Lamenting all of the 'lost art' of sports - NBC Sports

Lamenting all of the 'lost art' of sports
Jocks are never at a loss for words when it comes to what was better in the old days, from proper tackling to base running to respect for elders
From left, Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki tries to bunt; the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posts up against Robert Parish; and Chiefs defensive back Jalil Brown tackles Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate.
September 11, 2012, 4:09 pm

It's the familiar, if occasionally irritating, refrain of elders everywhere, in reference to just about anything.

Back in my day .

Back in my day, this or that or the other thing was much different, and much better.

So what makes former athletes nostalgic for their particular good old days?

Plenty.

Jocks are never at a loss for words when you ask them about lost arts in their respective sports.

"Route running is a lost art," Tim Brown said.

He's more than qualified to judge. Brown followed his Heisman Trophy by catching 1,094 passes in the NFL, all but 24 for the Oakland Raiders.

"As I watch my sport and my position, they don't run routes anymore," said Brown, who was listed at an even 6-foot tall. "The receivers are 6-4, 6-5, 6-6, and the defensive backs are 5-10. They are just bigger and faster and stronger than the guys they are going against, and they are just outmuscling them for the ball and moving on. You don't see anybody running a 15-yard out, and making a guy go one way when he goes the other way."

Joe Theismann, who threw for 25,206 yards for the Washington Redskins, has observed the same. In fact, the first time he was asked this question, he cited "running good pass routes" as the "the one thing that has escaped this profession."

"I don't think guys work very hard on their releases," Theismann said. "Because, after five yards, you can't touch me."

Of course, after about a year, when posed the same question, Theismann cited a different complaint first. He pointed to communication as a lost NFL art, largely due to the inarguable advances made in technology and strategy.

"Because of the communicators in the helmet, and the complexity and multiplicity of offenses, it's difficult for coaches to take the time to talk to their quarterback about something," Theismann said. "But more importantly, it's almost impossible for a quarterback to have a conversation with any of his teammates in the huddle. Because by the time he gets the play, he has to regurgitate it, break the huddle, get to the line of scrimmage, and make all the changes that are necessary."

Theismann argues that if a quarterback wants a receiver to modify a route, "he doesn't have time to tell him. He doesn't have time to explain what he wants him to do why he wants him to do it. I think that's the biggest thing in the game. Technology can hurt things as much as help them. When it comes to human beings doing something, technology can enhance your physical performance, but it can't do anything for the mental part of it."

Jerome Bettis has a more rudimentary reason to grumble.

There's not enough rumbling.

"Power football," said the burly man known as The Bus, one whose 13,662 rushing yards rank sixth in NFL history. "I mean, it's non-existent. Two tight ends, two backs, and just pound the ball. Nobody does it. Nobody does it anymore. So, I mean, it's lost. And the problem is, it starts in the colleges. When the colleges are going to this one-back, spread it out stuff."

Dan Reeves believes the roots of his top gripe go back further.

"Tackling," said Reeves, who participated in nine Super Bowls as a head coach, assistant coach or player. "And you can't work on it. They don't work on it in high school. In high school, we had 20 days of spring practice. All we did was hit, and now they're scared to death. It's tough to get insurance. They don't hit in college. The only time they tackle is in a game. It's still blocking and tackling, but I just think tackling is something that we've lost. You can't work on it, so how do you improve it?"

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What would former baseball players prefer their successors would improve?

"Fundamentals," Fred McGriff said. "The way the game is played."

Specifics?

"Base running," McGriff said. "Little things at the plate, understanding man on first, you got to pull the ball. Or man on second, get him over to third. Nowadays the game has changed so much that they are rushing kids up to the big leagues. So they don't learn that stuff."

Another recent slugger - for whom McGriff was traded in 1990 - agreed.

But he has another explanation.

"I don't see all the giving yourself up for the team," Joe Carter said. "Getting the guys over from second base, hitting behind runners. The base stealing is almost obsolete now. It used to be that guys like Vince Coleman, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines would have 100 stolen bases. Now 50 leads the league.

"Everyone wants to hit the three-run home run because that's what makes the most money. With the salaries the way they are now, everyone is just driven by their salaries, how can I get that big $250 million contract? Rather than thinking `How can I help my team win a championship?' "

Carter won a couple of championships, including one in 1993 that he secured with a walk-off World Series home run. He wasn't such an expert in doing something else, but that doesn't stop him from bemoaning the slippage in its execution.

"Bunting," Carter said.

Carter had 10 sacrifice bunts in his 16-year career.

John Smoltz, whose primary task was to pitch, had 136.

"I mean, executing a bunt is not hard. It's one of the easiest things to do, and hardly anybody takes the time to do it," Smoltz said. "We took pride in it. That was the big thing."

After five decades in Major League Baseball, as a player, manager, coach or instructor, Frank Howard has concluded that "they make them bigger, faster, stronger and better educated," and that "it's a new improved product."

Still, he's witnessed declines in a few areas: pitcher's fielding, hit-and-runs, bunts (from sacrifices to squeezes) and base running. All kinds of base running.

"Get through the bag at first base, get around the bag at first base, the ability to go from first to third, scoring a runner from third with less than two out," Howard said. "Don't assume, as talented as these individuals are, that they know how to play baseball the way it's supposed to be played."

Don't assume, as talented as they are, that they'll put in the same night's work.

What irritates Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton?

What he doesn't see.

"Pitchers going nine," Sutton said.

In the 1970s, you'd need to record roughly 25 complete games to lead the league. Since 1999, only James Shields has hit double-digits in any single season.

Pitchers aren't being asked to summon the same stamina.

Nor to practice the art of pacing themselves.

"There should be a mindset," Sutton said. "We're encouraging mediocrity and we're getting it. We've lowered the standards and guys are performing up to our expectations."

