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Commentary: Fairness in athletic competition is what makes it worth watching

In the lead-up to the Ravens Super Bowl game, my 12-year-old son and I were talking about the home team's prospects for victory. My boy, Nick, was confident because, though he generally can't sit still long enough to watch a full game, he is an ever-faithful supporter of the home team.

He's getting to an age, however, that a little more depth in conversations of this kind is often called for, so he asked for my thoughts so he could have the thoughts of someone who watched the previous Ravens Super Bowl victory on TV. My answer was that, while I hoped the Ravens would win it, both teams had a fair shot at the victory.

This is something I believe wholeheartedly about all National Football League games. Sure, there are teams that have lackluster seasons or strings of seasons, but comments on the subject that begin with the words "On any given Sunday ..." carry the day for me. I told my son I thought pro football these days are about as fair an athletic display as you could witness in this country.

I'm no big fan of professional sports. I watch games if they're on, but my attention level is low, except on special occasions. As for being a football fan, I'm late in coming to the party. In my youth, I paid attention to the Orioles, but had only a passing interest in the Colts.

Increasingly, though, I've swung the other way, paying closer attention to the Ravens than the Orioles. For me, the reason is simple: I don't believe Major League Baseball is particularly fair. In my mind, it's all about money.

As I see it, while just about any team in the league has a legitimate shot at making it into the postseason in the NFL in the season that begins this coming August, in Major League Baseball, the safe money is on the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have a track record of making it into the postseason and it has everything to do with the team perennially having the highest payroll in the sport. Meanwhile, smaller market teams with smaller fan bases, and smaller advertising market potential, have smaller payrolls. On the whole, they also have fewer postseason appearances.

The Orioles good showing last year is but an example of this reality. In years when the Yankees or Red Sox, in this case the Red Sox, fail to pull it together for reasons other than having hired the top talent in the sport, smaller market teams get a chance to shine. Because the Orioles were playing well in a year when the Red Sox were struggling with internal issues, the Orange and Black did relatively well.

Like I say, it's all about money. In the NFL, each team is obliged to spend as much and no more on player salaries than any other team.

While I'm not alone in this line of thinking, it is simply an opinion and opinions, as it is often pointed out, are like belly buttons and certain other singular body parts insofar as everybody has one. (The addendum to this often is that everyone else's stinks.)

Still, I'll offer the Yankees perennial dominance compared to the any-given-Sunday sentiment as my primary evidence in support of why uniform team payrolls make for fair play. To me, it's a lot like rec league games. From time to time, a coach or cabal of coaches will seek to salt a particular kids league team with the top talent in a particular rec program. When such efforts are successful, the salted team can be counted on to dominate the other teams in its age group.

The result is that the kids on the dominating team have a good time at the expense of the kids on the other teams, and the kids who would benefit from a little bit of fair competition and esprit de corps with those who have a higher level of natural ability are deprived. The long and short of it is, such practices drive kids away from the sport. This, incidentally, is why efforts to stack teams are frowned upon, and the leadership of kids league programs is usually eager to squash such foolishness. After all, if you're going to pick an all star team in the 9-10 age group and have that team batter all the other teams, it would be a lot easier to just have the 9-10 teams play against the kids in the next level down. It's about as fair.

In my mind, just as stacking a team in youth league drives participants away, stacking teams in professional teams drives fans away (except from the few teams that have the financial wherewithal to dominate in most years). A great lament in recent years is that baseball has ceased to be the Great American Pastime. Solutions shouted include things like bigger strike zones, smaller strike zones, faster games, a pitch clock that's like the play clock in football to stop delays of game. You name it.

To me, it's not so much the speed of the game. It's the level of fairness. If I say, Boston is playing Seattle, or New York is playing Kansas City, the safe bets are on Boston and New York.

In football, Las Vegas handicaps the NFL games, too, but the oddsmakers aren't necessarily as accurate, largely because NFL games generally pit varsity teams against varsity teams, whereas in baseball it's almost as if an elite group of varsity teams is allowed to beat up on a bunch of junior varsity teams.

Until this changes, and baseball becomes as fair as football, I don't see baseball winning back any large share of fans.

As an aside, while watching the big game on Sunday, I began to wonder in the first half if the teams hadn't been badly mismatched. Then came the second half and the dominant Ravens of the first half became the punching bag team. It turned out to be a pretty evenly matched contest, which, to me, is what sports is all about.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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