This is hardly a D.C. story. The building of stadiums has become the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. The stadiums are presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight.
Stadiums are sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. In the past 10 years, more than $16 billion of the public’s money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast. Though some cities are beginning to resist paying the full tab, any kind of subsidy is a fool’s investment, ending up being little more than monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America’s billionaires built with funds that could have been spent more wisely on just about anything else.
The era of big government may be over, but it has been replaced by the Rise of the Domes. Reports from both the right-wing Cato Institute and the more centrist Brookings Institution dismiss stadium funding as an utter financial flop, yet the domes keep coming.
Our stadiums, funded on our dime, become the political province of those owners who paid nary a penny for the privilege. In many stadiums, they have started “faith days at the park” where evangelical Christian organizations set up booths and Christian rock gets blared over the loudspeakers. No separation of church and state, even when the state is footing the bill.
Then there is the force-feeding of political dogma. No freedom from that, either. On the orders of George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees now string up chains along the seats to keep people standing and secured — and not going to the concessions or bathroom — for the seventh-inning singing of “God Bless America.”
As Neil DeMause, co-author of the book “Field of Schemes” said to me, “The history of the stadium game is the story of how, by slowly refining their blackmail skills, sports owners learned how to turn their industry from one based on selling tickets to one based on extracting public subsidies. It’s been a bit like watching a 4-year-old learn how to manipulate his parents into buying him the new toy that he saw on TV; the question now is how long it takes our elected officials to learn to say ‘no.’ “
But our elected officials have been more like the children, as sports owners tousle their hair and set the budget agendas for municipalities around the country with a simple credo: stadiums first and people last.
In August 2005, we saw the extreme results of these kinds of priorities. After Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana Superdome, the largest domed structure in the Western Hemisphere, morphed into a homeless shelter from hell, inhabited yet uninhabitable for an estimated 30,000 of New Orleans’ poorest residents.
It took Hurricane Katrina for them to actually see the inside of the Superdome, a stadium whose ticket prices make entry restrictive. At the time of the hurricane, game tickets cost $90, season seats went for $1,300, and luxury boxes for eight home games ran more than $100,000 a year. But the Katrina refugees’ tickets were courtesy of the federal and local government’s malignant neglect.
It was only fitting, because these 30,000 people helped pay for the stadium in the first place. The Superdome was built entirely on the public dime in 1975, as a part of efforts to create a “New New Orleans” business district. City officials decided that building the largest domed stadium on the planet was in everyone’s best interest. Instead, it set off a 30-year path toward destruction for the Big Easy: a path that has seen money for the stadium but not for levees; money for the stadium but not for shelter; money for the stadium but not for an all-too-predictable disaster.
The tragedy of Katrina then became farce when the Superdome’s inhabitants were finally moved: not to government housing, public shelters or even another location in the area, but to the Houston Astrodome. Ladies and gentlemen, we had the March of Domes.
I spoke to former Major League Baseball All-Star and “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton about the publicly financed “doming of America, and this is what he said:
“It’s such a misapplication of the public’s money. … You’ve got towns turning out streetlights, they’re closing firehouses, they’re cutting back on school supplies, they’re having classrooms in stairwells, and we’ve got a nation full of kids who don’t have any health insurance. I mean, it’s disgraceful. The limited things that our government does for the people with the people’s money, to spend even a dime or a penny of it on ballparks is just a crime.
“It’s going to be seen historically as an awful folly, and it’s starting to be seen that way now, but historically that will go down as one of the real crimes of American government, national and local, to allow the funneling of people’s money directly into the pockets of a handful of very wealthy individuals who could build these stadiums on their own if it made financial sense. If they don’t make financial sense, then they shouldn’t be building them.”
Bouton went on to say, “If I was a team owner today, asking for public money, I’d be ashamed of myself. Ashamed of myself. But we’ve gone beyond shame. There’s no such thing as shame anymore. People aren’t embarrassed to take — to do these awful things.”
Bouton is absolutely correct. When it comes to fleecing our cities, some of the richest people in this country have shown a complete absence of shame. The question is whether we are going to finally stand up and impose our priorities onto them, instead of continually taking it on the chin.
Polls show consistent majorities don’t want public funds spent on stadiums. That means the silent majority of sports fans oppose the stadium glut as well. We sports fans need to make ourselves heard. We may love baseball. We may love football. We may bleed our team’s colors on game day. But that doesn’t mean we should have to pay a billionaire millions of dollars for the privilege to watch.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming book: “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). Contact him at [email protected]
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #10 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: An Issues Discussion With Paul Dolan – Dolan is the Cleveland Indians Owner and CEO. He discusses the use of Native American names and logos by sports teams and the decisions to drop the Chief Wahoo logo and the upcoming change to the team name. Other baseball topics include health and safety, possible MLB rule changes and youth participation in the sport.
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Episode #9 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Issues With Ralph Nader – Nader is a consumer advocate and was named one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century” by Time magazine. He is the founder of League of Fans.
Episode #8 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Save College Sports From Overcommercialization and Professionalization? – The guest is Dr. David Ridpath, a sports business professor and past president of the Drake Group
Episode #7 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Brain Trauma and CTE Risk in Sports With Dr. Ann McKee – Dr. McKee works in the field of neuropathology and has demonstrated that “mild” repetitive head trauma can provoke chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a devastating neurodegenerative disease.
Episode #6 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Need for Quality Physical Education in Our Schools is Greater Than Ever – The guest is Clayton Ellis, one of our nation’s leading advocates for getting our young people to be more physically active.
Episode #5 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Youth Sports with Positive Coaching Alliance Founder Jim Thompson – Thompson started Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) in 1998 to help create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports from “win-at-all-costs” to a positive, character-building experience.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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