Outrage comes with the territory if you’re sports fan. There is the acceptable outrage that comes naturally if painfully from following a team or an athlete who falls short or is slighted for one reason or another. With credit to John McEnroe, call this “Are you kidding me!?” outrage. As a fan. it puts some color in your cheeks, but that’s about it.
Then there’s the social outrage, the outrage that arises from some sort of fundamental violation of the rules of the game. Think of every cheating or game-fixing scandal from the Black Sox through Pete Rose and on to the current steroid scandal. Call this one “say it ain’t so” outrage. Almost any sports fan feels a deeper, more wrenching outrage about these things, manifested more in a turned stomach than in flushed cheeks.
“Say it, ain’t so” outrage tends to stem from cheating and doping, but I’m more interested in the outrage that comes from when the culture of the sport is at odds with social justice. Segregation in baseball is an obvious one*, but there are many others. An outrage I think we now see on the horizon involves the NCAA and the NBA and its eligibility requirements. The NBA wants to keep players from jumping straight to the pros from high school. Obviously, the NCAA wants the best players to do at least one year in college, too. And so we get some of the most talented 18-year-old basketball players pretending to go to college for a year (I realize there are exceptions), risking injury and deferring income. In some cases, this means we’re asking kids of limited or truly deficient economic means to put off (and to risk) their best shot at socio-economic upward mobility for no reason that makes sense to them, while all around them colleges, coaches, and corporations make scads of money of their performances (Div1 college coaches average nearly a million bucks in salary). In what way is this fair? How is this not a form of exploitation? Why is what Brandon Jennings has done as a teenager always portrayed as somewhat unsavory, especially in light of what’s going on with the adults who run the NCAA Div 1 world he chose to forgo?
The book industry makes a lot of books about sports for kids, many of them excellent and very thoughtful, especially on the fiction side. But teenagers are at the very centers of serious questions about sports, society, and American culture. Sports is now and has always been much more than “Friday Night Lights” and being a local hero in high school. Are we making books for them that fully address this?
*By the way, is anyone else tired of sports writers yelling that we should go back to the pre-steroids-era records of Ruth, Maris, and Aaron as though that era were somehow pristine? Was segregation a lesser sin against the purity of the game and its records than steroids? I think not.