Michael K. Shaub, January 17th, 2017
I am still attached to college and professional sports, but I am quickly losing my love for them. And it’s a bit ironic why—it seems to me that the search for justice, which is central to my daily thinking, has completely invaded the sports world. And I’m not sure that it is making it a better place to be.
There are several unintended consequences to the search for sports justice. The easiest one to notice is the length of games. NFL games are taking longer than ever, with the average game through eight weeks in 2016 taking three hours and 12 minutes—five minutes longer than two years before. The length of college football games has been steadily climbing for the last decade, and is fast approaching 3½ hours. The average major league baseball game now takes over three hours, and game two of the World Series, a simple 5-1 Cubs win over the Indians, took four hours and four minutes. Of course, endless commercials play a part in this change. But the advent of replay as central to all these sports is making the games substantially longer. And, particularly for football, the review methodology is inordinately inefficient and involves too many people, inflating the delays driven by the search for justice.
I am also put off by the nonstop complaining on the field that results from this search for sports justice. Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, best known for being ejected earlier this season for throwing his towel at an official, went on a profanity-laced tirade against the referee after the Chiefs’ playoff game loss to Pittsburgh, saying the ref didn’t even deserve to work at Foot Locker. He was obviously frustrated by a holding call on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. But the disrespect that coaches and players obviously have for referees now is embarrassing. Officials are regularly subjected to animated hand-waving exhibitions after calls, particularly in the NFL. And, for the most part, officials walk away and take it. In both professional and college football, officials are getting an earful from coaches on both sidelines throughout the games. It takes an awful lot to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on the bench, and the coaches know that. So they model for their players how to get in the referee’s head with their comments, in hopes of getting a future call.
I am on Twitter, so I know a lot about the general decline in respect going on in American society, particularly in politics. But it used to be, at some level, that sports was largely immune to this. I grew up a fan of the Baltimore Colts, and thus hating the Green Bay Packers. When I was a boy, the Colts lost a playoff game to the Packers because of a blown call by an official on a field goal that was obviously missed. It was agonizing for Colts fans. But it didn’t result in a meltdown by Colts players, or by coach Don Shula toward Vince Lombardi or the refs. I can even remember watching a TV show later in which players from both sides were laughing about it. Colts fans didn’t like losing, but you had to respect what Lombardi did with the Packers, especially when we had the better quarterback. Travis Kelce’s explosion in the locker room is commonplace, and it even seems like reporters sometimes encourage it with their questions after tough losses.
But long games, endless whining and a general lack of respect have made being a spectator a lot less fun for me. I know that a great deal of money, and lots of people’s views of themselves, depend on game officials getting calls right. But I have to say that it is sucking much of the joy out of something that has always been a sweet part of my life.
I guess that we as a society have largely rejected respect in favor of justice. I think that both are important, and, in my mind, they are not mutually exclusive. I would not want to abandon the pursuit of justice so that I could be thought of as respectful.
But there are unintended consequences to abandoning respect in order to get the “right” outcome. Things that used to add spice to life—for me, sports, politics, and the differences between us—are becoming increasingly distasteful. It really just struck me that I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day. I cannot think of anyone in my lifetime who more doggedly pursued justice while demonstrating respect than Dr. King.
We could learn a lot from him.