The 1980s: A Changing Era in Sports

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Many people remember the 1980s as a time where sports were in a golden era.  This was the decade when we saw such battles on the field of play such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, John Elway leading the Bronco’s to a miracle comeback against the Cleveland Browns, or Michigan’s “Fab Five,” but there were other events that occurred during the 1980s that had major impacts on the way that people view sporting events for two different sports.  These, of course, are the dominance of Mike Tyson in the boxing world and the impact that that had on viewers and the emergence of the use of steroids in Major League Baseball.  These two events would reshape the way in which fans saw the two sports forever.  Though both the use of steroids in the MLB and the emergence of Mike Tyson boosted the popularity of the two sports respectively, they also had some major drawbacks.  Regardless of the positive or negative effect that these two specific cases had on their individual sport, one fact remains true.  Through the resulting actions of the increased use of steroids in MLB and the emergence of Mike Tyson as a dominant force in the boxing world in the 1980s, the two sports were redefined and changed in the eyes of their viewers forever. 

 Major League Baseball is one of the most difficult leagues for any professional player to play within.  As noted, “to win in baseball, players must be able to hit, run, pitch, and field the ball better than their opponents,” (Porterfield).  To contend on all of these different levels of play that were constantly being tested of the players of this game, athletes have constantly been looking for ways to improve their games.  Unfortunately, their searches sometimes end with less than ideal solutions.  It is not uncommon to find out that a player has altered the field of play to improve their chances of success.  Sometimes a player is discovered to have corked their bat in order to have an increased chance of hitting the ball farther, or a pitcher may be discovered to have put a lubricant on his person in order to be able to generate more motion on his pitchers and thusly make them harder to hit.  One of the most publicized areas of the game that has become known about from the players end in the hopes of increasing their ability to compete comes from performance enhancing drugs.  In modern times, this is more specifically linked to steroids or human growth hormone, however the use of performance enhancing drugs started with different drugs and were used long before our modern era.  These days, there's a question over whether doping athletes should forfeit accolades

Back in the 1940s, the first drugs that were used to increase performance made their way into professional baseball.  The drug amphetamine has become the most famous of these.  This particular drug is designed as a nervous system stimulator and found itself as a common drug in clubhouses during the 1950s and 1960s under the name of “greenies.”  The uses of such drugs were not ever brought to the public spotlight until the infamous 1985 “Pittsburgh Drug Trials.”  In these trials, “former players John Milner, Dave Parker, and Dale Berra testified that superstars Willie May and Willie Stargell, both now members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, used amphetamines,” (Porterfield).  This was the first major time the MLB was forced to deal with public attention to the fact that some of its top players were using substances that were unhealthy in order to gain a competitive advantage.  Despite this, it was not until the mid-2000s until Major League Baseball reformed its drug policies and took much harsher actions on its players to prevent the use of such drugs.  

The use of drugs that had physical effects on the players ability to gain strength, speed, and power were not as prevalent in earlier times as these sorts of drugs had not been cleared for the use in humans.  However, in the 1980s, the use of steroids became more and more clear in the game from some of the top players in the era.  The 1980s is generally considered to be the start of what is known as “the steroids era.”  It was during this time that such prominent players as Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire are thought to have begun using the performance enhancing drugs that powered them to such successful careers while playing in the MLB.  Canseco’s use of steroids during the mid to late 1980s would propel his career to an American League MVP in 1988 and to be labeled, “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids,” (Fitzpatrick).  McGwire, another famed user of steroids, would go on to become one of the greatest homerun hitters in league history by setting the record for homeruns hit a rookie at 49 and then breaking Roger Maris’ record of homeruns hit in a single season (until Barry Bonds broke the record in the mid-2000s). By the early 90s, a New York Times report stated, “ up to 40% of major league players had taken steroids,” (Fitzpatrick).  The floodgates had been opened by the success of such players as Canseco or McGwire in the late 80s and players felt that they needed to adapt and be able to compete with individuals that had the competitive edge by taking such drugs, which resulted in a positive feedback loop for more and more players to begin to use steroids.