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Jeremy Roenick, one of the hockey's elite power forwards for two decades, is disturbed by a softer mindset in his sport.

"The all-around player game is not there anymore," he said. "It's not a rough-and-tumble game like it was in the 80s and the 90s. You don't have that all-around player who scores 50 goals, gets 100 penalty minutes, gets 100 points, like I did, in the middle (1990s). They need to wake up and start getting tougher."

Brett Hull sends his wake-up message to NHL administrators and decision-makers.

"The art of the playmaker is gone," said Hull, who scored 741 goals. "Sure, there's some good players like Sidney Crosby. But the whole game has gone to `Get it and pass it behind the net.' You know, the play in front of the net has ceased to exist. The puck control, playmaking is gone. Every play is made off a forecheck and a battle along the boards behind the net, and a bounce. And to me, I think it's ruining the game.

"They don't really care what I say, but they need to get the goalie back out, get rid of that trapezoid, put the red line back in, and start playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. And if they go, `Oh, that will bring the trap back in,' well, outlaw the trap. Pretty simple."

The lost art in the NBA?

Talk to enough former players, and you'll get enough different answers.

The mid-range game.

The bounce pass, if not when Chris Paul or Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo is throwing it.

Blocking a shot to start a break, as Bill Russell once perfected.

The one-handed set shot, though former coach (and ESPN Radio analyst) Jack Ramsay deems that an art best lost.

Yet one of the most commonly cited differences between today's game and that of previous eras is the lack of quality post play. That's because there's a dearth of big men with a variety of moves near the basket. And, in the view of Digger Phelps, the absence of that in the NBA can be traced to the placement of the arc one level below.

"You take a look at college basketball, the games start out, the first shot's a three," said Phelps, an ESPN analyst who spent two decades coaching at Notre Dame. "It's all about threes. It's ruining the college game."

If Phelps were on the rules committee, he'd "move that thing back another two feet." And, then, if he were still a coach, "I'd start a game, the ball's getting punched inside to my center, we're going to get three but it's going to be a three-point play, get your front line in foul trouble. Now we control the boards, now we control the game."

He believes a deeper line would encourage more drive penetration, more post play.

"And you'll balance the game," Phelps said. "The game's out of balance."

And the development of true post players might in turn, might balance professional basketball, too. One current player has certainly noticed a lost NBA art, since it has affected him.

"I think there are fewer guys you can throw the ball to on the block and say, 'go to work,' " Shane Battier said. "When I was a rookie, you had to be a legit 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9, 240 pounds to be a power forward. And centers were legitimate seven-footers. Now you can get away with a 6-foot-6 power forward who may or may not have a post game."

Battier, a lean 6-foot-8, was the Heat's power forward for much of its playoff run to a championship, hardly ever venturing inside.

Perimeter play is different these days, too, due in part to the dribbling talents of so many point guards, which convinces coaches to start offenses with high pick-and-roll sets.

That, in Steve Kerr's eyes, has led to less passing at the initial part of the attack. "I think that part of the game has slipped away a little bit from the younger generation," said Kerr, a five-time champion who is now a TNT analyst. "It's kind of the way the game is played."

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Sometimes, when you ask an athlete for a lost art, the first response is unrelated to a skill or a strategy.

Rather, it's related to an attribute, a quality, a behavior, an attitude.

Goose Gossage, the Yankees' dominant closer of the 1970s, considers sportsmanship a lost art.

"If I did some of the things these guys do on the mound, don't go in that dugout," Gossage said. "Don't go back in there. You might as well go back out the center-field gate, because those guys might be waiting for you. The biggest thing is no one's passing the torch and teaching these kids how to act. The respect. The disrespect. The showmanship. You see it in little league, guys going around and showing up the other team. I never showed anyone up, and I never got shown up."

Andre Dawson, the Hall of Fame outfielder, didn't want to leave the Montreal Expos, but his knees required a grass field. So, before the 1987 season, he presented the Chicago Cubs with a blank contract and asked them to fill in the details. The Cubs gave him $500,000 plus incentives. He rewarded them by winning the National League MVP, the first in history to do that for a last-place team. He then spent five more seasons there, until they no longer required his diminished services.

"For me, the biggest lost art is probably loyalty," Dawson said. "Because it's so much easier now to move from club to club, whether in free agency. Money has really changed the game in that sense. And players just have a sense of wanting to move on, when the opportunity presents itself where they can make a lot more money. Players look forward, if you have a tough season, getting it behind them. You looked forward to what was coming back, and whatever additions you needed to make. Now guys walk around, and they admit, `I don't know where I will be next year. What's the job market?'"

Rodney Harrison, the former Pro Bowl safety, is frustrated less by what he sees on the football field than what he sees off it.

"Respect to the guys that came before them," the NBC analyst said, when asked for a lost art. "And I see a lot of that. I've been around situations where a lot of these young guys are making a lot of big money, and they really don't pay homage to the guys from the 80s and the 90s, guys who played well and were Hall of Famers. They just don't show that kind of respect. They kind of ignore them.

"They think that certain guys have to come up to them. Instead of walking up to a guy and saying, `Hey, you're a Hall of Famer, can I have your autograph?' And asking him what it took to become great. A lot of guys don't do that. They don't really show the respect."

Curtis Martin, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012, is one of those guys that current players should certainly show proper reverence, considering all that Martin overcame in his childhood to become one of the NFL's leading rushers.

What would he identify as lost arts, as he observes the sport from more of a distance now?

"The thing that jumps out to me is character and perseverance, toughness, the willingness to play with pain," Martin said. "I don't think it's the same. And I think it was even greater before me."

Certainly his predecessors would say so.

Because, back in their day.

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