked the progress of the Olympic torch around the globe measure how much the athletic games have been distorted into a down-and-dirty ideological battle, worthy of the South Carolina primary.
What was once a competition of individual athletes of sublime quality has become a race for medals among the superpowers and a stage for fighting out the issues that statesmen and politicians cannot resolve.
The way things are going with sports, politics is looking better and better.
David Broder's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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