A week to mark the end of an era in American sports

The stat arrived the way so much of our sports information does these days, in the form of a social media graphic: The 2024 NFL playoffs will be the first since 1998 without either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

That’s an incredible fact in itself, but in connection with this past week, it’s more evidence that an entire era of sports is ending.

Nick Saban walking away from Alabama, Bill Belichick and the Patriots parting ways, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks splitting up, Tiger Woods ending his 27-year connection with Nike … each one of those carries individual significance, but taken as a whole, they make for one of the most notable weeks in recent American sports history.

Most of the change in sports starts well away from the public eye. A kid starts hoisting shots from beyond the 3-point range in his backyard, and a few years later, the entire NBA is bombing away. A coach schemes up an offense designed to spread the field and put pressure on the defense from unexpected angles, and a few years later, every team in the league is throwing it deep. An engineer tinkers with the design of a car, and a few years later, everyone is using the same schematics at tracks all over the world.

For fans, too, change comes slowly and then all at once. Some company airs a slightly clever commercial during the Super Bowl, and eventually, every ad is a cavalcade of celebrities and goofiness. Some producer decides fans might want to watch people talking about games, and suddenly, commentators and former jocks are on every channel holding court on the news of the day. Some math obsessive uses daily stats to create his own little games, and suddenly, fantasy sports are one of the key components of every sports fan’s life.

So when change comes as suddenly as it did this week, there’s a significance that goes far beyond the individual teams affected. Think about what ended this week across sports:

  • Saban did nothing less than rewrite the entirety of college football. His emphasis on discipline traces its origins to football’s earliest days, but his creation of multimillion-dollar facilities and his relentless, 24-7-365 focus on recruiting paved the way for the Death Stars that dominate the sport today. His coaching tree is a coaching forest, and the relentless focus on The Process led, inevitably, to perfection and triumph.

  • Belichick, like Saban, blocked, crushed and short-circuited the ascendance of entire generations of would-be champions. For two decades, the road to the Super Bowl ran through New England, one way or another. His curmudgeonly style annoyed opponents, fans, referees and his own players and team officials alike. (And, as we’ve seen from the failure of all the mini-Belichicks, “The Patriot Way” doesn’t travel well.) He’ll probably be the last NFL coach given that level of franchise-shaping power.

  • Carroll’s split with Seattle had the unfortunate timing of preceding both Saban and Belichick, which meant it got only a few hours of airtime before being swamped by their news. But Carroll is an iconic figure all his own, an iconoclast who succeeded on both the college and pro fronts with far more verve and spirit than most coaches at either level usually show.

  • Woods’ contributions to the game of golf are without limit, and the way he dragged the sport’s entire fashion sense into the modern era ranks way up there. Before Nike transformed Woods’ entire image, the old cliche about golfers wearing pants that looked like your grandmother’s drapes wasn’t a joke; it was reality. Nike’s attire and myth-making commercials raised golf’s profile and raised Woods to the level of sports demigod.

  • If you were carving the proverbial Mount Rushmore of NFL icons, the only question is who would slot in beside Manning and Brady. They came as close as anyone ever has to being bigger than The Shield itself, and they cast a long shadow. Love them or hate them, you always had at least one rooting interest every playoff … until now.

One of sports’ greatest strengths is the way it links the parts of your life together in a long, narrative string. You start out rooting for a team as a kid, and you can root for them your whole life. But along the way, you’ll say goodbye to generation after generation of your favorite players. Hometown heroes, journeymen, All-Stars, rent-a-players … it’s a minor earthquake each time one leaves. Put together enough of those quakes, and you get the upheaval we had this past week.

Sports today would be all but unrecognizable to the kids who once rooted for Joe Namath, Joe Montana or even Michael Jordan. The pace of the game, the overwhelming commercialization, the unending hype cycle, the thousand potential touchpoints to watch, analyze, gamble on and fantasy sports-ize the game — they’re all a long way from the beer-and-a-couch era. Saban, Woods, Belichick and the rest helped usher in this era, and now sports moves on without their influence.

Twenty years from now, when the game has moved on, we can look back at this week and remember it’s one of the last moments when sports were the way they used to be.