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.