Mark Reason: How professional sport can become a corrosive acid


OPINION: Megha Ganne, a 17-year-old amateur, greeted fans around the final green as if she had just won the US Women’s Open. Moments later, Lexi Thompson, one of the most convincing athletes in the entire game of golf, left a must-have short putt. Her fried mind and shriveled body had consumed itself in the heat of a significant Sunday afternoon.

And maybe in the snapshot of these two happy and sad souls, Ganne and Thompson, you could understand how professionalism slowly burns the humanity of so many people. Amateur Ganne made a horror debut on her last ride but later said she had a blast. His smile told you it was the truth.

Professional Thompson, who had led by four of the returning nine, was not up to the task and declined an immediate interview. She then went to the press conference, managed to answer two questions through a haze of tears, and then her agent interrupted her.

And in those anguished moments, it was hard not to think of Naomi Osaka. Osaka, 23, is a very wealthy young woman and winner of four Grand Slam tennis singles titles. And yet is she really happy? Does she face the irritating demands of professional sport?

Megha Ganneh had a great time at the Women's US Open.

Jed Jacobsohn / AP

Megha Ganneh had a great time at the Women’s US Open.

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Osaka put her pain on the media and their pesky questions, but she was targeting the wrong target. Osaka could choose to play just for the love of the game – the word “amateur” of course has its root in the Latin word for love – and never have to give another interview. But once you get professional, the market forces of capitalism will suck you in.

Professional sport never leaves you alone. It’s always chasing your next dollar. The owners of major American sports franchises have written in blood that their players must accept media interviews. And although golf and tennis are seemingly more unionized, player-run sports, they succumb to the same demands in their eternal quest for the dollar.

Lexi Thompson watches her ball after missing the 18th hole in the US Women's Open final

Jed Jacobsohn

Lexi Thompson watches her ball after missing the 18th hole in the US Women’s Open final

The big, big lie is that professional sport is inevitable. It is not so. We humans have opted for a model of professional sport subject to the forces of the capitalist market. For many, a lack of family professionalism has been a boon. But for many others, even the biggest ones like Diego Maradona and Tiger Woods, it can be a corrosive acid.

Through a combination of greed and insecurity, we humans have chosen a market system in the West that is obscenely inequitable and divisive. We humans have chosen to pay more and more the men and women who employ the worker, and to pay the worker less and less.

And so you end up with the kind of fiasco the Tokyo Olympics are right now. No one in their right mind would let these Games go on. But men like Dick Pound, the current president of the Olympic Broadcasting Services, and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, are not in their favor.

Diego Maradona was one of those who fell in love with professional sport.

Carlo Fumagalli / AP

Diego Maradona was one of those who fell in love with professional sport.

Pound said recently; “Except Armageddon which we cannot see or anticipate, these things are ready.”

Armageddon? This is the price of the dollar. Life in Tokyo is expendable. The lives of competitive athletes are sacrificial. They are even required to sign a waiver that says they participate entirely at their own personal risk, including “serious bodily injury or even death caused by potential exposure to health hazards such as (like) transmission of Covid-19 ”.

Ultimately, the IOC stands to lose around US $ 3 billion in broadcast revenue if the Games are canceled. The global impact of this deficit would be devastating. Think of all the first class flights and expensive hotels the senior executive couldn’t afford. The idea is horrible.

Professionalism is an omnipresent sporting task. Consider this ongoing Trans-Tasman Super Rugby tournament. Do we really care about a competition where a team that wins all five matches won’t stand a chance of making it to the final? It’s a spell that may well await the Crusaders, Highlanders or Blues by the end of the weekend. But rugby needed money.

Only

Carl Court / Getty Images

Only “Armageddon” will see the Tokyo Olympics suspended.

Do we care about a tournament that loads the chances of the pre-final – the Highlanders play before the Crusaders who play before the Blues, which means the following teams have the advantage of knowing what they are doing? must do to reach the final – in order to satisfy the TV programming. But of course, professional sport isn’t about fairness, it’s about maximizing broadcast revenue.

Professionalism also distorts loyalty. How many men and women have we seen changing national allegiance over the years? I have nothing but admiration for the double century Devon Conway scored against England, but he is no more a Kiwi than Kepler Christoffel Wessels was an Australian or Zola Budd was an Englishwoman.

Yet how strange it is that we have created a strange world where these things are taken for granted. We’ve created a strange world in which Lexi Thompson, who first played the US Open at the age of 12, turned pro at the age of 15. No wonder she spends most of her days talking to her mental coach John Denney in search of “happiness and a reason to play golf again.”

On Sunday, Thompson only had to look across the green of Ganne, an American teenager whose parents had emigrated from India, to see the reason for playing golf again.

Ganne isn’t about to turn pro tomorrow (at least I hope not). She says she’s going back to school, then Stanford University next year, a place where I bet Tiger now wishes he’d stayed a year or two longer. Ganne is much more likely to be happy on campus than joining Lydia in the lonely golf trailer from hotel to hotel.

This trailer is all that Thompson has known in the last decade of his life. Gone are the days of the little girl with the big swing who played for love and not for money. Now thousands of dollars are hanging from every swing. The market wants a piece of Lexi and it’s hard to go without, no matter the personal cost.

Ganne, who shunned the likes of Twitter and Facebook due to their “destructive” effect on teens, was absurdly asked by an interviewer after her last round if she would reconsider “social media accounts” for her fans. “Oh my God, sometimes the paraphernalia of professionalism is really deaf. But luckily Megha could smile, respond tactfully, and walk away to her happy place.

But where now for Lexi, where is her happiness? Where can she escape the demands of professional sport? It’s hard to know the answer to that now that she’s come so far down the pro line. You are just praying that Lexi, who has a smile that can light up the world, will find a way to make peace with this day.


Sara R. Cicero