6 Times Games Had Ludicrous Stakes Beyond Winning
At their most basic level, sports are silly games with nonsensical objectives that somehow manage to be insanely entertaining displays of human athletic achievement. Can you throw a ball through a hoop better than this other guy? Congratulations, you win basketball. But can you see the complex movements of 10 people running around, anticipate outcomes based on a set of rules, and then throw a ball through a hoop better than the other guy? Congratulations, you're smart at basketball.
Being smart or good at a sport, though, ultimately doesn't matter. You can't make crops grow or water clean or babies healthy by hitting home runs or scoring touchdowns or amassing a multitude of fiddly wickets before tea time (I may or may not have a poor understanding of cricket). It's this balance of in-the-moment drama with ultimately low stakes that make sports fun. It's not like anyone's going to lose their livelihood, catastrophically fail as a business, or die, right? Does typing that sentence mean all of those things are happening in this article? God, I hope not ...
Baseball Team Of Death Row Inmates Gets Stay Of Executions (As Long As They Win)
Here's a statement that shouldn't be controversial but will probably still get me on some sort of list: America doesn't treat its prisoners well. Prison life is a hellscape of abuse, violence, and forced labor. All you have to look forward to are the absolute basics: three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and "an hour in the yard," as they say.
Well, that "hour in the yard" trope wasn't a thing for incarcerated people in the early years of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Until the arrival of "compassionate" Sheriff Felix Alston, the prison just kept dudes cooped up inside, staring at walls and never seeing the sun. Alston started allowing outdoor time, and before long, pickup baseball games started (this was 1910 Wyoming, they weren't cool enough to have basketball yet). After watching the prisoners play for a while, Alston exclaimed, "Golly Jake, the boys in this Hoosegow are quite hanging at this base-and-ball endeavor!" These murderers and horse thieves were cracking the bats on another lever, and Alston asked Governor Joseph Carey for permission to form a proper team.
The governor, a degenerate gambler, saw the opportunity for good publicity and quick cash, setting up an exhibition game with a local company team. The Wyoming Penitentiary All-Stars, as they were so named, promptly whomped a whole bunch o' ass, beating the team 11-1. Gradually, public interest in the team began to build, and people started writing letters to the governor asking that the team, many of them sitting on death row, get lighter sentences.
Since this all sounds pretty nice so far — prisoners proving themselves in the field of play, potentially lighter sentences on the table — it is my sad duty to inform you that this is the part where everything goes to shit. Joseph Seng, a man who murdered pitches as eagerly as he, uh, murdered people, was rumored to be off death row. So other, non-baseball-playing prisoners tried to kill him themselves on his execution day. Team captain George Saban, another murderer, got to leave the prison and drink at bars all day, only to come back and threaten team members with added years if they played poorly. Things spiraled, with Wyomingians starting to wonder if Governor Carey was involved in some sort of gambling conspiracy. To save face, Alston canceled the team, and Carey ordered Seng's execution — a full year after it was supposed to have been carried out.
It's a story as American as, well, baseball: rich and powerful people got to profit off some incarcerated people entertaining them for free, only to go back on their promises when it got too hot for them in the media.
The 1964 NBA All-Star Game Could Have Derailed The Entire League
Today, the NBA Players Association is one of the most powerful unions in America, with million-dollar contracts, healthcare, and pension plans. In 1964, though? Pensions didn't exist, and teams weren't even required to have trainers, let alone doctors. Players had to work second jobs in the offseason, except when they had to do goodwill tours in communist countries at the height of the Cold War. 1964 NBA life was emphatically not the glamorous life full of $hoe deal$, Kardashian marriages, and partying with Guy Fieri that it is today.
