“Speaking of Sports” is the name used by the late Howard Cosell for his radio reports on the ABC Networks. Cosell was more than a sports reporter and analyst. He connected the world of sports with the world itself. He became a champion for boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Howard Cosell could be bombastic but also eloquent. He made sports about more than a game, a match, a bout, a contest. Cosell would remind us that sports and society are intertwined and that sports often lead the larger culture in social change. Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball preceded the Civil Rights Act by almost two decades. Muhammad Ali brought the Vietnam War into sharp focus by his conscientious objection to serving. And the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics exposed the vulnerability of peaceful events to the tactics of terrorists.
Avid sports fans know well what Cosell was talking about when he extrapolated the world of sports and placed it in its larger role in international relations and domestic policy. The perpetrators of this month’s attacks in Paris chose a “friendly” football (soccer) match as one of the prime targets for their brutality. Sports at the highest level attract attention. Big events draw big audiences on television and in stadiums around the world. Watching great athletes is observing a form of artistry like no other. A Lionel Messi goal from a seemingly impossible pass, LeBron James sinking a 25 foot bank shot while barely looking at the hoop, or Serena Williams hitting a down-the-line winner while running at full speed and off-balance, show us the fullest potential of physical achievement in a way that is satisfying and fun. To steal a phrase from ABC Sports of the late last century, “the human drama of athletic competition, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” remind us that we are human, capable of greatness but always vulnerable.
Reports of cheating and corruption have tainted big time sports at the highest level. The NFL’s “Deflate Gate,” and FIFA’s top-tier payoffs and charges of international bribery rightfully embarrass businesses that support the artistry of great athletes. And the cover-ups regarding concussions and more serious head injuries in gridiron football are a disgrace to that sport and the exploitation of athletes at its worst. Yet kids in America will put on helmets and strive to lead a team and throw a funny shaped “ball” with the accuracy and composure of Russell Wilson. Children around the world will lace up their cleats and play what we in the USA call “soccer” with hopes of running fast and striking the ball like Cristiano Ronaldo or blocking shots with the reflexes of Hope Solo. These young dreams are real and joyful in ways impossible to explain to those who have not played at even the lowest level or who don’t appreciate the beauty of elite athletes at work.
As an ordinary sports fan who long ago gave up dreams of being the next Koufax or Clemente, I am hoping sports can once again lead the way. Our corrupt sporting institutions must purge themselves of exploitative liars whose main concern is their own enrichment. The illusion of fair play and concern for athletes has to be replaced by actual caring organizations that put the welfare of players before profits. With the world on edge and some politicians attempting to appeal to our worst instead of our best, sports can once again take a leading role in improving lives. The sports world can set an example of excellence with unselfish concern for those who provide uplifting moments on the field for those in the stands and beyond.
Real reform in big-time sports is unlikely anytime soon unless there are financial consequences for maintaining the status quo. But, the sports world has led the way before. So, there is hope. And as John Lennon put it, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”