If the last half-decade-plus has represented any major movement in history -- and you can make a strong argument that it has -- it is the overnight crumbling of faith and trust in American institutions. The banks? They're stealing your money. The media? They're biased and anachronistic. The school system? Incompetent, and quite possibly a scam. The government? Inert and incapable of even rudimentary progress, except when it comes to spying on you. The numbers are undeniable: All that you could once trust, you can no longer trust.
Sports institutions tend to be more teams, franchises that represent their sport at their best and their worst, and while fans say they hate these dynasties, they don't really. If sports had true parity, if every team were equal in a Pete Rozelle fever dream, games would mean nothing. We measure ourselves by those we compete against. It's a lot more fun to beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl than it is to beat the Titans. We need dominant teams, legacy franchises, to tell us what we are trying to measure up to, to loathe, to vanquish.
And those legacy franchises are crumbling. In our three major American sports leagues, the institutions, the establishment, are collapsing in front of us. It's not only that they're not winning as much as they used to; it's that we don't respect them or fear them as much anymore. They're never going to become just another team, but they're becoming demystified. Their aura of inevitability is vanishing. Which was a large part in making them what they were.
I'm talking about the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Lakers. Between them, they have won 48 championships. When you close your eyes and think of a player in Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA, the odds are excellent you'll conjure up someone in one of their uniforms. They are the richest, most valuable, most successful brands in American sports. And they are falling apart.
Let's take a look at each one and see where they stand now, and in the future.
New York Yankees
The Yankees' downfall has been more one of perception than reality; they did make the American League Championship Series last year after all. But this is the year that the Yankees came to understand a real, sort of depressing truism: A large part of their brand is, in fact, spending. Maybe even more so than winning.
When the Yankees made it clear that they planned on being under the $189 million threshold for the 2014 season -- a perfectly sensible move made in the long-term interest of the organization -- they waved goodbye to players like Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, with no obvious replacements ready. That wasn't a waving of the white flag to the fanbase, but it felt like it; if the Yankees didn't spend the money to get whomever they wanted at every position, jeez, were these really the Yankees? If they weren't willing to pay through the teeth to fill every position with the most expensive player possible, what was the point of being the Yankees?
It didn't help that injuries led to human beings like Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix, David Adams and Lyle Overbay spending most of the first half of the season in the starting lineup. All told, the Yankees have played a lot better than anyone could have reasonably expected them to, and Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson all should return in the second half. You can't help but feel, though, that the damage was done a little: Once Brennan Boesch has spent that much time wearing the pinstripes, what do the pinstripes actually mean?
Chance of recovery: 95 percent. The A-Rod contract remains a killer, and there will be another bump next year if they continue to insist on staying below the $189 million threshold. (And at this point, they might as well. They've gone this far.) But this is still the most valuable franchise in sports, and when they're under the luxury tax number once, they don't have to be for a long time. In other words: They'll start spending like crazy again. Once they sign Bryce Harper or Mike Trout to 10-year contracts, you'll forget the salad days of David Adams ever existed.
First off, I'm being kind of nice even including the Cowboys here. This is a franchise that has won one playoff game in the last 16 years. That's four fewer than the Arizona Cardinals. The last time they were in a Super Bowl, a wonky Chicago lawyer was weighing whether or not to pursue a political career. The luster should have faded off this franchise a long time ago.
It hasn't, though, if just because Jerry Jones is such a perfect Nightmare America hustler that he has maintained the illusion that the Cowboys are still -- or ever were -- America's Team, through force of will and a terrifying monster scoreboard. We still spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over the Cowboys; odds are that you've spent more time listening to people talk about Tony Romo than your own team's quarterback. They even have the most famous cheerleaders in sports.
But: This year they have 33-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, and that's even allotting for all the dopey Cowboy fans who go to Vegas in large part just to bet on the 'Boys. The Cowboys have an odd look of desperation to them these days, switching coaches every couple of years and grasping at every shiny object. This offseason was a welcome change; the team is going after youth and depth and acting like a normal football team is supposed to act. Of course, another losing season this year, and who knows what Jones is capable of.
Chance of recovery: 55 percent. There's a temptation to think that if the Cowboys can go through the last 16 years and remain the signature NFL franchise, they'll be just fine. But you can argue the Steelers, the Giants and the 49ers are gaining on them, and besides, the NFL is all about the NFL As Only Sentient Being rather than emphasizing individual teams anymore. The Cowboys might be nearing Notre Dame status: Old people understand and remember why they're important, but young people don't really care.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have gone from West to Kareem to Magic to Shaq to Kobe and barely missed a beat. (They've missed the playoffs twice in 37 years and won the championship 10 times in that span. Not bad.) They are the glamour franchise in a glamour sport, the team with the most superstars and the most celebrity fans in a game where the fans are practically on the court. They are Showtime. Everybody wants to play for the Lakers.
Well … everyone but Dwight Howard, anyway. As infuriating and annoying as Howard can be, a superstar choosing to leave the Lakers for less money is unprecedented. It feels like it means something; it's like Brad Pitt deciding he'd be a lot happier guesting on "Breaking Bad" than headlining a $200 million blockbuster. When Howard came to the Lakers in the first place, it felt like the next step in the perpetual Lakers dynasty -- of course they got Howard. But then he left, and you have to wonder what's left standing.
Kobe is still around, of course, but hobbled, aging and without much assistance. The Lakers are holding out hope that LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will want to join them in a couple of years, but there's no evidence that's a real possibility outside the Lakers' imaginations. This is a dynasty at the end of its run, without any real hope of starting a new one. Are we ready to see the Lakers tear everything down and start over? Are they still the Lakers if that happens?
Chance of recovery: 33 percent. Of all the institutions, this is the one to be most concerned about. Everything has always worked out for the Lakers … but not anymore.
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