The NBA as a league wasn't in much better shape: still relatively new, an afterthought behind the MLB and NFL, and without a TV deal. The lack of interest is mind-boggling to look back on, given that the players in the 1960s were some of the best ever. They consistently did insane things, like Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a game, Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double for a whole season, and Bill Russell's Celtics winning 11 championships in 13 years. That's the power of TV, though: a lot of people simply weren't aware of the NBA because it didn't come on after whatever the '60s equivalent of Bones was. That was set to change when ABC agreed to broadcast the 1964 All-Star game. This was going to be the first true national showcase of the best talent. A chance for the NBA to blast into the wood cabinet television sets of Mad Men-era America and show everyone how rad basketball is.
Minutes before tipoff, though, the players voted to Wildcat strike, refusing to leave the locker room until union demands were met. Owners were furious, threatening to blacklist every person involved. That only made the players more defiant. Jerry West — the guy who is literally the inspiration for the NBA's logo — recalled being threatened by the Lakers' owner that "If you don't play this game, you'll probably never play again," and responding with a "Guess I'm not playing again, then." This would have been a huge blow to the NBA's viability: losing a TV deal with ABC and blacklisting most of their star players (who, again, are some of the greatest ever) could've killed the league.
So the owners caved. Rich people respond to nothing except threats to their wallets, and this was a big one. The players won major concessions, went out and played the game, and set the stage for other sports leagues to recognize unions and grow into the financial behemoths they are today.
South Korean Soccer Player Had To Beat Japan To Avoid Military Conscription
South Korea, having some unpredictable and unfriendly neighbors on its *checks compass* northern border, is pretty stringent about able-bodied men ages 18-35 being available for military conscription at any time. This even extends to celebrities. Remember Psy? The "Gangnam Style" guy? Yeah, he was conscripted. Twice.
But exceptions are made, especially for athletes. South Korea is really invested in looking good at international athletic competitions. Specifically, anyone who finishes on the podium at the Olympics or the Asian Games gets to avoid compulsory barracks life. That brings us to the story of soccer star Son Heung-min, widely regarded as one of the best players in the world and someone who has broken a ton of records for Asian soccer players in European professional leagues.
An international pro since he was a teenager, Son was named captain of South Korea's team for the 2018 Asian Games. This required him to take leave from his English Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur, who threw up their hands and said, "Yeah, we'd rather lose you for two weeks instead of two years, dude." Son entered the tournament with not only his own freedom on the line but the rest of his teammates' freedom, too. Not to mention he was earning $117,000 per week from Tottenham, while the Korean military pays $150 a month. No pressure, I guess.
Personally, I would have buckled like a man bitten by a truckload of radioactive belts. Luckily for the entire South Korean Under-23 soccer team, though, Son is made of stronger stuff than I am. He took the team all the way to the gold medal game, even assisting on two stoppage-time goals to win it all. I'd say his bank account is thanking him, but I also bet he never has to pay for another meal in South Korea again.
NBA Star Skips A Game So He Doesn't Get Assassinated
An interesting thing to me is how often certain jobs require travel vs. jobs where there's never travel. A month ago, my wife's job asked her to come into the office that's in a different state — no big deal, two and a half-hour drive — and we realized it was the first time in our nearly ten years together that either of us had to travel for work. Professional athletes aren't like that. They get used to living out of suitcases, make friends with hotel staff, find favorite spots to hang in different cities. Sure, being on the road and away from home is hard, but it's part of the job. And it's other people's jobs to make the travel easy, ensuring they don't have to worry about threats of political assassination or anyth-- ah, shit, since I typed that sentence, the next paragraph is going to prove me wrong, isn't it?
In 2019, the New York Knicks were set to play a regular-season game in London as part of the NBA's ongoing initiative to
raise interest in basketball internationally make some money off the Boddington-guzzling hooligans of the United Kingdom. International travel during the regular season is the NBA equivalent of my wife driving two hours away on a Tuesday: there are a ton of logistical headaches, you've gotta be sure you packed the right uniform, but it's ultimately worth it to experience new things. Unfortunately for the Knicks, they'd be making the trip without center Enes Kanter.
