Television in all its facets is primarily an advertising medium, and the people in front of the cameras are so imbued with that ethos that they can’t stop selling even when they’ve got you hooked. Turn on any TV news show—national as well as local—and the talking heads thereon continually use words like “incredible,” “unbelievable” and “astonishing” to characterize the often-quite-predictable developments they describe. It stands to reason that veteran newsfolk like Brian Williams and Norah O’Donnell have been around the block a few times, but to hear their reports it seems that they view the world with the wide-eyed awe of eight-year olds.
Curiously, however, the world of sports—also glimpsed mostly through television’s Big Eye—seems relatively immune to theatrical exaggeration, and that seems to me remarkable because much of its action truly is out of the ordinary. I mean not only the highlight-reels feats but also the minute-by-minute grist of most of the games we watch these days.
I can’t get through an NCAA men’s basketball tournament without marveling—and I don’t use the term loosely—at the skills of the players. Some of the things they do at high speed—the dunks, the blocks, the no-look passes—almost defy description, yet as Dizzy Dean used to say, “You seen it on your screen.” The fact that they’re kids—18- to 22-year olds—makes their deeds all the more impressive.
The professionals of the National Basketball Association are even more remarkable, but their virtuosity in our most-athletic of sports is muted by its commonality; they’re all so good that they almost cancel one another out. People tell me they hardly watch the NBA—that it’s a kind of track meet for giraffes—and sometimes I feel that way, too. But every time I screw myself down and watch an extended stretch of action I go away dazzled by what I’ve seen. Has any man six-feet-eight-inches tall done even a fraction of the things LeBron James can do? I think not, and he’s not a heckuva lot better than some of the other guys out there.
Part of our lack of wonder at the skill level of basketball and other sports has to do with television, I think. The home screen reduces human activity to its own scale, making LeBron about eight inches tall instead of 6-8, even on a big set. You can’t really appreciate how good the top hoopsters are until you view them in person from courtside, something I’ve been privileged to do many times. Their height alone is startling—the sight of a man 6-foot-6 or above is enough to stop traffic in a mall and the NBA presents a courtful of them nightly. I still recall the first seven-footer I stood next to, a center for the U. of Colorado basketball team, in a post-game locker room of a U. of Illinois game I covered long ago. The fact that he was wearing a cowboy hat made him especially memorable.
Field-level viewing is different in kind as well as degree from the views at home or from the stands in other sports as well. You can’t appreciate the level of violence in the National Football League unless you see it close-up; from there the hits that accompany every play are enough to make you wince. The much-tamer activities of golf and tennis present similar perspectives: the games the top pros play look, sound and feel different from the ones the rest of us do. Watching Tigers Woods drive a golf ball from a few feet away is to sense the existence of a dimension that’s foreign to 99.9999% of the population.
By me, arguments over whether yesterday’s athletes were as good as today’s are sheer nonsense. “Bigger, faster, stronger” may be a cliché, but it’s true. Good high-school teams today could beat good college teams of 30 years ago in all our major men’s team sports. Among the women the comparison hardly exists because women’s teams hardly existed back then.
Better nutrition plays a role in athletic development, as do better training techniques. Weight training used to be shunned in some sports because it was thought to hinder flexibility, but now it’s universal. About the only area in which regimens lag is in the area of agility; every football linemen should be taught to fast-dance, I think.
The biggest differences with the recent past have been in the onset and intensity of training. Kids didn’t use to get serious about sports until puberty, but as Tiger Woods’ example shows (for better or worse), they now sometimes begin while in diapers. Multi-sport athletes used to abound but there’s little room for that today, with early specialization the rule.
Kids whose parents can afford it receive individual sports instruction early on, and in a few sports (mainly basketball) it’s available to the talented of any household-income level. High-school teams used to be the main focus of developmental efforts but now year-around age-group teams function beginning with kids of 10 or 11. The top basketballers entering college have been playing 70 or 80 organized games a year since grade school, attended specialized camps, toured with AAU clubs and, probably, been on ESPN. Indeed, youngsters don’t have to leave their homes to get good instruction—with slow-motion and stop-action, and ex-players or coaches at just about every mike, every televised game is a clinic.
As I’ve written before, I think the above efforts usually produce more harm than good. Only a tiny fraction of young athletes can expect to earn a living from their games and most would be better off devoting more time to academics or developing other skills. It’s a sports-crazy land, though, and even if we don’t approve we still can enjoy its fruits. Some of them really are incredible.