Test of Faith
Every day, it seems, we get a little bit closer to the day that college athletes start taking home a paycheck. The latest development? The California state legislature passed a law this week that would legalize college athletes’ ability to sign marketing deals (it would go into effect in 2023). Predictably, the NCAA appealed and called it unconstitutional, claiming that it would give California schools an unfair advantage. They’re right about that last part. If enacted, why would a top college basketball player go play for free at Duke when they could get paid (modestly, but still) at UCLA? Everyone knows what decision would be made.
But what the NCAA’s lawsuit is really about is that they’re scared of other states—football-crazy Alabama, hockey-mad Minnesota—following California’s lead in hopes of competing for national titles. Once that happens, there wouldn’t be any need for an organization hiding behind a shield of so-called amateurism. The NCAA’s decision to challenge the law is purely one made out of self-preservation. They don’t want to save college athletes from the horrors of being able to make some extra cash. They just want to protect their revenue streams.
So much of what we focus on here at Religion of Sports is centered around you–the fan. Why do we watch, what traditions do we follow, what would a win mean to us? What would it mean to our families?
Every now and then, though, we like to take a step back and consider the perspective of the athletes who play these games we care about so much. Why do they play? What would a win mean to them?
Taking that step back is something that the NCAA clearly has never done. They fail to consider anything about their athletes’ lives other than their entertainment value on the field or court. They lack the ability to protect players, the empathy to consider their well-being, and the forward thinking required to prepare them for a life after sports.
The NCAA is panicking that if California’s law is passed, then the organization’s days will be numbered. Good. We should always be questioning our leaders and organizations, making sure they are doing their jobs the best way possible. Asking these questions doesn’t mean we’re having a crisis of faith—it just means we’re invested in making sports the best that they can be. Start asking those questions, and it’s clear there’s a bully in the pulpit. Instead, let’s empower the people who bring us to the stadium, who jump higher than we could ever imagine and who make game winning shots that we’ll never forget.
With about three weeks left in the MLB season, here’s to all the teams in purgatory. Sure, there are pennant races that will be fought to the bitter end, and sure, fans of the Orioles and Marlins and Tigers threw in the towel months ago. Let’s toast instead to teams like the Diamondbacks and Giants, who are too far gone to make the playoffs, but aren’t going to be tanking any time soon either. They found a way to finish the season squarely in the middle of the pack. Congratulations are in order because for them, these could be three of the best weeks of the season. It’s when prospects can get their first taste of the Big Leagues, it’s when it’s finally cool enough to actually enjoy sitting in the bleachers, and it’s when they can play ball games with no pressure whatsoever. The game is at its most pure that way. Playoffs? They’re fine. But baseball’s purgatory is a nice reward all of its own.
The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry almost never happened. Why? In the late 50s, a Dallas oil tycoon was trying to bring an NFL team to Texas. He was far down the road finalizing a deal to buy the Redskins and move them from Washington when Skins owner George Preston Marshall tried to change the terms at the last minute. The offer was pulled and a few years later, the Cowboys were founded as an expansion team. Ever since then, the teams have been natural rivals (it’s cowboys vs. Indians, after all), and games have featured some of the best players—John Riggins, Roger Staubach, etc.—and some of the best coaches—Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs, etc.—in NFL history. The next battle is this Sunday at 1 EST. You won’t want to miss it.
Here are the best reads from this week that capture all the different aspects—tribes, relics, myths—that show why sports aren’t just like a religion. They are religion.
By Tim Layden • NBC Sports
When someone dedicates their life to a game, what do they do once the game is no longer there?
By Jamie Brisick • The New Yorker
Surfing has always been one of the most spiritual sports, but Jamie Brisick explores how some surfers think that the fact that every wave is now captured on camera has caused the sport to lose its soul.
By Nate Taylor • The Athletic
Andy Reid…fashion icon? Yes, please.
Sports are religion and we fans are true believers. If that’s you, we really just want to know one thing: why do you love sports? Just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org (in 200 words or less) and maybe we’ll feature your answer next time.
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In 1975, a few years after Title IX was signed into law, the Little League in my Long Island hometown opened up its rosters to girls, and I signed on more as a statement of equality than because I had any innate talent for playing ball. I got my first mitt, a dark-brown-leather beauty, by opening an account at our local bank, and I proudly hitched up the waist of the flannel uniform that was several sizes too big for a tiny 8-year-old. I was the only girl on the team (our name? Dario’s Pizza), and the only time I got on base in the entire season was when I got hit by a pitch. I was not destined for athletic stardom, or even an actual batting average, but that magic spring I fell in love with the soft thud a ball made upon hitting leather, the smell of the grass in the outfield, the metallic thwack of a line drive coming off an aluminum bat. That was my one and only venture into organized sports, but even now, arriving at a ballpark anywhere in the world—major league, minor league, at a college or summer camp, really, anywhere I can find one—I take in a deep breath, close my eyes, and remember the sounds and smells of a time when anything was possible, even the idea that a girl could play centerfield in America’s greatest game.—Marisa Cohen #SportsAreReligion
By Gary Smith • Sports Illustrated
Pat Tillman has become a mythic figure after he walked away from the NFL to join the army. Here, one of the greatest sportswriters of all time tells the definitive story of Tillman, why 9/11 inspired him to fight, and what to make of him after his death in 2004. We couldn’t stop thinking about this story for days after we finished, and bet you won’t be able to either.
The Good Book
ESPN turns 40 this week, but the Worldwide Leader is also celebrating the end of—in our opinion—the most admirable product the network has ever produced. This month marks the last installment of the print edition of ESPN: The Magazine. It was groundbreaking, both for its writing and its design, but what we would like to remember it for is the attention it paid to stories that went beyond the playing field. Like the best sports journalism, The Mag explored the soul of sports. Instead of just writing a profile of Michael Jordan, they wrote about obsession. Instead of a typical story about youth baseball, they wrote about childhood. Instead of a straight, investigative piece on a sexual harassment scandal, they wrote about families. We like to ask why sports matter here. For answers, dig through The Magazine’s archives. Congrats on a great run.
Fight songs are best known as a college phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean that NFL teams haven’t followed suit. In 1940, songwriter Al Hoffman, whose songs had been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, was with a friend who gave him a challenge: write a song for a football team. Hoffman was a Russian immigrant who lived in New York, and to make the challenge harder, he said he would write it about a team to which he had no connection. The Bears had won the 1940 NFL Championship, so Hoffman picked them, writing a march around the team’s slogan Bear Down. Using the pseudonym Jerry Downs, Hoffman sold the song to the team in 1941. It’s been played at every Bears home game since.
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”–Vern Law, Pittsburgh Pirates Cy Young Winner