No, Kanter hadn't torn an ACL or anything; he'd come down with a bad case of statelessness. Kanter, a (former) Turkish citizen, is a follower of scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, used to be really tight with Gülen, but much like post-1994 Biggie and Tupac, they are now very much the opposite of "tight." Erdoğan has spent recent years consolidating power in a way some might describe with a word that starts with F and rhymes with "schism," and commentators have begun suggesting Gülen is the Trotsky to Erdoğan's Stalin — not a good spot to be in. Kanter, therefore, has been critical of Erdoğan.
Sorry, did I say critical? He's called the president "the Hitler of our century" and "that freaking lunatic." Dictators don't typically take kindly to criticism of their dickery, and Kanter has faced repercussions ranging from his passport being canceled to an arrest warrant for being a "member of a terror group." Consequences have reached his family, too, even though they have publicly disowned him and demanded he change his surname. His father was also dismissed from his university job and later arrested for, you're not gonna believe this, being a "member of a terrorist group."
All of that leads to this game in London, which Kanter skipped because he believed it would be "easy" for Turkish government spies to gun him down while he was chowing down on a *squints* chip butty with a side of smack barm pey wet. To be clear, Kanter didn't log the "DNP: Desire To Stay Alive" as some sort of statement; he skipped the trip because he's afraid to leave North America. There's something especially jarring about an NBA star being afraid to travel. Maybe this is American bias, but I kind of expect pros from American leagues to be insulated a little bit. There's too much money and prestige involved for all parties. How could Erdoğan's government ever recover from assassinating an NBA player? Fortunately, we don't yet live in a world where that question needs answering. Still, it's messed up that it's a question we have to consider.
The First XFL Game Proved The League Was Doomed
Starting a professional sports league is a Herculean task, but coming for the NFL crown is so insane that Herc would tell you to "Send that shit to Samson." We're talking about a league so powerful that ad campaigns dare not speak the name of its championship game. However, no one believes their own hype more than WWE chairman Vince McMahon, a man who had already consolidated tons of territorial wrestling promotions under his umbrella and was well on his way to obliterating his biggest competition, WCW. Why shouldn't he also kneecap the NFL?
If you squint hard enough, it makes sense that professional wrestling and football would eventually collide. They're both ludicrously violent, involve frequent head injuries, and are bombastically entertaining. If you want to see strong men hugging each other in tight pants, scantily clad/underpaid women, and absurdly named main events, look no further than professional wrestling and football. So it made some degree of sense that McMahon would decide to form a football league. Gimmicky? Sure. Fundamentally unserious? Definitely. But cartoonish ultraviolet video game NFL Blitz was insanely popular at the time, and maybe this new league could combine the brutality of football with the circus-like atmosphere of the WWE. Could it be fun?
Haha, no. Are you the ridiculous person who bought that sales pitch? Step away from the cocaine, and go lie down (which we understand may be a hard ask, on account of all the cocaine). The XFL was doomed from the start. Despite all those similarities I flippantly joked about, managing a wrestling promotion and a football league have very different sets of challenges. Instead of a real-life Blitz where receivers get suplexed, and quarterbacks get Stone Cold stunnered, the XFL had lesser talent and fewer rules, making for a more unsafe game with awkward Stone Cold promos.
"If your boss is forcing you to record this, give me a 'HELL, YEAH!'"
The first game should've been an indication of how poorly things were going to go. Instead of the kickoff, you got one member of each team to sprint midfield to grab a ball on the ground, like some sort of schoolyard dodgeball game where you get bonus points for concussions. At one point in the broadcast, as the teams were literally lining up to play, the camera cut to a pre-recorded video of a quarterback awkwardly flirting with a cheerleader in the locker room. Speaking of cheerleaders, they were so clearly intended to be lust objects that they didn't even bother with the pretense of choreography, and the camera could not stop cutting to them. In fact, the camera couldn't stop cutting, period – it was like a Bourne movie fight scene. The Rock and Stone Cold both cut awkward promos, including Stone Cold threatening NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Which, come on. Sure, the guy loves beating up billionaires, but that's just not going to get you anywhere as a football league.
