Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love

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9781595587824: Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love
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Funny, engaging, and sharply pointed in his appraisal of the sports complex bankrupting our cities, the celebrated author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States returns with a hard-hitting indictment of big business and the corrupt practices that are ruining the sports we love.

When attending a baseball game becomes a luxury reserved for the wealthy few and cities build multi-million dollar stadiums while letting their bridges crumble, the price of sports in this country demands reassessment. Bad Sports cuts through the hype and bombast to give us a portrait of sports ownership as irresponsible as the financial shenanigans that drove the nation to the edge of economic ruin. From the outrageous use of public funds for stadium construction to the use of these spaces for religious and political platforms, Dave Zirin raises vital questions about misplaced priorities and moral abdications among the politicians we elect and the owners of the teams we root for.

Speaking out in clear and passionate terms for the rights of any taxpayer and sports fan, Zirin returns America’s favorite pastimes back to where they belong—in the open and for the people.

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About the Author:

Dave Zirin is the host of SiriusXM Radio’s popular weekly show Edge of Sports Radio, as well as a columnist for The Nation, SLAM magazine, and The Progressive. His previous books include What’s My Name, Fool?; Welcome to the Terrordome; and A People’s History of Sports in the United States. He lives near Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Intro: Diogenes in High Tops

In a rich man’s house there is no place to spit but his face.

—DIOGENES

I once had a coach who could spit tobacco hard enough to break a window. He smelled like a hamper and only wore pants that came with a drawstring. And every last person on the team loved the guy. He always said to us, “Sports is like a hammer, gents. And you can use a hammer for all kinds of things. You can use it to build a house, or you can use it to bash somebody’s head. Choose wisely.”

In the twenty-first century, far too many sports fans have a headache that is rapidly entering migraine territory. It’s not just the 1,440 minutes a day of televised sports coverage causing the damage. It’s not even the sports talk radio blabbocracy that is making people reach for the Extra Strength Tylenol. The headache comes from the idea that we are loving something that simply doesn’t love us in return. If sports was once like a playful puppy you would wrestle on the floor, it’s now like a house cat demanding to be stroked and giving nothing back. It’s the way it gets harder to sit through a full game, or the way you go a year without making it to the ballpark and fail to even notice. It’s the extra commercials tacked on to a broadcast, as companies attempt to use the games to “brand” our subconscious. It’s when you decide to finally take the trip to the park, look up the ticket prices, and decide immediately to do something, anything, else with your time. It’s the way you don’t feel the same urgency to watch every second of every game for fear you might miss something magical. As economic times get tougher, the question of what to trim out of the budget doesn’t become a question at all.

Fun has become pain, and sports have become expendable. Ask a junior high classroom whether they know or even care about sports, and the answer should send a chill up the spine of all league commissioners. In my mind, this is a tragic state of affairs. How did sports become so overbearing in our culture, and yet so distant from our personal embrace? When, as fans, did we develop the equivalent of battered spouse’s syndrome? And who is at fault for this state of affairs? There are certainly fans who blame the players for being too wealthy and too aloof. If only they didn’t live in gated communities, only emerging to charge for autographs. There also are nonfans who blame the fans themselves. If only they would stop buying tickets and merchandise, the game would change. But the days of pointing the finger at players and fans have to end. If a car’s brakes failed, you wouldn’t blame the driver. All eyes would be on the manufacturer. If professional sports have been beating us over the head with their hammer, it’s the owners who need to answer for this sorry state of affairs. Players play. Fans watch. Owners are uniquely charged with being the stewards of the game. It’s a task that they have failed to perform in spectacular fashion.

These are the caretakers, and yet, with barely a sliver of scrutiny, they are wrecking the world of sports. The old model of the paternalistic owner caring for a community has become as outdated as the Model T. Because of publicly funded stadium construction, luxury box licenses, sweetheart cable deals, globalized merchandizing plans, and other “revenue streams,” the need for owners to cater to a local working- and middle-class fan base has shrunk dramatically. Fans have become scenery for television broadcasts.

The fastest-growing sector of fans? People who love sports, but hate what they are becoming. I interviewed a focus group of more than three thousand fans for this book and this feeling of resentment was the common denominator. As one person said, “I still check out the games but I feel no connection. It’s like sex that I feel dirty about afterward.”

