Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Where Have You Gone, Johnny Mac?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
It seems I have an affliction these days, one a lifelong sports fan should never have but barely can be avoided anymore: I rarely get “jazzed up” to watch ballgames anymore.
There, I said it, or at least wrote it.
Oh, I still watch them. And analyze them. And hope they entertain me and draw me in with wonderment like a 12-year-old staying up too late to glimpse the World Series.
But it just doesn’t happen too often. It’s just not the same.
Don’t get me wrong. I still see great value in sports. And I’m all for progress. As someone who has covered sports professionally for half my life, I’ve long been made aware that sports are big business now, heavily marketed and overhyped made-for-TV extravaganzas. I get that.
But with the onset of all-sports stations like ESPN, stronger player unions, realignment, convoluted rankings, and marketing schemes driven to make you watch today’s superstar but not really care all that much if he wins the big game, the landscape has changed.
Like some of you out there, I grew up with the Reds and Dodgers not liking each other very much and other classic rivalries like Celtics-76ers, Ali-Frazier, Hearns-Leonard, Nebraska-Oklahoma, USC-UCLA, Syracuse-Georgetown, Seahawks-Raiders, Martina-Chrissy, Bulls-Pistons, etc., etc.
I remember hating Tom Watson just because I rooted for Jack Nicklaus, which may not have been the healthiest approach for a young sports fan but it sure did make watching the U.S. Open more fun (until Watson chipped in out of the heavy rough on No. 17 – dammit!).
It turns out Watson is a nice guy. I even had the privilege of interviewing him at The Memorial last summer. And he has massive respect for the Golden Bear.
But it was interesting to hear him talk poetically about the good, old days. He knew there were people out there like me who rooted against him because of an interest in Nicklaus or Lee Trevino or Gary Player – and he embraced that, still does, because it was great for the sport.
Now rivalries in golf are just about nonexistent, except for the U.S.-Europe tension that is on display every two years in the Ryder Cup. I still watch the majors. I still pick a guy and root for him, but it doesn’t compare to the enjoyment I have when I watch the Ryder Cup.
Well, golf has changed. It is marketed and portrayed differently now, and it can be traced to one word – Tigermania.
When Tiger Woods took the game by storm and became the most monetized sports figure since Michael Jordan, the networks kind of lost their minds. Their data showed they couldn’t cram Tiger down the throats of their viewership enough. So it was Tiger on the range and Tiger on the tee and Tiger looking over a putt and what did Tiger think about only shooting a 73 today – and when we have to cut away from the action every single commercial will have Tiger in it. Yippee.
You know those old Bugs Bunny cartoons when, say, Yosemite Sam, gets clobbered on the head with a mallet or a sledgehammer? That’s how I feel most of the time now when I watch golf. The rivalry is Tiger vs. the field or Tiger vs. immortality or Tiger vs. Tiger. It’s sickening.
The other individual sport that has fallen off more mysteriously is tennis. Maybe it’s because I played it as a young man and I really don’t anymore. But I think it has more to do with just how compelling the field always was for a major tournament – and isn’t nowadays.
My guy was John McEnroe. I know he was kind of an a-hole, but I absolutely loved his game, his smarts, his competitive fire. And here was the best thing about rooting for Johnny Mac: Every time he was faced with a match of significance it was against Borg or Lendl or Cash or Edberg or Wilander or Becker or Connors.
All of those matches had a rivalry feel to them – and not because they were hyped that way. The tenacity of the play spoke for itself. It was great theater, an era of tennis gladiators.
To me, that era is long gone.
Actually, I have to credit Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for keeping me hanging on by fingertips to the sport. Some of their championship matchups have been as epic and entertaining as I’ve seen.
But I couldn’t name more than a handful of other players on tour right now and I don’t see any who pull me in like McEnroe did.
Then there’s boxing. OK, boxing is dead so let’s just move on.
Death by Realignment
Team sports have changed, too, most notably at the NCAA level.
I can’t keep track of which team is in what conference anymore, and I can’t believe how we’ve slain many of our great college rivalries.
Why the hell was Stanford-Cal staged in mid-October? So we could have Stanford-UCLA in back-to-back weeks at the end of November? I don’t get it.
Of course, the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have all revamped their league structure, and not all for the bad, I might add.
For example, the NFL’s eight divisions are somewhat geographically sensible – more than the days when the Atlanta Falcons were in the NFC West, anyway – and were done so with an attempt to maintain some of the league’s best rivalries.
But let’s face it, some rivalries still got lost in translation. Does anybody care about Colts-Dolphins, Pirates-Phillies or Lakers-Trail Blazers games as much as they used to?
I have been a proponent for interleague play in Major League Baseball but it could be argued that also has taken from the rivalry aspect of the sport. Plus, starting this year, interleague play is going to be seasonlong and could become tiresome to more fans.
Maybe, just maybe, the blessing in disguise with this horribly prolonged NHL lockout and abbreviation of the season is that with just 48 games and none out of conference it will allow teams and fans to get back to their roots and concentrate solely on the importance of key divisional games. We’ll see.
