Game over for concept of sports dynasties

July 08, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

This isn't a good weekend for American sports patriots. There's no place to invest cheers.

At the World Cup, which concludes with tomorrow's final between Italy and France, Team USA was knocked out without winning a game. At Wimbledon, which also ends tomorrow with the men's final, every American male and female competitor was eliminated before the quarterfinals.

The combination of those and other recent high-profile American sports failings (World Baseball Classic, 2006 Olympic hockey, 2004 Olympic basketball, seven of the past 10 Ryder Cups, etc.) has given rise to the notion that, well, we stink now. Our sports dynasty is over.

To which I say: OK, but what sports dynasty isn't over?

We might not rule anymore, but between the effects of globalization, big-money contracts and free-market principles (free agency), it's hard now for any team or country to rule any sport for long. Things just don't work that way. You can look it up.

Internationally, the great Brazilian soccer team has won just two of the past nine World Cups. A Russian-based hockey team hasn't won Olympic gold since 1992.

Here at home, the sports landscape is littered with former dynasties in disrepair, from the Boston Celtics to the San Francisco 49ers to, um, a certain baseball team that plays at Camden Yards. Shoot, even the Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000 despite having hogged all the expensive toys in an effort to extend their dominance.

Is it possible to explain this across-the-board leveling of playing fields? Sure. The sports world is just much larger and more diverse and complex than it used to be, with more players, more games, more contenders, more factions, more options, more everything.

Lines that used to be simple and straight are now crisscrossed and blurred. The NBA has star players from China and Germany. Germany's top offensive players in the 2006 World Cup were born in Poland. The world's most popular women's tennis player, Maria Sharapova, is a Russian who has availed herself of the American system of producing champions.

Many of the best athletes from around the world make millions in America's pro baseball, basketball and hockey leagues.

The result is a widespread spreading of the wealth -- the same thing that occurs when pro leagues institute salary caps and grant players the freedom to move from team to team, as they surely do.

The whole scene is a lot like the television industry, which used to consist of a couple of dominant networks, but is now a veritable blizzard of channels and viewing options. Many of the old rules and notions are no longer in effect. To the same degree, the sports world just doesn't operate as it once did. America's pro baseball league is about half American. (OK, a little more.) Many of the athletes who are beating Americans in international competitions were trained at American colleges, or in American leagues.

I don't mean to shrug off the many explanations for America's sudden sports shortcomings that I've recently read and heard. They're valid, for the most part. The rising popularity of extreme sports and games such as lacrosse surely has thinned the talent pool feeding the mainstream sports. It's also probably true that some of our best athletes would rather just sit around and play video games. The living can get awfully easy around here.

Certain sports deal with their own circumstances that constrain American teams and players. Soccer just isn't as popular here as it is in the powerhouse countries, so not enough of the best American athletes are playing. Basketball advertising campaigns highlighting individuals have undermined the team concept in that sport, leading to a breakdown in some fundamentals among American players.

The falloff in American tennis (life after Agassi is especially bleak, we're being told) is attributable, I think, at least partly to golf's rise in popularity. Tennis is a wonderful game, but not enough young people think it's cool.

And as for baseball, well, everyone in America is juiced, according to Jose Canseco.

Frankly, I think the hand-wringing over our demise is overblown. Our athletes and our national teams might not rule as much anymore, but the best baseball and basketball in the world is still being played in our pro leagues. And let's face it, we'd feel a lot better if there were a World Cup in our real national pastime -- football.

The best explanation for the losing streak we're enduring in other sports is that so much of our time, energy and resources are being invested in football. Think about it. Ghana knocked us out of soccer's World Cup, but we'd kick Ghana's rear in football. Then no one would say our dynasty was over.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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