By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Whenever I pass Father Carroll Little League Field, I break out in whimsy. Located near my home in rural Dutchess County, N.Y., the diamond with its dugouts, announcer’s booth behind home plate, and outfield fences adorned with ads for local businesses, brings to mind a quaint minor league ballpark, a field of dreams, a simpler time.
Seeing children playing there on sunny afternoons also summons fond memories. My four kids grew up cavorting in baseball as well as youth soccer, flag football, roller hockey and figure skating at local fields and rec parks. Besides providing wholesome exercise and (hopefully) teaching the value of sportsmanship, dedication, and perseverance, sports can forge a timeless bond between parents and their offspring.
My dad was my first Little League coach and he taught me how to throw, catch and hit, just as I did with my sons. But my childhood of daily pickup games of baseball and football with kids in my neighborhood seems quaint now.
Sports have become highly organized and a humongous business. With college athletic scholarships at stake, talented kids who are barely out of grade school are scouted with an eye toward a possible pro career where contracts are astronomical. You very rarely see anyone using a local diamond or field or even a lawn just for some informal fun.
The simple joys of playing are often lost in the deathly seriousness of competition. During my sons’ Little League days, I saw a few nasty arguments between adults, some of whom were assailing the umpire about calls they didn’t like. Fortunately, that was as bad as things got. Now, I often read or hear about much worse, such as physical assaults and outright brawls.
I’ve witnessed a lot of changes, especially during my 33-year career as a writer and editor for SPORT Magazine, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and SI.com. Virtually everything has been drenched in money and commercialism: stadiums with coldly corporate names that frequently change; every pitch, pass and wheeze brought to you by a sponsor; even ads on players’ uniforms.
Major international events like the Olympics feel like one big advertisement, and dollars trump conscience whenever sports and politics collide. The latest instance: the men’s tennis tour stripping the prestigious Wimbledon tournament of its ranking points for banning Russian and Belarusian players in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.
It’s no surprise that betting on sports is now legal in 35 states. It’s possible to bet on everything from who will win or how many points a player will score to how many pigeons will land on the field during the game. Americans have wagered more than $125 billion since the Supreme Court made it legal in 2018. Even fantasy sports, once a popular hobby among friends who created informal leagues, has become a lucrative industry.
While politicians hail the tax revenue that betting generates, gambling changes the nature of our focus and passions, and the social cost is considerable, especially for those who have a gambling addiction problem. Ads for Draft Kings, FanDuel, Caesar’s and other wagering services are everywhere. It also stands to reason that fan misbehavior (particularly verbal abuse of athletes), long a problem at stadiums and arenas, will be made worse by a toxic combination of drinking and the aggravation of losing wagers, on top of the considerable costs of attending events.
As family entertainment, sports sure aren’t the go-to bargain they used to be. That was driven home in late April when my son Colin and I went to an NHL game at UBS Arena, the gleaming new home of the New York Islanders. We had a nice time even though our beloved Isles lost, but I gagged at coughing up more than $250 for two tickets, parking, grub, gas (not from the grub) and tolls. I longed for my salad days in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the outing would have relieved us of less than $50.
Despite the excitement and tribal community of being at a game, there’s much to recommend watching at home: a better view, free food, and no wait to use the commode. Even better: no obnoxious drunks or aggrieved bettors hurling invective and beer or fighting in the aisles.
Sports were a family glue when I was growing up. I watched all kinds of events with my mom, dad, and older sister, and we spent many afternoons at racetracks when thoroughbred horse racing was a major spectator sport, though it was later nearly killed off by Off-Track Betting. That Belmont Park sits next to UBS Arena made me feel sentimental, kind of like when I pass Father Carroll Field.
Fortunately, I never lost (or even made) a bet at Father Carroll. Belmont is another story. Nags ran off with a lot of my allowance when I was a kid, but those were very different days.
But even with all the negative change, sports remain a bonding experience. When not watching games together, Colin and I text our joys and indignations while our Islanders and woeful New York Football Giants are in action. My wife and daughter share a love of world-class figure skating and attend live events such as Stars on Ice.
So will the endless wave of big money ultimately kill our love of sports? Somehow, I wouldn’t bet on it.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.