The Downfall of Sports in America: The Dream Team

Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener commented on a major cultural shift in sports within his 1976 book Sports in America, but the decision of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in April 1989 to allow professional athletes to compete in the Olympics was the true flashpoint of the transition of sports in America from the late twentieth century to the present day, in terms of the explosive popularity of athletes as pop-culture icons in the daily lives of society combined with the declining integrity and values displayed by competition itself.

As the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics approached, for example, the impact of the 1992 Barcelona Games on modern society could not be denied. Media coverage of those Olympics set a precedent for today’s ubiquitous presence of the professional athlete in daily societal news that the 1996 Atlanta Games took to new heights with the dawning of the Internet age. Today, sports and professional athletes are everywhere, and that is not always a good thing for the United States and American society.


James Michener book cover


Consider Michener’s following statement for its origin and date of publication, as it describes the nature of athletics in the United States:

“Sports have become a major force in American life. We devote more money and time to them than we realize. They consume a major portion of our television programming, and our [media] allocate tremendous space to their coverage ... Their effect upon our schools and colleges is oftentimes deplorable, and they have been accused of generating at least some of the violence that assaults us.”[1]

In truth, this statement could have been written in the 1930s as well as the 2010s. When the University of Chicago terminated its football program in 1939 due to the systematic problems intertwined with the sport, the university president noted, “... for a college to be a success on the field, it must be something of a scoundrel beyond it.”[2] Considering the nature of big-time college football in this century, Robert Maynard Hutchins was way ahead of his time in making that statement.

The highlighted passage above, however, came from Michener in 1976, and the Sports in America author also suggested, “Sports are in trouble. The stress placed on winning is robbing us of what sports really should be all about.”[3] In the next decade-plus, the sporting world would be rocked by performance-enhancing drug scandals at the Olympics, in the National Football League, and in Major League Baseball. Recreational drug use—the result of excessive salaries and a celebrity lifestyle now expected of wealthy athletes—would also produce tabloid-like news for the National Basketball Association and MLB.

While there were several key moments between Michener’s tome and what sports have evolved into today, perhaps none was so profound as the decision to send professional athletes to compete in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. “The stress placed on winning” international competitions had heightened during the Cold War: the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball final between the Soviet Union and the United States; the 1980 Olympic hockey final between the same two nations; and finally, the 1988 Olympic men’s basketball semifinals.

These three moments demonstrated a desire on behalf of the United States to compete more firmly with the “enemy” in the “pure” realm of athletic competition, and in April 1989, the International Olympic Committee ruled for professionalism. However, as early as three years prior, the IOC had begun to abandon its “amateurs only” stance for the highest level of international athletic competition:

“The International Olympic Committee, one of the last defenders of the amateur faith, is about to turn the other cheek. In October, it is expected to abandon its traditional amateurs-only stance and allow each international federation governing an Olympic sport to decide which of its athletes—professional or amateur or both—will be eligible for the Olympics."[4]

The end was nigh. For a long time, the United States and its sports community had argued that sending college amateurs to play the “professional” Soviets in the Olympics was unfair—and those voices became loudest after the 1988 men’s basketball team lost to the Soviets in the semifinals in Seoul: It was the first time ever that the Americans didn’t make it to the finals, and that absolutely would not do. Considering the amount of talent in the NBA, it was not fair that the U.S. couldn’t use paid athletes like the Soviets did (since all Soviet male athletes were technically part of the “military”, and thus paid regularly to practice far away from actual harm).

The fateful ruling came down on April 7, 1989, in Munich. As the Associated Press reported at the time, “At a special session of Federation Internationale de Basketball, the international basketball federation, a proposal to permit the top stars of the National Basketball Association and other professional leagues to play in previously amateur tournaments was adopted …”[5] Strangely, the United States voted against the change—even though it had the most to benefit from such a shift in international athletic policy.

However, Dave Gavitt—then the president of the U.S. Amateur Basketball Association and known best today as a co-founder of the Big East Conference as its first commissioner—“… was personally pleased with the decision to allow pros into the Olympics, the world championships and other international federation events.”[6] Gavitt went on to create the Dream Team for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the rest is history.

The roster of that first pro U.S. team to play Olympic basketball is legendary: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and John Stockton. That roster won its six Olympic contests by an average of 51.5 points per game—and forever changed the definition of what a nation (or team) would do to win at any cost. To paraphrase Michener, the stress of winning had created a media frenzy and a celebrity-endorsement monster from which sports would never recover. And the money kept rolling in from every side, as Andrew Lloyd Webber once wrote about the Peróns.