No News is Good News
And then there is all the ancillary crap that has pervaded the sportsworld and, in my view, sucked some of the joy from the games.
Too often, bad news and police blotter updates are melded into mainstream coverage of sports, so instead of the lead-in to a game being about what happened the last time these two teams met it could be “how will so-and-so’s Sunday night arrest affect Team A in their rematch with Team B.”
I’ve been a Lakers fans since before Magic Johnson donned No. 32 in purple and gold and it’s amazing how they’ve reached soap opera status. Granted, they are a trainwreck this season and deserve scrutiny. But it was almost comical to watch the beginning of “SportsCenter” the other night. It was barely mentioned that perennial All-Star big men Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol were out of action because of injury and then “let’s see how they fared tonight in Houston.”
Gee, I wonder.
After all the “highlights,” it was 10 more minutes of ‘What’s wrong with the Lakers,’ as if there were no other sporting events that evening and their injuries had nothing to do with their shortcomings. Drama, that’s what people want. Not actual palpitating competition.
That’s why the Dallas Cowboys are on TV every single week. Forget they’ve been a .500 team for three years running. Let’s just talk about them ad nauseam and create the intrigue.
That’s why Ohio State’s NCAA mess was box-office gold, too. Everybody’s got an emotional response to OSU football, so why not belabor the story.
If you think about it, much of the college football season’s appeal is based on argument and conjecture. Who should be voted where in the polls, how effective would a playoff system be, why did this team schedule that team, what if you could put Landry Jones’ arm on Johnny Manziel’s body, and so on.
I don’t remember anyone telling me Arizona-Arizona State and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State were going to be highly entertaining games (which they were, by the way), maybe because the national conversation already had shifted to the Heisman and bowl outlook.
And that leads to another point: The NCAA Tournament for men’s basketball, without question, remains one of our great American sporting events. However, can we let the regular-season unfold first?
Bracketology as a fun little diversion is fine, but too often I see announcers and fans get so caught up in postseason seeds that they can barely process who wins the regular-season conference title. Let’s leave March Madness to March if we could and enjoy the ride a little bit.
Heroes and Villains
We are flooded with more statistics and side stories in the sportsworld than ever before but it still doesn’t feel like we are given credit for being a savvy audience. Ever listen to how preachy Colin Cowherd’s ESPN radio show is? There are almost complete segments in which he tells us who we should root for and why. He also constantly reminds us of the power of the big-money athlete and the big-market team.
I guess if George Brett and Tony Gwynn were playing today I’d be an idiot for wanting to watch them hit.
Who needs to stoke a sports rivalry when the only one that really matters, according to Cowherd, is Red Sox-Yankees, and, hey, let’s get back to looking those athlete marketability charts.
And then there are the myriad programs on the mothership aimed at simply creating controversy. You know the ones: They have panelists who yell the majority of the time and tell us this coach needs to be fired and that team is through and this athlete needs to hang it up.
Sure, we once had the bombast of Howard Cosell, but, for the most part, broadcasters and analysts of decades past had the task of informing us, setting up what was at stake, making us feel the thrill of victory or agony of defeat. That was the point of sports back then.
So your job as a fan was pretty simple: pick a team, pick a guy and root your head off.
That was simple in the 1980s. Heroes and villains were easily identifiable. Everyone in the movie theater rooted for Roy Hobbs to smack one deep, for Rocky to take down Clubber Lang and for Daniel to outpoint those jerky bullies in “The Karate Kid.”
Our sports movies were like our actual sports back then.
Now we have weeks of buildup for BCS games that often leave us, well, flat.
Rivalries are sports at their best.
We need to embrace them, honor them, let them continue to develop. I’m a big hater of the New England Patriots and fairly ambivalent about the Denver Broncos, but I have to admit I was hoping they would meet in the AFC Championship Game.
I think I could have handled one more rendition of Brady vs. Manning.
And while sports aren’t going to return to their purer, more enjoyable form of the 1970s and ’80s, some matchups have held up over the decades and still drive their sport.
At the top of the list is Ohio State-Michigan.
Clearly, the pairing isn’t as intense at the basketball level. As much as I cherish college basketball and believe OSU’s tradition is undervalued, I wouldn’t make that argument.
However, the two schools battled to the bitter end on Sunday, during a nationally televised game at the Schottenstein Center.
The Wolverines came to town undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. Their point guard, Trey Burke, is a Columbus native once passed over by Thad Matta. The Ohio State students were back on campus and were not shy about serenading UM with “We Don’t Give A Damn.” The Buckeyes got a much-needed defining victory for their confidence and, more importantly, to stay directly in the Big Ten race.
It had all the elements and undertones necessary for a fever-pitch environment.
And best of all, it was a real rivalry game. Not a forced one. Not an ESPN-created one. Sunday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, which came down to a missed three by Burke in the final 15 seconds, was something to savor. At least for this sports fan.
There, I think I’m jazzed up after all.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.