Curtain Raiser

Chasing the Bouncing Ball, Colltalers

The sports world is under an expanding cloud of suspicion and corruption. Virtually, all major sports face a confidence crisis. And yet, excellence still rules and records keep on falling. Some even required new standards to be appreciated.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that, as money continues to pour into the opaque structures of organized sports, so are claims of fraud, game fixing, and illegal betting. But whether responding or not to it, elite athletes keeping on pushing farther.
Allegations of corruption, health risks, and influence peddling have done little to diminish attendance at big arenas. And leagues and global competitions still command obscene amounts of cash, from sponsors to moguls with shady agendas.
Let’s start with football, soccer for Americans, and the implosion of its normative organ, Switzerland-based FIFA. An ongoing probe has already produced arrests and lifetime bans to many officials, besides uncovering a multi-billion dollar global scheme of kickbacks and off-the-books deals. It may finally break a century of ingrained corruption.
Yet, the sport is at an all time high, both in popularity and profits, at least at a club level. It has bred a great generation of incredibly fit players, whose achievements have to be accommodated under a whole new set of standards.
King among them is the Argentine Messi, whose feats in the Spanish Liga top a talented field, even though neither he nor his top challengers, Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazilian Neymar, ever won a World Cup. Club performance has finally

outpaced the quadrennial tournament that used to be the gold standard to judge excellence in soccer.
Neymar, who’s been accused of hiding taxable income and allowing the price of his transfer to Spain to be manipulated, has his star on the rise and many name him as Messi’s successor as the world’s best, with or without a cup win.
It’s a different era and Pelé, the Brazilian considered the best player ever, with three world titles and over 1200 goals, would have arguably a hard time shooting to the top. Messi won’t win as many titles even if he may someday outscore Pelé; but he’s definitely richer already. And so are a few dozen players, who also happen to be savvy businessmen.
German Bundesliga is the other major European organization battling corruption claims and heaping profits, just like the Italian Serie A, perennially plagued by accusations of game fixing, continues attracting enthusiastic crowds.
Speaking of sports as a multi-billion dollar business, all major American sport leagues have been at the crossroads between proving themselves viable or risking becoming toothlessly over regulated. But have also never been richer.
A week from the Superbowl, sponsors anticipate record profits, even after a terrible year for the league’s P.R. Research on health risks, arrests for domestic violence and drug busts, and coaches and players accused of spying on rivals, cheating, even deflating balls, who knows exactly why, have not hindered the game’s popularity and expectations.
In its junior version, College Football, health hazards and troubles with the law are also norm. Plus the aggravation of forcing unpaid professionals to support colleges and communities, without so much as a national conversation about it.
Rampant steroid use is a common denominator between American football and baseball, once the most popular. But it not just remains profitable despite an excessive number of games, it’s also big in some Caribbean nations and Japan.
Asia, incidentally, hasn’t been different and the combo profits and popularity, plus illicit activity feeding off the main menu, is eerily similar to what’s happening all over the world. Take its most popular, cricket, for instance.
Since 2000, there have been scandals of match-fixing, gambling, and sport bans to recurrent offenders, in Australia, India, and Pakistan. At the same time, some of its biggest, and wealthiest, stars can’t walk into the streets without being mobbed by admiring fans. In Southeast Asia, the contrast between their social status and surrounding poverty is also striking.
From Olympic games to more localized, almost fringe sport modalities, the notion of fair play seems to have become an afterthought. From rugby to ice hockey, from figure skating to the Paralympic games, corruption allegations are often in tandem with risen popularity, and resulting increased sponsorships, from private and taxpayer money.
Even those driven by individuals, not teams, such as tennis and golf, have become targets for crooks out to make a (million) bucks, on the sheer (and correct) assumption that we’ll still be rallying and paying for the next ace or stroke.
In Europe and elsewhere too, the politics sips right through in. The refugee crisis, and the expected clash of cultures that followed, brought up ugly displays of racism and xenophobia, which now became too common in big arenas.
And yet, ticket prices continue to rise, sales of clubs and federations merchandise has never been so high, with a big help from the Internet, and teams and players find themselves working year around to meet a growing demand.
Every year, Americans spend more than the previous on their kids’ sport activities, despite the reality that professional leagues are dominated by foreign players, groomed and trained elsewhere before hitting pay dirt in U.S. stadiums. What all that cash produces is not fresh players but future consumers of big league sports. And that’s just fine with sponsors.
And an even newer phenomenon, that of billionaires purchasing multiple, international teams, is now a formidable factor to be reckoned with. They were always a feature of U.S. organized sports, but now are a worldwide factor.
Their presence helps inflate the price of transfers, and force teams to engage in a hyper driven schedule, to keep up with multiple competitions and off-season global tours. Put it bluntly, for owners, teams are just a way for ducking taxes.
Since time immemorial, no world leader has been oblivious to the idea of the circus as a tool for mass control. Still it’s remarkable how entertainers have carved a niche of their own too, in the modern society’s pantheon of made-up heroes.
Whether some of them are willing to use such power for social change is up to discussion. Some, without fully giving up their traditional role of cash cows, have indeed become more politically aware, beyond the upward mobility cliche.
It’s not always that way, of course. But even knowing what we now know about organized sports, and its not so noble aim at distracting people from demanding social change, hasn’t prevented us from still following well chiseled bodies chasing a ball for glory and a big paycheck. And we always count their wins as our own personal victory.
Not all is as silly. We may feeding this frenzy, by pushing our kids to win, even as we lie er tell them that what’s important is to compete. To many parents, that means kicking them out of the house to not spending time with them.
To some of us, there are few life pleasures as witnessing other people compete, while we, well, watch. The flip side of such carefree sensation, however, may be the human beings being auctioned, or enslaved, or discriminated against.
A different way would be to teach kids a higher sense of morality, along the physical exercise, and demand absolute transparency in the global business of sport competition. Perhaps then, we may be able to restore some of that classic ideal of beauty and self-sacrificing implied in the practice of sports. In the meantime, keep kicking that bouncing ball. WC


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