Americans love superlatives, and December, with its mandatory year-and-decade ending reflections is all too accommodating. Tom Brady was named the player of the decade by ESPN. The PGA named Tiger Woods its player of the decade. The Associated Press called steroids the story of the decade.
But the years that run from 2000 to 2009 should be called the decade of the fan, which is less a compliment and more a sober acknowledgement that, whatever illusions to the contrary, the past 10 years solidified the ultimate victory of the dollar in sports.
The disparate forces had been coalescing for years. The choices for fans are harder than ever. The conflicts are greater, and the ability to simply enjoy the game as a distraction is tougher, the notion that these golden youths possess admirable qualities beyond their skills is more difficult to accept today than ever before.
In one sense, nothing has changed. Owners are no more money-driven today than they were in, say, 1962, when the Milwaukee Braves had begun engineering a way out of a loyal town to capitalize on an untapped Atlanta region, as Walter O'Malley had five years before when the Dodgers moved west. Players have the same competitive, often-destructive impulse to earn and perform at all costs, enjoying unprecedented wealth as they grow more distant from everyday life. Fans remain as conflicted as ever, gnawed by questions about supporting professional sports following each strike, each lockout and each scandal.
What is different, however, is that the facade behind which fans, players, management -- and even governments -- had deluded themselves for years has now been completely eroded. The concepts of tradition, love of the game, and the idea that sport was somehow more noble, more valuable, to the national identity than, say, the music or movie industries are now fully apparent as secondary to maximizing revenue or, worse, proven to be illusory in the first place.
What is left is a sports fan in 2010 and beyond who will be less idealistic but perhaps more sophisticated, more tolerant of the culture but less willing to be absorbed into it. Sports has retained its electricity even as its players, co-opted by the lure of image and money, lose much of their authenticity.
Performance-enhancing drugs,of course, represented the most obvious example. As much as there was a debate about the relevance of the story, this much is true: The single most significant change in sports over the past 35 years has been the ethical, financial and physical questions and consequences of PEDs. At no time in the nation's sporting history have the greatest players of their time all been taken down at the same time for the same reason as baseball players have this decade. Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, David Ortiz -- the A-list of a generation playing for A-list franchises -- all underscored the change in how we look at records, fairness, money, science and competition. The ramifications affect the past and the future, how we view athletes and why we watch, especially as more sophisticated drugs and scientific advancements are made to extend life and alter what the body can do. Nothing else comes close.
And with that the fan has been forced to make the choice to stay, go or live somewhere ambivalently in between. With steroids, fans have chosen to cheer their guy, boo the other guy, leaving the truth in limbo. Overwhelmingly, especially in baseball, fans chose to stay and spend in record numbers, creating an odd schism: fans are on record as believing less in the game, yet are more willing than ever to pay to be part of the product. They have made the deal with themselves to separate their enjoyment of the game from the people who play it and run it.
If there was ever a time when professional sports did not always prioritize money over tradition, it is gone. The first decade of the millennium solidified the priorities of the people who run professional sports. Baseball, the one sport in which statistics, style and records are affected by whether a game is played in the daytime or at night, has become almost exclusively a night sport for one reason only: money.
Even the weekends, once sacred afternoon territory for the sake of kids and the sun of summer, have been sacrificed. The 1 p.m. Saturday baseball game is largely a thing of the past, swallowed whole by lucrative television contracts that prohibit teams from broadcasting games before 4 p.m., or risk losing tens of millions of dollars. In that battle, the kids never had a chance.
There was a popular piece of fiction that a league schedule -- both its matchups and dates -- was created strictly by computer. The NBA for years has been at the forefront of destroying this myth, using Christmas as its moment to manipulate its schedule to create the optimum television "marquee game." The NFL followed suit with its Opening Night package, in which the defending champions play on Thursday, for one night having the season exclusively.
Baseball has since joined the club. After two consecutive postseasons in which weather became as dominant a factor as Chase Utley's bat, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees will open the 2010 regular season on April 4, at the frigid hour of 8 p.m., no less.
Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the Orlando Magic, wondered before the Boston Celtics beat the Magic that afternoon if playing on Christmas -- still a religious holiday, believe it or not -- was all "too much," that family and perspective should be considered. Celtics coach Doc Rivers took a more resigned approach, saying, "This is how it is."
There is no high crime with a sports league recognizing that it can maximize the number of eyes who see its product, then finding ways to do it. For all the lamentations that the day game is dead in baseball, Commissioner Bud Selig told me during the World Series that the ratings differential between viewership at night and in the daytime was simply too great to ignore.
But that is precisely the point: Today there is no pretense about just how much money moves the needle in professional sports.
All of which leaves the relationship between the player, who is the original reason we watch, and the fan in its most complicated state. Michael Jordan and the Nike machine perfected the construction that is now commonplace: the managed athlete. Players are not merely athletes but individual corporations. There is immense financial currency in selling the public, a skill just as important as being able to read a Cover 2 defense.
The same player who has a charitable foundation may also carry a gun or two. The player who points his finger defiantly that he is clean may get busted for steroids five months later. The player who seems to be all that he epitomizes may be just that, but authenticity has been enveloped under yet another corporate layer. The Tiger Woods scandal revealed the face behind the mask. He was not the first or the last, or the worst, but it is somehow fitting that he ends the year as the symbol.
And yet, the games survive and thrive, mostly because the events on the field -- the chance at the undefeated season, the unlikely pennant contenders, the millionth-percentile chosen few that dwarf their peers and win majors by 12 strokes or win six NBA titles without even facing a seventh game -- are still as compelling as ever. But the message of the decade is that sport of yesterday -- or at least its cozy facade -- is gone forever. There are no more surprises. After the past 10 years, fans now enter a new decade with their eyes wide open.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter @hbryant42.