5 Ways Pro Sports Are Better Than They Used to Be

November 20, 2012

A lot of the non-sports coverage of sports is negative. The stories that cross over into the broader culture are often about misbehaviors and arrests, over-spending and bankruptcies, greed, or health concerns like concussions. And there is -- as with almost every aspect of life at almost every period in history -- a nostalgia for a purer game of generations past.

But the truth is there are a lot of great things about sports today. And there are trends and innovations that make big time professional sports a better influence on our culture than ever before. Here are five:

1. Before most NBA games, the players from opposing teams embrace. Then they play with intensity and emotion for 48 minutes. Then they hug again. It’s a great lesson to everyone, including the kids who idolize them, that you can play fiercely but not personally. That you can be kind and friendly outside the game and be a tough competitor during it. And that you can show emotion to your friends in public. This true after NFL games, too. You can see that behavior mimicked all the time in youth sports. The self-protective stoicism among guys trying to be tough is no longer necessary.

2. In the 1970's there was a fear that as NBA rosters got more black players, the popularity of the sport would decline. White people would just not be as interested in a sport with nearly all-black teams. But the truth is that as the NBA has gotten blacker, it has gone from a niche sport to a global juggernaut. Thirty years ago, the NBA finals were shown on tape delay – now there are live regular season games on TV almost every night and a whole network dedicated to the League. And in addition to fewer white players, there are more international players. As a general trend over the last 50 years, as the league as gotten blacker and more foreign, it has gotten more popular and valuable. Perhaps most telling, the Celtics roster is currently composed of fourteen black players and one white foreigner, and the team is as popular and beloved as ever in Boston.

3. Much of the negativity I referenced in the opening is known to us because sports are so much more open today. There probably weren't fewer misbehaviors or less greed in the past, it just wasn't reported. The incredible number of media outlets that exist – online, sports radio, magazines, sports TV networks – mean a lot more information. As with any sphere of life, that means we hear more negative as well as positive, but openness and information are healthy.

4. The coverage of sports is much better than it used to be. Just look at the TV broadcasts: all the camera angles, high definition clarity, super slow motion, commentators illustrating plays and tactics on the screen. It makes the games more fun and interesting to watch. As much as some people like to be nostalgic about simpler technology – prizing vinyl over digital music, for instance – I doubt many sports fans would like to go back to the way sports was shown on TV thirty years ago. In addition, the blogs, sports networks, and mountains of statics give fans an incredible wealth of information that used to be available only to insiders.

5. It has become almost a requirement for top pro-athletes to have a foundation or other charitable enterprise. They teach kids to read, collect food for the homeless, run camps for poor children. And all the leagues heavily publicize this charitable work with campaigns like “NBA Cares.” You can certainly question the effectiveness of some of it, and obviously the motivations vary from altruism to marketing, but it instills a message that helping others is part of the responsibility of successful people.

It each of these cases, there are ways to quibble. The issues of race in sports is far from a simple one, for example. But all of these trends give us a lot to celebrate. So I’m not nostalgic for some bygone day of “better” sports. With the caveat that all human endeavors are highly imperfect, I mostly like what we've got, and where we’re headed.

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