Mashburn Comes Alive!

A journey into the hazily legal, unquestionably dorky world of sports tape trading.
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Flickr: Windothek

The details are burned into my brain, and they're not going anywhere: the unfortunate moustaches and high-elevation haircuts, the garish uniforms and all-white sneakers. In my memory, Jamal Mashburn will always remain that unstoppable force he was in 1993: all balletic grace, basketball brawn and bombardier guts. But should I for some reason ever need to be reminded of why Mashburn was my first truly unrestrained sports crush, I could always fall back on the first dozen minutes or so of my unlabeled DVD copy of Kentucky humiliating Wake Forest in the ’93 NCAA Sweet 16.

Gangly kids I remember as if they were members of my neighborhood posse shuttle in and out. Mashburn scores a teardrop from the lane, and Travis Ford buries a three from the top of the arc. Then Mashburn dribbles once to his right, goes behind his back to his left hand, steps back and sinks a deep three. The camera pans to a younger and less manifestly sleazy Rick Pitino trying and failing to suppress a grin; Wake coach Dave Odom just stands there, arms crossed, shaken and already sweating.

It's because of moments like that that I'm, if not proud, then happy to be an enthusiastic silent partner in the underground of “vintage sports video collectors” – keepers of already-completed games ripped from live broadcasts and saved, burned and traded (or occasionally sold) among obsessive sports fans. These are moments that can't really be found anywhere else.

***

The practice of game collecting has been going on for decades, effectively since VHS recording got cheap and accessible enough to make it viable for average fans. For all that time, regardless of how small-scale most collectors are, what they are doing has been against the law. Knowingly distributing copyrighted broadcasts is now and has long been illegal, which is why collectors of old games still favor anonymity and CB-style handles that hide their identities from unseen authorities.

Until the middle of the last decade, eBay provided a refuge for collectors, but with the climate shifting—think also of record companies very loudly suing house-moms over MP3s—vintage sports aficionados took their bazaar back underground. The internet made it easy, and the internet's anonymity made it less risky, or at least less obvious. One trader, who asked to be called only J.T., told me, “I don't let [getting caught] worry me too much. However, if any official came and said, 'We'd like you to stop what you are doing,' as bad as I'd hate to stop, I would. I'm not looking to get in any kind of legal trouble.” As with everyone else who has an illicit habit or two, he’s fine doing it until he gets caught.

This includes me. You have, perhaps, found yourself on an otherwise perfectly normal afternoon wishing like hell you could watch Karl Malone and Wayman Tisdale face off in an NCAA game. Or maybe you’re more into Wide Right II or the 1986 World Series. It’s your nostalgia trip, feel free to fill in the specifics yourself. These games are copyrighted by their respective leagues and broadcasters. They are also almost certainly available for your viewing pleasure, provided you know where to look.

My route: through a message board, via an interlocutor, over the gloriously nameless, faceless internet, I managed to find a list—a  long, amazingly detailed list complete with quality grades (A+ to C-)—of old college basketball games available for a small fee. The vast majority of these games were not made available by the NCAA, which has made some prominent games available for download purchase, or from one of the networks on which they were originally broadcast. Instead, the list and the games belonged to a guy somewhere in Texas who sent me, for a mere $8 bucks per disc via Paypal, a plain US Post Office Priority Mail envelope with no return address containing a small rubber-banded batch of bootlegged decades-old games.

And they were great. A slightly slimmer Mike Francesa, his familiar impatient frown already in place, set up games from the studio; the games themselves featured players I’d followed their entire careers, from their BMOC days to the fantasy league waiver wire. It was even possible, at times, to see why people once thought Billy Packer was a commentator worth listening to. For one thing, he rarely talked, and his commentary had none of the whiskey-smelling biliousness of his later years. Times do change, but for two hours plus I was transported.

After that first buy, I was hooked. I ordered another, larger batch. Eventually I started ripping my own DVDs from Netflix. But I am, in this world, small fry, and part of a community of anonymous obsessives exchanging emails, burning DVDs and chasing our personal Holy Grails from our home offices or work computers. We aren’t hurting anyone (well, except for our families) and there’s really nothing that tawdry about watching Larry Johnson dunk or Walter Payton run, so why is the practice illegal? Simple: it’s stealing, or in legal terms, “infringing.” And copyright holders have a real thing about that.

***

The MPAA estimates that the American movie industry loses up to $25 billion annually to the pirated movie market, with as much as $6 billion of that in China alone. But movie piracy makes money, clearly. People will pay to own and watch a movie. Once a game has been broadcast, unlike a film, most people would assume there exists a very small market for that game. And for the most part, that’s true. But to the professional leagues, the NCAA and the networks that broadcast those games, however, it’s not just history: it’s a product. It’s money.

The entrepreneur that I paid for my first few DVDs claims that he doesn’t make any money on the process and merely charges for parts and labor. My guy—let’s call him “Rusty,” as, again, he would only speak to me if I assured him he would remain anonymous—has been doing this for many years. At first, he did this as a way to watch games he couldn’t watch live—a practice known legally (and rather awesomely) as ‘time-shifting’. Now? It’s harder to say.

