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Owning the Game

There is a subgenre within the sportswriting genre that investigates and exposes the follies and profiteering of professional sports team owners.  Like those who uncover the end-arounds and outright cheating that takes place inside NCAA sports (especially basketball and football), those who write about this element of professional sports are usually not as well-known (and definitely not as well-liked by team owners) as those writers who seem to the critical fan to serve primarily as spokespeople for team management.  One of the best examples of this type of writing in book form is John Helyar’s 1994 tome titled Lords of the Realm: the Real History of Baseball.  Helyar’s book, while not overly critical, definitely portrayed the wealthy men behind Major League Baseball (MLB) as something less than the gods many of them perceive themselves to be.

Jump ahead sixteen years to 2010.  The owners of  all of US professional sports from MLB to the NFL and NBA are considerably wealthier than the wealthy owners of the past and less considerate of those who make a professional team mean something to a locale and its citizens–the fans.  It is those fans that sportswriter Dave Zirin puts first in his latest book, Bad Sports, How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.

Contrasting his support for the fans with an equal anger towards professional sports team owners, Zirin discusses the modern day owner’s unprecedented pursuit of profit even at the expense of not only a team’s fan base but at the risk of the team’s existence itself.  According to Zirin, the aforementioned pursuit includes blackmailing politicians only too eager to be blackmailed for public monies to raising ticket and concessions prices.  It also includes an arrogance that seems to come with extreme wealth no matter how that wealth was made.

It’s not just the profits, insists Zirin, but the owners’ use of the teams and arenas they own to proselytize for their fundamentalist Christian beliefs and right wing politics that makes so many owners not merely unlikeable, but despicable.    From so-called (Christian) Faith Nights in certain Major League Baseball stadiums to the Philadelphia Flyers owner bringing Sarah Palin into the arena during her ill-fated 2008 campaign for Vice President, these owners are without shame or respect for the desire of most sports fans to just enjoy the game.  Regarding that desire, I have been a member of an email list that discusses the Boston Red Sox since 1992.  The list members discuss everything–last night’s game, player performance, our most memorable game, stats, trade possibilities.  Everything but politics and religion.  In fact, when the list discussions begin to veer towards either of these topics, the list manager sends a little reminder to shift the discussion away from those areas, since those topics are verboten.  This is a good thing, since the politics on the list run from ultra-right wing to quite leftist, with the majority being somewhere in the middle.  In other words, an owner that pushes his political and religious ideas on forty thousand sports fans has no concept of the political neutrality of the sports arena.  Hell, if you ask me, it’s bad enough one has to deal with warplane flyovers and patriotic songs and flag displays before a game starts.

The ownership situation of professional sports teams in the United States today functions in two spheres.  First, their theft of taxpayer monies for private profit is a textbook case of how monopoly capitalism works in this era of neoliberalism.  Secondly, their economic model serves as a metaphor for how every other multinational corporation from the defense industry to financial institutions like Goldman Sachs functions.  The pursuit of profit is the primary motivation for professional sports teams just as it is for Lockheed Martin or the Bank of America.  It doesn’t matter how that profit is made–TV revenues and overpriced tickets, imperial war or the selling of derivatives–just as long as it is made.  The customer is not important, only their money.  Once they no longer have any money, those customers become as expendable as a bank employee after a takeover.  Then, when corporate failure seems imminent because of these profitmaking activities, taxpayer money is provided to help said corporation continue its same pattern.

If team owners are going to take public monies, then they owe the public something better than ridiculous ticket prices and too-expensive beer.  Instead of just kowtowing to and with the politicians and other corporate executives, they need to consider what the ordinary fan watching at a bar or in their living room might want.  It’s not expensive tickets, a million commercials in between innings and football plays.  Professional sports teams in the US, argues Zirin, belong to the fans as much as they belong to the owners.  Publicly funded stadiums and ball parks, right of ways to get to those facilities and so on mean that the fans have a financial ownership as much as the owners do.

Like any book or appearance by Zirin, his cutting humor is what makes his reasoning so acute.  The contrast between his one-liners that he mixes in the narrative combined with innumerable anecdotes make the reader laugh while they are  crying over the greed and arrogance Zirin describes.  I literally broke out laughing while reading Zirin’s description of Tom Hicks, Jr.’s reception in Liverpool after buying the Liverpool soccer team.  (He was soused with a pint—but the action does not describe the manner in which Zirin describes it.)

Ultimately, Dave Zirin believes that while owners may own a team financially, the fans own the teams in the cities they live in.  It is their passion that fuels the madness of a pennant race; their knowledge of the game and players that inspire others to engage; their money that buys tickets, cable TV subscriptions and refreshments: their bodies that fill the stands and their voices that express their appreciation or dismay depending on the play they are viewing.  Unless owners work with this set of facts, argues Zirin, and care more for the team and its meaning to the cities they play in than for the profits to be made they risk losing not only a team’s profits, but the very teams themselves.  Zirin further argues that when this happens, it is time for the fans and their local government to exercise their rights and buy the team back.  To emphasize this, he ends with a chapter he titles “Outro: Looking Toward Green Bay.  Green Bay, of course, is the home to the only publicly owned professional sports team in the United States, the Green Bay Packers.  Naturally, such purchases are now forbidden by the NFL.  Still, argues, Zirin, this is the direction professional sports needs to go if the games are going to be saved.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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