Is Football Really America’s New Pastime?
There is a saying that seems to sum it all up: “As American as baseball, Mom, and apple pie.” Americans have long been associated with baseball, with the much-beloved “boys of summer,” and high-profile “sluggers” that capture the imagination. Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Carl Yastrzemski. Hank Aaron. Names spoken in voices that reverberate with pride. These men set records, stood for something uniquely American. Today, however, baseball seems to have lost its luster. Steroid scandals, strikes, salaries: all of these things seem to have had a draining effect on America’s love for baseball. At one time, Americans seemed ready to forgive their baseball heroes anything. Today, it seems as though the only people who are really interested in Barry Bonds’ encroachment on Hank Aaron’s record are the sportscasters–and even they seem embarrassed to be reporting it. By contrast, Terrell Owens has a season-long public relations meltdown and Americans seem willing to forgive and forget, even as they hang onto every scandalous word. What happened?
It’s hard to say what happened, if anything. To say, “something happened” is to accept the assumption that baseball’s position has been usurped. However, even if someone is not ready to agree with that assumption, it is difficult to deny that football has made vast inroads into the American heart, just as cats are quickly moving up on dogs as America’s favorite pet. This paper will be used to argue that baseball’s recent difficulties with strikes, drugs, and salaries have contributed to the possibility that football may overtake baseball as “America’s sport.”
Unlike football, which has had a reasonably good player relations record since its beginning, baseball has had three player strikes. The first strike came in 1972, when the players walked out for a total of 12 days over binding arbitration and the pension fund (CNNSI, 2003). They returned to play only with agreements from the owners on the pension fund, salary arbitration, and collective bargaining. Because the owners refused to pay the players for the time that had been missed, some teams played more games than other teams did that season. This altered schedule had an effect on the eventual outcome of at least one of the division races. Although the American public was taken aback by this strike, many people considered it an aberration. The fans recovered nicely and the following years seemed to go without a hitch.
Between the strike in 1972 and the next strike in 1981, there were three “work stoppages.” These stoppages all occurred after a baseball labor contract had expired, none of which resulted in more than 20 games being cancelled. Two stoppages were owner-initiated lockouts, with the other last being a player-initiated strike.
In 1981, however, baseball was rocked with a strike over free-agent compensation that lasted for almost two months, resulting in 712 cancelled games. Despite resuming the season when the strike ended on July 31, special rules were needed to deal with circumstances caused by the split season. Fans were rattled by this lengthy strike; it is possible that some even moved on from baseball to other sports at this time. Even so, the next season still found fan support for all major league teams. Following this major strike, there were two other work stoppages, a strke that lasted for two days in 1985 and a month-long lockout that occurred in 1990, both of which were over salary arbitration and, in the case of the lockout, the minimum salary cap (CNNSI, 2003). By now, fans either were used to, or were resigned to, the baseball saber rattling over contracts. None of these disputes, however, prepared them for the strike of 1994.
The strike that lasted from August 12, 1994 to March 31, 1995 may have sounded a death knell for baseball as America’s favorite sport. This 1994 strike may have been the turning point for many baseball fans. Although this strike resulted “only” in 232 games being cancelled, only approximately one third of the games that were affected by the previous strike, the impact of this strike was far greater than that of 1981. Unlike 1981, this strike resulted in the cancellation of the postseason, including the World Series (CNNSI, 2003). Play only resumed after a judge’s ruling found that the players must play under the same contract they had been disputing, continuing until the 1997 season. When the new contract was signed in 1997, owners of larger market teams were also fined for “overspending” (CNNSI, 2003).
Although it seemed that baseball would continue with barely a hitch, this third major strike had a side effect that neither of the previous strikes had had. By canceling the postseason, sports fans had the opportunity to watch the beginning of the football season unfettered by their concerns over the run for the Series. For the first time in American consciousness since both sports began, football was the only fall sport available to catch their attention. Even worse for baseball, 1994 marked the 75th anniversary of the National Football League. The NFL was able to capture the public’s attention with nifty throwback uniforms, some major rule changes, and the DirectTV Sunday Ticket (NFL.com, 2007, 1994) . It is hard to imagine how Major League Baseball (MLB) could have managed to choose a worse time for a major work stoppage.
The NFL is no stranger to drug scandals. The difference between the perception that the public has of the scandals in both sports seems to rest on two things: the players who are involved in the scandals and the immediacy of the penalties levied against them. In general, when NFL drug policies are violated, it is often a single player that faces punishment. The NFL has strict drug policies, both in terms of the drugs that are allowed and in terms of the random screenings that are run to detect them. When a player is caught the response is virtually immediate. After only a short delay, the offending player is penalized with a fine, a loss of playtime, or both. Drugs do not even have to be illegal to be sanctioned against; one player was briefly suspended in the 2006-2007 season for ingesting a banned substance in his asthma medication. By contrast, the baseball steroid scandal is widespread. It is still unknown how many players were actually abusing steroids, since MLB failed to mandate any compulsory or voluntary testing for the substance at that time. The repercussions of this scandal are already, as the first player to be voted on for the Hall of Fame since the scandal broke failed to be voted in. While MLB has announced that it will adopt new, stricter drug policies, it may be a case of “too little, too late” to make a difference to much of the American public.
A look at the history of the MLB work stoppages reveals that most of the disputes revolved around salaries. And yet, it would seem, these players are getting paid millions of dollars in compensation for playing a game that anyone with a bat, a ball, and a place to run can play. How is it that baseball players came to be worth so much?
The answer is simple: the players are worth that much because they were allowed to demand that much. In addition, without the revenue sharing and the salary cap processed used by the NFL, MLB has permitted wealthy owners to pay what they needed to buy superior teams and the winning records they provide. A common complaint voiced by many fans is that the outcome of the playoffs is pretty predictable, since they primarily are won by the teams that can spend the most. Combined with the decidedly slow pace and relatively impact-free nature of the game compared to football, these salaries are frequently considered excessive. The cost of these soaring salaries has had yet another effect, causing ticket prices to rise almost beyond the capacity of the average fan to afford them.
Baseball has suffered from many difficulties that have caused the American public to become disenchanted with the game and its players. Player strikes, drug scandals. escalating player salaries have all had their consequences. Although football has not yet risen to the challenge, embattled baseball is well on its way to losing its title of “America’s Pastime.”
CNN/Sports Illustrated (CNNSI). (2003). Labor pains. Sports Illustrated.com. Retrieved April 23, 2007 from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/news/2002/05/25/work_stopppages/.
NFL.com. (2007). NFL History (1991-2000). Retrieved April 23, 2007 from