Speaking of football, the actual play was so bad that the broadcast didn't even finish. I Forget were beating Who Cares 19-0 in the fourth quarter, so they ... switched to another game. Viewership was cut in half by the second week of the season. The league folded after just one season, which is what they should have done after that horror movie harbinger of an opening game.
Magic Johnson Unretires For The 1992 All-Star Game, Proving HIV/AIDS Positive People Don't Need To Be Feared
Here are two undeniable facts: Magic Johnson is the greatest point guard in NBA history, and the U.S. response to the AIDS epidemic was disgraceful. It's so disheartening that those two things make sense together. Let's get depressed for a minute and then try to end on a hopeful note. Are you with me? It's going to be a journey.
First, let's take a trip to the 1980s: AIDS was killing thousands, but the Reagan administration was shrugging it off because it was viewed as "the gay plague." Ron and Nancy's close friend, Rock Hudson, goddamn died begging for treatment that the Reagans refused to allow. The scourge of the '80s was a toxic mix of a new virus, homophobia, and government apathy. There's no joke here. It was a travesty that could have been mitigated if anyone in power gave even the smallest of shits.
Another thing that happened in the '80s was the "Showtime" Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, ruled the NBA. This was a team that won five NBA championships while being a fast-paced, highlight-filled team of pure excitement. They were one of the most thrilling teams to ever take the court, a blur of no-look passes and thunderous dunks that won five championships in eight years and made a case for being the greatest team ever. Glamorous celebrities packed the seats at The Great Western Forum because even in glitzy Hollywood, the Lakers game was the place to be. Jack Nicholson reportedly rearranged shooting schedules around their home games. So when Magic had to prematurely retire due to an HIV diagnosis, it was, to use a Hollywood analogy, about as shocking as "What's in the box" or "Bruce Willis is dead."
There was a lot of fear and unknowns around HIV at the time. Not many people were sure exactly how easily it spread. American society questioned if Magic was gay (not that the virus cares either way). Friends like Larry Bird or Charles Barkley expressed sadness and concern. Noted assholes like Karl Malone were worried that Magic would spread HIV throughout the league, or worse, have a competitive advantage because "no one would defend him." It was messy, confusing, and terrifying, so Magic walked away before the 1991-92 season.
Somehow, though, the NBA never took him off the All-Star game ballot. The starters of the All-Star teams were decided by fan vote, and like the casting director for The Irishman, fans wanted to see Magic play the hits one more time. He was voted into the game, and all that paranoia evaporated as the crowd gave him a standing ovation and rival Isiah Thomas planted a big ol' smacking kiss on him before tipoff. Magic scored a game-high 25 points, got named game MVP, took the last shot, and the final 14 seconds weren't even played because everyone was going nuts and hugging him.
"I Believe I Can Fly" played spontaneously, though it hadn't even been written yet.
It's not like the game fixed anything – Magic remained retired except for a run on the 1992 Olympic team and a brief comeback in 1996 – but it went a long way towards dismantling the purely fear-based understanding of HIV/AIDS people had in 1992. Nobody got sick from sharing the court with Magic, and that in and of itself was a powerful statement. Then, Magic went on to become an outspoken advocate for HIV sufferers and did wonders for the improvement of the public's understanding of a scary new disease. And that, kids, is the story of how a basketball player fought a pandemic better than a demented old union-busting president who sold weapons to violent extremists on two continents.
Chris Corlew thinks sports should have stakes no higher than determining who picks up the Chuck E. Cheese tab afterward. You can find him taking sports way more seriously than that, however, on Twitter.
Top Image: Wyoming Dept. Of Corrections