What steroids did to the game during the mid to late 1980s onward from an economic point of view was only beneficial to teams thereafter.  The so-called “steroid era” lead to “increase dramatically during the Steroids Era, with the average MLB franchise rising from $140 million to $332 million in a decade,” (Grossman et al).  The game took a much more offensive orientation as more and more hitters were becoming stronger through the use of steroids.  This resulted in an increased excitement for the average fan as they felt that high scoring games were more enjoyable to watch when compared to low scoring games often referred to as “pitchers duels.”  Generally speaking, “it appears that steroids produce positive results not just for players, but for leagues, owners, and even for consumers who get to witness more offense in games,” (Grossman et al).  Obviously, however, the negative health effects of steroids had to be weighted, and in 1991 steroids were banned from the MLB, which has resulted in much fallout in the mid-2000s as to which players were finding ways to continue to use these performance-enhancing drugs.

Through all of the effects that steroids had on the popularity for the sport of baseball, they are no match for a single man who redefined and re-popularized an entire sport in the 1980s.  This, of course, is in reference to the emergence and dominance of Mike Tyson in the boxing world throughout the 1980s.  In the 1980s, the sport was in dire need of being re-imagined and re-defined.  Gone were the old boxing greats such as Jack Dempsey or Muhammad Ali, and the sport was looking for a new face to represent all that was exciting and attractive to the world of professional fighting.  Mike Tyson filled that void in the 1980s.  Exploding onto the professional circuit in 1985, Tyson would become one of the most dominant forces the boxing world has ever seen and also one of the most colorful personalities that has ever been seen in professional sports.       

To call the beginning of Tyson’s career outstanding would be an understatement. In his first year as a professional, he fought 15 opponents, “he knocked out all fifteen (opponents), eleven of them in the first round,” (Boxing Historian).  The following year, he won all 13 of his matches and would eventually challenge the heavy weight titleholder Trevor Berbick in November; what would follow is considered by many to be one of the most dominant displays of boxing powers ever displayed by a young man in the history of the sport.  Tyson floored the champion twice and attacked him with an assault of raw, savage power that lead to the defeat of the Heavy Weight Champion.  Following his victory, “Tyson became the youngest-ever heavyweight champion at 20 years and 145 days,” (Boxing Historian).  

What followed was an exponential rise in the popularity of the sport of boxing spearheaded by the power of Tyson and his dominant skills.  Tyson would end the 1980s with one of the most dominant records ever posted by a boxer.  Tyson ended the 80s with “a perfect record of 27-0 and seemed on his way to becoming the most dominate heavyweight champion of all-time,” (Eisele).  What made Tyson even more than just a great competitor in the ring was the personality of the man outside the ring.  The fame and success, as well as his dominating skills in the ring, apparently went to Tyson’s head, and it was not uncommon for Tyson to make some interesting claims or release rather controversial statements such as “When I fight someone, I want to break his will.  I want to take his manhood.  I want to rip out his heart and show it to him,” (Eisele).  Regardless of how out of touch with reality Tyson appeared to be, the simple fact of the matter remains that he could throw a mean punch and fill an arena with a crowd.  

There is no better example of Tyson’s ability to fill a crowd and deliver upon the big stage than his fight with Michael Spinks in 1989.  The fight was set up during a time of the beginning of much social turmoil for Tyson as he had recently sued his manager Bill Cayton and been accused of domestic violence by his then wife Robin Givens and her family.  Despite these factors weighing on the champ’s mind, the fight was scheduled and fought on June 27th of 1988.  For this fight, “the crowd at Convention Hall paid a live-gate record of $12.3 million” which resulted in a gross of $70 million, “…making this the largest growing fight in boxing history, a record previously held by the Leonard-Hagler fight in 1987” (Heller).  Tyson KO-ed Spinks in 91 seconds despite all of the issues and troubles that plagued the man outside of the ring.  After the fight, Tyson seriously considered retirement, and in usual Tyson fashion, made a color quote in an interview with Mike Marley of the New York Post.  Tyson reported saying, “Don King was laughing (on his ideas of retirement), but when he finds out I’m serious, he won’t be laughing…I don’t want to deal with this bullshit anymore…” (Heller). Unfortunately for Mike Tyson, the fall from grace was as steep as his rise to prominence.  He could not simply put his entire social and emotional problems on hold forever, and in the 1990s, they came crashing down upon him.  He would lose his title in a stunning loss in 1990, deal with multiple lawsuits, and generally lose his place in the boxing world as a golden boy.  