The original Dream Team
Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Olympics had been the athletic ideal of competition since the modern version had been created in the late 19th century, and now they were a circus in every which way. The Dream Team would be the story of Barcelona, and every product endorsement mattered. As the Los Angeles Times noted that year, “This year's Summer Olympics may be remembered not only for demonstrations of athletic prowess, but also for the hurdles that Nike and Reebok surmounted as they peddled their sportswear from Barcelona.”[7] As the dominating scores rolled in, the focus was no longer on the sport itself—or the spirit of Olympic competition, as it were—but on the athletes and their celebrity status.

By the time the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta arrived, the Internet was alive and thriving. Fans knew the results before they aired on television, and every movement of every athlete was scrutinized endlessly online. Kerri Strug found celebrity[8] beyond anything individual Olympic champions Nadia Comăneci (1976) or Mary Lou Retton (1984) had ever known, and Strug never won an individual medal even. Today, it is all about Instagram and Twitter for the athlete celebrities, and because it sells, the sports media constantly defer to an athlete’s social media accounts for “interviews”, information and “scoops”—as well as reporting fans’ Twitter reactions.[9] Most of the time, it has nothing to do with a game or the sport itself,[10] signifying the end of sport’s true relevance—even if that hasn’t quite happened yet.

Again, the end is nigh, as sport is merely passing entertainment, lacking any true integrity and/or long-term value to society. Fame may be fleeting, but even the game score itself fades quickly when Twitter is the thing in the eyes and minds of the fans. Twitter fame means more endorsements and more money—even if you cannot play the game anymore.




Outside the Olympic realm, another key moment in the downfall of American sports integrity before this infamous IOC decision was the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding television rights for college football (see NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma). Also, just after the Barcelona Olympics, MLB sealed its own moral demise when the owners forced out Commission Fay Vincent in September 1992 and replaced him with ... an owner.

Those moments themselves deserve their own explorations, of course, but they represent the same kind of watershed flashpoints as the FIBA ruling that have come to reshape sports in America today. Michener died in 1997: He must have seen these events unfold with a sad resolve, knowing he failed to make a difference with his 1976 manifesto on the issue. Hutchins himself died in 1977; perhaps he read Michener’s book with satisfaction and hope for the future. For those of us still alive today that remember a seemingly simpler time in sports, we know hope is lost. As made famous in an Academy Award-winning performance in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, we just see Cuba Gooding, Jr. shouting, “Show me the money!”—and we know things will never be the same again for sports in America.

Thus, as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil flew by us with professional golfers now competing in the Games, too, remember the circus could have been avoided if the minds possessed by such men as Hutchins and Michener had been able to appeal to the integrity of U.S. sports leaders long ago.


About the author: Sam Fleischer is a third-year Ph.D. student working under Dr. Matthew Sutton in field of modern American history. His research focuses on the Cold War’s political impact on American culture and society in the latter half of the twentieth century in the arena of international sports. This piece was originally written for Fleischer’s MA program in North American history at Arizona State University under the guidance of Dr. Matthew Garcia in Spring 2016. 

[1] James Michener, Sports in America (New York: Fawcett Crest/Random House, 1976), 22.

[2] Barry Bearak, “Where Football and Higher Education Mix,” New York Times (September 16, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/sports/ncaafootball/at-the-university-of-chicago-football-and-higher-education-mix.html on April 3, 2016.

[3] Michener, 576.

[4] Frank Litsky, “I.O.C. Expected to Ease Amateur Policy,” New York Times (March 30, 1986). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/30/sports/ioc-expected-to-ease-amateur-policy.html on April 3, 2016.

[5] Associated Press, “Federal Rules Change Opens Olympics to N.B.A. Players,” New York Times (April 8, 1989). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/08/sports/federation-rule-change-opens-olympics-to-nba-players.html on April 3, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Staff, “The Business of the Olympics: Nike and Reebok Surmount Some Costly Hurdles,” Los Angeles Times (August 8, 1992). Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1992-08-08/business/fi-4596_1_global-recognition on April 3, 2016.

[8] Tommy Hine, “For Strug, Olympians, It Amounts To a Split,” Hartford Courant (November 21, 1996). Retrieved from http://articles.courant.com/1996-11-21/sports/9611210254_1_kerri-strug-gymnasts-john-hancock-tour on April 3, 2016.

[9] Sam McPherson, “Last-Second Notre Dame Loss Lights Up Twitter,” CBS Local Sports (November 29, 2015). Retrieved from http://sports.cbslocal.com/2015/11/29/notre-dame-irish-stanford-twitter/ on April 3, 2016.

[10] Shana Renee Stephenson, “Stephen Curry Posts Perfect Reaction to Wife’s Twitter Storm,” ESPN.com (December 7, 2015). Retrieved from http://espn.go.com/espnw/athletes-life/the-buzz/article/14313262/stephen-curry-posts-perfect-reaction-wife-twitter-storm/ on April 3, 2016.


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