“I enjoy it. I’m a fan first, but you do get into the collecting part of it,” Rusty said. “After a while, it gets hard to stop. Some people don’t like that I ask for a little bit [of money], but if they don’t like it, don’t order anything.” Rusty’s catalog covers over 70 years, and his collection is now approaching a thousand games.

The advent of cheap and effective digital options has saved a lot of time and improved the quality from the old VHS days. Before, viewers had to either watch the game in its entirety or spend money on a machine that could speed up the process, which still wasn’t all that speedy. Now digitizing the games means one can easily rip a copy in a few minutes, with the price of recordable DVDs barely counting as a rounding error. Charging $8-10 per DVD, even with the cost of shipping, seems an awful lot like making money.

“I wouldn’t dream of charging for what I do,” J.T., told me, though he says he has accepted donations if people offered them. “It is a lot of work that goes into it. [I] guess they feel I deserve a little something for my time.”

Among at least one prominent community of traders, there exists a fundamental code: trading only. The site Old Time Sports bills itself as a “collection management platform available for anyone that is in the hobby of preserving old sports video and audio.”

“I do not want OTS in any way to be a vehicle which takes revenue away from the leagues, networks or any other entity which makes sporting events commercially available,” the site’s founder and administrator told me. “There could very well be a rogue OTS member out there trying to profit from their site and if caught I will immediately shut them down.”

The legal ramifications of trading versus selling old games are still not all that clear-cut. The case on which most of our modern understanding of so-called ‘fair use’ is commonly referred to as the “Betamax case.” The 1984 Supreme Court case Sony Corporation v. Universal City Studios established that time-shifting—that is, Rusty taping events for the purpose of watching them at a more convenient time—was OK. The case’s focus was on the technology involved in making duplications, not on the individual user. The Court did not rule on, nor perhaps could really fathom, the idea of building a library of games, and certainly couldn’t have foreseen the technology we possess today that makes it so simple and so cheap to copy, reproduce and distribute video.

“If recordings were made available for barter or commercial sale, that’s a factor to consider in applying the concept of ‘fair use’" said Robert Kasunic, a Georgetown law professor. "It would seem that is something the copyright owner would be able to do something about. Certainly it’s arguable, maybe even likely, where there was a commercial element it could diminish the finding of ‘fair use.’”

So far, there are very few cases of the Feds, or the leagues and networks themselves, pursuing individual collectors. The pursuit of acquiring bygone sporting events on tape continues, albeit quietly. Old Time Sports’ founder wishes it would stay that way.

“My hope is that if [the powers that be] are aware that they realize [Old Time Sports] is nothing more than a very small group of loyal fans and hobbyists who wish to simply enjoy watching these old events and to help preserve them,“ he said, “Except for a very small exception, most of these events are not commercially available in any form, so being able to watch [or] archive them is a privilege not taken lightly. Along with that, OTS does encourage the purchase of commercial releases when available in hopes that will help to fund future commercial releases.”

***

Yet most of these broadcasts mostly matter only insofar as a favorite team or player is involved. There is, inherently and inevitably, something more personal about picking this particular obsessive hobby. The largest collection listed by any one collector at Old Time Sports is a staggering 6,416 games, including NFL games from as far back as 1946. Several others claim over 3,000. I personally have probably 50 or so NCAA basketball games. I haven’t even watched some of them yet. A few I certainly obtained just to obtain them. It gets addictive.

While there is a gratifying nostalgic kick that comes with watching childhood heroes again, these old broadcasts also provide a window onto the way we used to live. If nostalgia implies looking back with a feeling that what came before was better or simpler than the present, vintage sports videos consistently (and amusingly) dispel that notion.

This is especially true of the videos that still have their original commercial breaks. Take the Radio Shack ad that ran during the 1990 Elite Eight game between Georgia Tech and Michigan State. In it, pastel-clad yuppies with impressively wide hair merrily use a Tandy portable cellular phone the size of a smallish toaster, while an overzealous voiceover exalts about how the new device “literally puts the entire world in the palm of your hand." Show it to a teenager and they’ll be amazed as well as amused at just how un-smart phones used to be, and at how prosaic our vision of a technologized world once was. In 20 years, these ads will look even goofier. They ground these games—haircuts and uniform style aside—in a specific historical moment.

And yet basketball, even if not totally abstracted, is still first and foremost basketball. My collection continues to grow, if only slowly and by a few games each year. Among my most prized items is a 1970 game between LSU and Kentucky with no audio. In abject quiet, “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Kentucky icon Dan Issel trade baskets to the tune of 115 points between them. I considered cutting a soundtrack to it, but it’s probably better as it is. This way I can watch it in its half-sacred silence, just a basketball fan out of time, in illicit rapture.


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Comments

Make a soundtrack and post it to the 'tube. Please. I want to see Issel splashing j's to brake er break beats!