What Tyson did in the 1980s, despite all of this, is show that the power of a single man can change the way that the community at large sees a sport forever.  In fact, the success of Mike Tyson extended far beyond the ring to the point that Nintendo launched a video game under the name of Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  Tyson took a sport that was losing popularity and marketability and revamped it into one of the most lucrative and successful forms of entertainment for the decade.  The combination of raw power and potential coupled with Tyson’s famous ego and quotations gave the boxing world the figure that it needed for the sport to rally behind and regain its image.  For all of the negativity that Tyson has received from the boxing world since his fall from grace, it must always be remembered that he was originally the savior of the sport.

The 1980s was a time where the two sports mentioned saw a dramatic shift in their notability.  What is interesting is the dramatic difference that the two sports experienced in terms of beneficial compared to disadvantageous nature of the events that occurred during this decade.  Tyson was seen, at least in the 80s, as a savior and hero to the sport.  His actions on the ring unified professional boxing and provided a superstar within the sport that could dazzle and wow crowds at any given fight.  In professional baseball, the use of steroids served initially much as the same.  Fans were treated to more and more offensive displays of power from the athletes, but eventually were angered and discredited the accomplishments of the players during this time period when it was revealed that the reason for their success came from the use of performance enhancing drugs.  It would appear that the use of a physical aid on the field is more detrimental to the actions of an individual outside of the field of competition.  This is especially true considering the outrage and anger that fans felt at Major League Baseball for the use of steroids after the investigations.  Mike Tyson’s personal actions were, in the 80s, not seen as a blemish upon the sport of boxing, rather they were seen as the poor life choices of an individual.  This is also due in large to the fact that Tyson was a single man whereas the use of performance enhancing drugs were rampant throughout the entire league in professional baseball. In general, drugs in society were running rampant.

Regardless of the actions positive or negative effects, the 1980s were a time of great change in the professional sporting world.  This era was a time when two of the oldest sports in America gained a resurgence of popularity that can often be linked to two specific events: the explosion of the use of steroids from major league players and the emergence of Mike Tyson as a dominant force in the boxing world.  The outcome of these two monumental events helped to gain the professional boxing and baseball circuit millions of dollars in added revenue and provided a new, more entertaining form of competition for the fan-bases of the respected sports.  In retrospect, the actions that were performed by the players of Major League Baseball during the start of the Steroid Era in the late 1980s and the actions of Mike Tyson outside of the ring were not positive for their respective sports legacies, however the simple fact of their notability remains unchallengeable.  Be it love or hate that an individual feels towards these two events, the undeniable truth that they dramatically altered the sporting world forever will remain true and undisputed throughout the history of both the MLB and the professional boxing world.      

Works Cited

Boxing Historian, . "Mike Tyson." Boxing Historian. n.d. n. page. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://www.theboxinghistorian.com/RingLegends/mike-tyson.html>.

Eisele, Andrew. "Mike Tyson." About History. n.d. n. page. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://boxing.about.com/od/records/a/tyson_timeline.htm>.

Fitzpatrick, Laura. "Steroids." Time Magazine. 13 Jan 2010: n. page. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1953229,00.html>.

Grossman, Mitchell, Timothy Kimsey, Joshua Moreen, and Matthew Owings. "Steroids and Major League Baseball." n.d. n. page. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/rjmorgan/mba211/steroids and major league baseball.pdf>.

Heller, Peter. Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story. New York City: Da Capo Press, 1995. 

Porterfield, Jason. Major League Baseball: The Great Steroid Scandals. New York City: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2010.