The 1980s Sports: Overview
The 1980s Sports: Overview
The trio of major American professional sports—baseball, basketball, football—were marked in the 1980s by labor disputes, lawsuits, and rising salaries, much as they had been in the previous decade. Although many sports fans were annoyed by such problems, they did not stay away from the stadiums and fields. Throughout the 1980s, American sports enjoyed unprecedented financial prosperity and mass popularity.
Baseball still captured the nation's summertime attention. By the end of the decade, over fifty million fans annually attended major-league games and baseball's revenues were more than $1 billion a year. For baseball in the 1980s, it was both the best of times and the worst of times. Despite being a lucrative industry, it suffered terribly from bitter labor conflicts. The most pressing concern remained the power struggle between team owners and the union representing major-league baseball players.
The American public had all but given up on professional basketball at the end of the 1970s. Then came the arrival of two young players fresh out of college, one black and one white, who transformed the game forever. Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird dueled throughout the decade, challenging each other to rise to ever greater athletic heights. In the process, they raised standards for the rest of the players as well. By the end of the decade, basketball was thriving in America. It would continue to do so in the next decade, led by the high-flying exploits of the league's 1985 Rookie of the Year: Michael Jordan.
Marred by two strikes and the movement of teams from one city to another, professional football was saved only by the accomplishments of the players on the field. Responsible for many of the decade's best moments on the gridiron was Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers. Many consider him the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen. Neither big nor fast, Montana was fluid and always in control. With steely determination, he had the ability to impose a quiet order on a raw and disorderly game, leading his team time after time to victory in the final moments of play.
The decade witnessed the return of legends and the birth of new ones in other American sports. Jack Nicklaus, who had dominated the game of golf for nearly two decades, was forty years old when the 1980s began, and many thought his time had passed. Nicklaus proved them wrong, continuing to display the shots and mental toughness that had made him a legend in the first place. Professional hockey welcomed a teenager who, over the course of the decade, would distance himself from virtually everyone in the sport. Never the fastest or strongest player on his team, Wayne Gretzky was far from ordinary, dominating the flow and pace of the game like no one before.
The achievement of athletes in various sports shone in the 1980s. John McEnroe ruled over professional tennis in the first half of the decade with his graceful shots and often coarse behavior. In 1986, Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France, the world's greatest cycling race. And in the Olympics, the incredible feats of the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team, speed skater Eric Heiden, and track star Carl Lewis captured the imagination of the American public. No less amazing were the victories of female athletes at the Games. Speed skater Bonnie Blair, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, and track-and-field stars Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee destroyed ancient myths about female athletic inferiority, providing young women in America and around the world with important role models.