Morality in sports: More unpopular discussions

By Jeremy O’Neill
Executive Staff

Two issues of The Sewanee Purple ago, I wrote an article profiling mental health in sports as an uncomfortable subject, and expressed praise for the bravery of Houston Astros pitcher Zach Greinke for being one of the few professional athletes willing to open about struggles with depression and anxiety. The discussion of unpopular topics in the sports world continues with this issue, and coincidentally focuses again on Southeast Texas’ professional baseball team, albeit this time in a less positive light. 

Multiple pieces of evidence are coming forward to support claims that the Houston Astros used electronic technology to steal signs from opposing teams at home games during the 2017 season. While defenders of the Astros are quick to guess what pitches will be thrown, stealing opponent communications has been around in baseball since the invention of the curveball. It is the use of clearly prohibited technology (Houston’s Minute Maid Park was reportedly fitted with secret cameras to zoom into other teams’ catchers and managers to steal signs) that makes this a different level of bending the rules. 

But unfortunately, sportsmanship has seemed to have gone by the wayside in sports when compared to days gone by. No longer are self-officiated games and friendly handshakes commonplace. The infusion of money into sports has, in many ways corrupted the product and reduced the love of the game. For example, Bart Starr, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers who lead his team to victory in the first ever Super Bowl in 1967, earned a salary over the previous 1966 season of $100,000. Adjusted for inflation this equals $701,000. While extremely well compensated for his efforts by the standards of the average American worker, Starr’s salary pales in comparison to today’s standards. New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady brought home approximately $15 million for last year’s season.

With all of these big numbers floating around, the objective becomes simple, and is adequately summed up in the famous words of late Oakland Raiders executive Al Davis: “Just Win, Baby.” Any advantage that can be gained, fairly or unfairly, is fought for. From the recent events of the Astros, to the hundreds of athletes who take performance enhancing drugs each year, to questionable funding entering the pockets of referees and officials, cheating is more and more prevalent across the sports world.

Why does it even matter? Because this love of winning over everything takes away from sports’ original purposes. The questionable practices trickle down into youth sports, and pollute a beautiful experience. Sports become no longer about getting better or learning aspects of teamwork or staying in shape, but about the pursuit of numbers. 

While it is easy to be appalled by recent trends, there is hope for athletics, and a little sliver of it lies on the Mountain. Division I college football has become a multi-million dollar business, with expressive personalities, dramatic rivalries, and prime time television. Gone are the days when every game started at 1p.m. on Saturday afternoon and the only way to find scores was to check the next days’ paper. So, in the midst of a nationwide debate on whether or not college athletes can be compensated for their names or whether they should be paid any form of a salary, Division III athletics comes into its own. 

Student athletes at Sewanee and other small institutions can play for the enjoyment of the game, and for school pride, with no concerns of trying to get on ESPN or seem profitable. This means that our small-scale athletics may not have the money or the big names that the schools still in the SEC enjoy, but we also dodge the temptation to win by unfair means that plagues these programs, and our athletes can focus on playing the game for the sake of the game. As prominent California tennis coach Michael McCollom said, “Winning is an outcome, not an objective. Self-improvement and good performance is the objective.”