The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Aug 162010

In no sphere of social life did the brassy me-firstism of America’s Third Turning (Unraveling) manifest itself so conspicuously as in professional sports.  The Nike swoosh, the vast signing and performance bonuses, the limousine loge seats, the intimidating tattoos, the brute physicality and in-your-face attitude, even the very term “free agent”— all of these became iconic symbols, in a celebrity carnival kind of way, of a fundamental mood shift that began in the mid-1980s.  Even the Olympics, which had never before made anybody rich, began generating huge profits.  (Thanks, Peter Ueberroth, for letting McDonald’s start a nifty new game the LA games in 1984: “When the U.S. wins, you win!”)

Now, some twenty-odd years later, it seems that another attitude shift is under way, once again with some of the most interesting signals coming from professional sports.  The tide is beginning to turn on the fighting, the profanity, the performance drugs, the super-lux seats, and the renting of stadium names.  And, as this story shows, pro teams everywhere (though this story in mainly about the DC area) are starting to focus a lot more on how they can give back to the community.


“It has changed dramatically,” said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. “Now it’s a central part of the business model of most franchises.”

Sure, you can say it’s hypocritical and just another way for the franchises to win the popularity of local crowds and national audiences.  But I’m sure many of the athletes and managers are sincere, and in any case why wasn’t this a formula for winning over crowds and audiences ten or twenty years ago?  You could also say it’s just the impact of the Great Recession.  People are tapped out, they don’t want to be reminded of things they can’t afford, and they are aware their communities have bigger needs but smaller public resources to handle them.  This is also true.  But it’s got to be more than that.  Nothing much changed in pro sports during the recession of 1991 or during the slow recovery thereafter.  If anything, the violence and drugs and attitude all got amped up: The overall U.S. rate of violent crime peaked in 1994, while ‘roid use kept spreading to more athletes and bad-ass black jerseys (a color proven to provoke aggression in sports and in war) kept spreading to more franchises.

What’s different, I submit, is that this recession is accompanying a shift from a Third to Fourth Turning (Crisis) mood—with palpable changes in the role the public wants pro athletes to play in their lives and in the way pro teams see themselves.

As Boomer (born 1943-1960) move into the ranks of senior managers/executives, they find it easier than the Silent (born 1925-1942) to “discover” authentic social issues and to promote their teams through involvement in passionate cause marketing.  They are also setting up many of the community foundations and philanthropic service firms that make it easy for wealthy athletes to start their own charities.  Silent executives, who were big-institution professionals, never really understood the personalization of philanthropy.

As Generation X (born 1961-1981) become the successful senior athletes and recently retired veterans, many of them are looking for ways to settle down, get serious, drop anchor in their neighborhood, and do something lasting.  For years, they’ve wanted to spend more time with their kids—and now they can, just at the ages (grade school) at which their kids most need them.  Nothing dovetails better with their rediscovery of family than wanting to spend more time with their kid’s friends, with other kids, with their families, with their friends, and so on.

Meanwhile, year by year, young Millennial (born 1982-200?) fans and players are transforming the audience-athlete interaction.  It’s not just that risk-averse Millennials are less turned-on by the violent and aggressive side of pro sports.  They are also less thrilled by the money-and-business dimension, which was big for Xers.  Millennials want to see more about athletes who can be good parents, neighbors, citizens, and good Samaritans.  Last spring, a Washington Post story about NHL player Brooks Laich (born 1983) stopping on the beltway to help a mother-with-kids change a flat tire—just an hour or so after his team had lost their final playoff game—ranked as this region’s most read and discussed sports story of the year.

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  • This is a wonderful piece. Thanks for sharing these insights.

  • Richard
    Link is example of how Portland OR soccer has a long history of connecting with the community. Other pro-sports focused on money instead of community development are what you are talking about. My granddaughters are being coached by current Timbers players because the original vision from the 1970s.
    Richard Turnock

    • dsohigian

      @Richard – yeah, but we are just friendly folks up in Oregon 🙂

  • Sean Love

    Hi Neil,

    What is your source for the peaking of violent crime in 1994? The sources I have found, though perhaps more casually, show twin peaks in 1980/81 and 1990/91 with the first being very broad (and driven by a cross-section of the Boomer-Xer cusp) and the second being more concentrated (and driven disproportionally by inner-city Xers).

    • Neil Howe

      There are two main sources for data on crime rates. One is the Uniform Crime Reports (compiled by the FBI), which adds up total crimes reported to the police in a year and divides it by the capita. It does indeed show violent crime peaking in 1980/81 and 1990/91. See The other is the National Crime Victimization Survey (compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), which shows a peak in 1981 and then another peak in 1994. See….

      Most social scientists regard the victimization survey as the gold standard in crime trends because it includes the large share (roughly half of all crimes) that go unreported to the police. Year to year, the two measures roughly track each other in direction. The two main differences are that the victimization rate is always much higher than the reported crime rate and the gap between the two widened somewhat in the late 80s and early 90s, which explains the later “peaking” year of 1994 rather than 1991. Americans in these years were apparently less likely to report their crimes to the police. The victimization survey began in 1973, which makes it useless for longer-term historical comparisons. But that limitation need not concern us here.

      An interesting further question is what changed between the two peaks, of 1980/81 and of 1994. According the DOJ victimization data, the first peak was just about the same in height (actually slightly higher: 52.3 per 1,000 people age 12 or older in 1981 versus 51.2 in 1994). Yet a deeper read of the reports show that the earlier peak reflects a considerable spread over all age brackets (age of both offender and victim), whereas the latter peak was much more concentrated among youth. See for example this table (…). The absolute number of perceived offenders age 18+ are virtually unchanged, while the number of offenders under age 18 are up sharply. The murder rate for victims age 25+ also falls sharply (by -30%) between 1980 and 1994, while exploding for kids age 14-17 (up by +85%) and age 18-24 (+39%). See…. The same trend is observable for the ages of victims of all violent crimes. See…. I’ll leave these percentages to the reader.

      Summary: According to the most general and reliable measure, victimization by violent crime did get worse in the early 1990s, reaching a peak in 1994 before subsequently falling steadily in the late 1990s and through most of the last decade. Moreover, if we at victimization by age, we see plenty of evidence that the 1994 crime peak was much more exclusively centered on youth than the earlier 1980/81 (late Second Turning) crime peak. Indeed, 1994 may have been the worst year for youth crime (it certainly was for youth homicides) in American history.


      • Sean Love

        Thank you Neil.

  • Yes

    Funny, as millennials become a bigger part of pro-sports, we are also seeing trends that have followed them their whole lives appear in the sports they play too. Take the NFL for example. This is the first year the league has ever acknowledged concussions as an issue for all players to be aware of. This parallels nicely with the millennials' childhoods being the first generation to have a focus on safety. Examples that came of age during the 80s (the decade many were born) include bike helmets, sunscreen, airbags in cars, new rules for seatbelts and car seats in cars for children, and so on.

    It is as if former Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Troy Aikman being forced out of football after 3 severe concussions never happened.

  • Kat

    Heard two big stories on NPR this week one on upswing in concussions in children and sports. Interviewing people that decided to drop out of professional sports instead of taking enhancing drugs and how impossible it is to win without drugs because of the high usage in that area.

    On another note have you seen the advertisements for the new sitcom with William Shantner? Title is S#*! My Dad Says. Boomer Dad, young son not sure if he is millie or X at this stage. My millie son turned to me and said “oh no” cause it looked something like he and his father's relationship.