Doping scandals in cycling and baseball, bribery accusations in the Olympics and the World Cup, racist owners and too much money — are people turning away from sports in disgust?
You'd think so, but no, says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College sports economist. He's mostly all about the numbers (his latest book, "The Sabermetric Revolution," explores the effect of sabermetrics), but he finds some deep explanations there.
For example: Fans seem to be willing to put up with almost anything from their teams and the athletes. Even during the long and nasty 1994-95 baseball strike, 20% of fans said huffily they'd had enough, yet most of them did come back to the game, Zimbalist told me when we spoke for my "Patt Morrison Asks" column.
For all of its foibles, sports still provides something Americans have found increasingly rare over the last four or five decades: the opportunity to hang out with other Americans.
"Technological change," Zimbalist said, has left us living more and more isolated from one another. Sports — even when ethically compromised — bucks the solitude trend.
"However ephemerally," he said, sports "reintegrates the community. I was at Yankee Stadium [when] Mark Teixeira hit a home run and the Yankees took the lead. Everybody stood up and started applauding and screaming and high-fiving the people around them. It really does give you a sense of belonging and community."
And later, "You talk about what happened in the game. So sports is filling a vacuum that has grown in our society. The demise of sports? I think sports are more needed now than they ever, until we find something else to re-create community."
So the next time you take yourself out to the ball game, don't think of it as entertainment, think of yourself as participating in the great social experiment that is American community. As long as it lasts.