Yes, people watch but, with rare exceptions, no longer see sports as a linchpin of community cohesion. Because owners believe that they don’t need the fans, they do more than put the interests of those who don the foam finger last: they have also, in a novel and unprecedented manner, used the ballpark as a showcase for their politics, which tend to be of the right-of-center persuasion. We have seen a hyperpatriotism and even a religious program being brought to the often publicly funded playing field. They seem to be saying that it’s their world and we just live in it even if our taxes pay for their stadiums with every unfilled pothole and underfunded library. It’s time to upset the setup.

Whether you are a sports fan or not, sports affects the national discussion and economy like never before. It shapes how we understand our cultural landscape and is a prime economic player in the game of urban politics. It also rests under a dizzying maze of government antitrust exemptions and secrecy like no other business of comparable size. The reason why the bulk of owners are unknown, hiding in the darkness, is that the light is kind neither to them nor their spreadsheets. Like the fey Blanche DuBois, they are favored by shadows, and certainly financially they deeply “depend on the kindness of strangers”—us.

This book is going to argue that every last shred of absolute power they possess should be stripped from their hands. The sports fan, Joe Twelve-Pack, Plain Jane, Mario Marginalized, needs to have a seat at the table, particularly if our teams get even one solitary dollar of public money. If a team owner is particularly abusive to a community, local fans should be able to divvy up the shares and buy the team back. This is not just about tax justice. It’s about a project of reclamation: a grand adventure to change the game.

I didn’t feel that way before starting this project. I wanted to speak to every last owner who would talk to me. I wanted them to defend the way our modern athletic industrial complex is run. I wanted to see if they felt their teams were still the vital cogs to our communities that they once were.

I spent the last year trying to land an interview with any one of them. The goals of the interview were straightforward: to find an owner who believes in the good of sports before the good of their pocketbooks; someone who cares about the long-term health of the product over short-term gain; someone who thinks players don’t sign away their humanity just because they sign a contract; someone who doesn’t see publicly funded stadiums as a divine right; someone who sees his team’s health as a community political trust instead of an individual political opportunity. I was searching for an owner who would openly address why, despite the unprecedented popularity of sports, so many fans are down on the games themselves. I wanted to ask how ownership can be so at odds with the pulse of fans. Like Diogenes, I was just searching for an honest person.

In Ancient Greece, Diogenes the Cynic carried a lamp in daylight, engaged in his quest for an honest man. I was ready to be proudly cynical as I went about my task. Cynicism, in the classical sense, isn’t about rudely doubting the best intentions of others like some flannel-wearing, grunge-era slacker. It’s about the search for truth. As Simon Critchley, author of The Book of Dead Philosophers, wrote, “Cynicism is basically a moral protest against hypocrisy and cant in politics and excess and thoughtless self-indulgence in the conduct of life. In a world like ours, which is slowly trying to rouse itself from the dogmatic slumbers of boundless self-interest, corruption, lazy cronyism and greed, it is Diogenes’ lamp that we need to light our path.”1

I was ready to shine the lamp, to be skeptical, to actually rejoice in the face of good intentions but recoil at hypocrisy. But not one owner took the bait. We sent out a hundred letters. We made a thousand phone calls. I even dropped in on an office or five. I was very polite. I didn’t have a camera. I wasn’t trying to be a somewhat-more-svelte Michael Moore. I just wanted to chat. And yet their lips were sewed tighter than a mob boss in front of a congressional inquiry. I contacted all the appropriate offices, set up appointments, but as soon as questions were submitted in advance, I was done.

One owner actually did get back to me, and for that I am grateful. I almost dedicated this book to him. His name is Ed Snider, and he is the CEO of Comcast Spectacor and the power behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers. I learned from Mr. Snider that he believes the best thing about being an owner is that “you never get bored.” The worst thing is that “the salaries are entirely out of whack.” I learned that he has “never had the problem” of a player with objectionable political beliefs. I learned that he believes owners need to be “visible to the fans. The fans should be able to identify with the owner, and the owner should be able to identify with the fans.”2 I learned little else. After a few more aphorisms, the dial tone was in my ear and I was yesterday’s reporter.

Why does the taciturn Snider, in the pantheon of owners, qualify as loquacious? Maybe they just don’t like talking to sportswriters. When it comes to some of my brethren, I could not be more sympathetic. As the late Hunter S. Thompson put it, with his delicate sensibility, “Sportswriters are a rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks, a gang of vicious monkeys jerking off in a zoo cage . . . more disgusting by nature than maggots oozing out the carcass of a dead animal.”3 Not exactly someone any sane person would want to join for a cup of coffee.

Maybe owners have just written off the media as irrelevant to their grand plans. As the Napoleonic Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has shown, if you don’t like the press you’re getting, one option is just to bu...

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