Paul Lewis: What will top hit parade in 2117?

Will crunching hits like this inflicted by Washington Redskins back Greg Toler on New York Giant Sterling Shepard become a distant memory? Photo / AP
Will crunching hits like this inflicted by Washington Redskins back Greg Toler on New York Giant Sterling Shepard become a distant memory? Photo / AP

Rollerball got it wrong. The futuristic 1970s movie depicted sport as run by global companies, expanded into a violent gladiatorial contest in front of baying fans where death was not only common but expected.

Rollerball (1975) chose 2018 as the futuristic year when sport would become a gory circus, operated by manipulative corporations who used teams to demonstrate the futility of individualism, clamping a potentially troublesome populace to the corporate teat.

But we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. You have to wonder: 100 years from now, in 2117, will contact sports like rugby, league, UFC and boxing still exist?

Let's see ... Alex McKinnon, the NRL player paralysed after a tackle, is now suing the NRL and the opponent who made the tackle. League has banned the shoulder charge, rugby has instituted new high tackle laws, which many players have decried as changing the game to the extent it won't be rugby.

The shoulder charge went west because the NRL figured they'd cop lawsuit after lawsuit as concussion came to be regarded as something rather more than an inconvenient bang on the head. The NFL last year settled a monster lawsuit out of court after former players accused the NFL of covering up the link with the degenerative brain disease CTE.

As the lawyers close in, the bodies governing most contact sports are closing loopholes and changing rules to protect themselves. Yet they may be signing their own death certificates.

Evolution, even in sport, can't be denied. The human race used to glory in gladiators - to-the-death "matches" involving trained killers, criminals, wild animals and the like where "a good death" was celebrated. It lasted 1000 years before a more enlightened sense of the sanctity of life, accelerated by the dawn of Christianity, prevailed. Bullfighting is going the same way. Those who enjoy an old-fashioned, physical sporting encounter now seem a minority.

But these are tough times for sport (not just contact sports) because of two other factors - trust and indifference. We've recently had cycling drugs cheat Lance Armstrong - the most infamous sports doper in history - here filming a television commercial. The message was: cheat, earn millions, win seven Tour de France titles, go on Oprah's TV show to confess and your celebrity will be so undisturbed, hundreds of Kiwis will turn up to ride a bike with you.

Last year, we discovered there were a lot of bent people in the IAAF and FIFA and that Russia probably dopes its entire sporting population. Some believe major boxing bouts are fixed. Athletics is regarded as being almost irretrievably tainted by drugs, like weightlifting (and cycling). In cricket, match-fixing is becoming more prominent and the pinnacle of the game - test cricket - is dying and being replaced by Twenty20, about which I do not give a toss.

Athletes and sports bodies behaving like spoiled boofheads is another eroder of trust, over time, and it has taken a few heavy blows over recent years. Sport depends on fans who follow it with passion and commitment.

What happens when the faithful decide the prophets have feet of clay?

Indifference comes not only from lack of trust but also from lack of spectacle from too many sanitised sports. T20, for example, is an obvious casualty of the future with its ability to make the special - hitting a six - so common.

If you don't think indifference is a big deal, ask the Catholic church after all those allegations of sexual abuse and the struggle to remain relevant to a congregation who, in the words of an old Dire Straits song, are "all in the stations, praying for trains".

So it's easy to see a future where football reigns supreme and alone as the world's football code. New generations may look back on the "big hit", the high tackle, playing on with concussion or a broken limb and boxing - and view them as evidence of the same kind of barbarity we now see in the gladiators.

Sport is being corporatised and manipulated but not in the way Rollerball foresaw. 2017 will be an interesting step on that path.

- NZ Herald

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