There has always been a fine line in the sports industry between entertainment and athleticism. Owners and general managers have always had to weigh the value of filling seats against putting the best athletes on the field. That’s why the Boston Braves signed Babe Ruth even after it became apparent that his heart might stop as he trotted to meet his designated runner at first after hitting a home run. And that’s why the St. Louis Browns inked 3-foot-7, 65 lb. Eddie Gaedel, who appeared in exactly one game. And most recently, that’s why a 7-foot-7 native of Sudan strapped on a pair of skates and took to the rink for the Indianapolis Ice.

That’s right, in a scheme to generate interest in the team, General Manager Larry Linde has inked dubious former NBA legend Manute Bol. And last Saturday he strapped on a pair of skates and took to the ice, an image reminiscent of a newborn giraffe trying to stand for the first time, sporting a stick that was two rods taped together. His career was a short one, however. He never left the bench except to head to the locker room after the first period when he could no longer feel the feet in his specially made skates.

“We’re in the business of selling tickets, the business of entertainment,” Linde said. “We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the game or anute. We’re out there to have fun.”

I know that franchises have to fill seats, particularly so in sports like baseball and hockey where there is no salary cap, so I can’t blame teams for signing guys like Bol and turning them into freak shows for extra cash. I agree that it was a nice gesture for Bol to swallow his pride in order to support his Sudanese relief fund charity.

But is there a limit to the gullibility of fans? Are sports destined to stop being about athleticism and become completely focused on generating revenue?

It’s a tough question to answer, especially since I find myself sympathizing with just about every potential side of the argument.

On one hand, sports are about entertainment. People, myself included, go to games in order to relieve pressures, knock a few back, have some laughs and enjoy the show. And thus, franchises play up the “entertaining” elements of their clubs. At Washington Capitals games they ask fans trivia questions during TV time outs; get it right and you can win a slice of pizza for your entire section. They also have these weird guys who dress up like they are some sort of cross-breed between an overly eccentric fan and an army commando heaving T-shirts into the crowd.

While there are times I find this amusing (my roommate once nearly trampled me while running down an MCI usher to snatch a free T-shirt from her clutches), the truly entertaining part of sports occurs on the playing surface.

I may crack a smile when Slapshot, the Caps mascot polishes a bald fan’s head. But that feeling is nothing compared to the sense of amazement I get when Jaromir Jagr dekes around two defensemen and then roofs the puck past a sprawling goalie, or when ichael Jordan continues to defy age and injury to drop over 20 points against the Sonics, or when Tony Bethel banks one off the glass for a Samnick jam in McDonough Gymnasium or when Dave Paulus heaves up a pass to Walter Bowser in the back of the endzone to secure the Hoyas first-ever Patriot League win and bring the fans at Kehoe Field out of their seats.

The thing that strikes me about all these examples, and particularly the last one, is that this is what sports are all about. Despite all the gimmicks and giveaways, it is the athleticism of the athletes and the desire to see the home team win that ignites fans’ spirit. No side-show or trivia contest or bobble-head doll can possibly replace that fire.

But sadly the third element of the equation can.

No matter how talented the athletes, or how successful the teams, sports still answer to the almighty dollar. Every year ticket prices go up. Every year more and more of the best seats, priced far higher than the average American fan can afford, are sold to corporations who hand them out to clients or employees who sit behind home plate, or mid-court or mid-field or mid-ice and call their friends or wives or clients on their cell phones and wave frantically to see if they’re on television.

I wish I knew what could be done to solve this problem. Like I said, I sympathize with all sides of this argument and I love capitalism and competitive enterprise as much as the next American. But when the life is drained out of sports through over-expansion and over-marketing, it just stops being fun.

And through it all, sports junkies like me, as well as the casual fan, will support it. And by supporting it we reward the behavior, we condone it. Sports teams will just continue to suit-up has-beens and craft bobble-heads. On some level though . it’s working.

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