How owners are ruining the games we love

The intelligent sports fan’s guide to socialism

Topics: LA Review of Books, Sports, Books, Writers and Writing, Socialism,

How owners are ruining the games we love
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

INSTEAD OF YELLING, “Kill the umpire,” as they supposedly did at nineteenth century baseball games, Dave Zirin’s Bad Sports, in its thoroughly reasonable rant against team owners, suggests a twenty-first century chant of “Jail the owner.” He could have lifted a subtitle from George Bernard Shaw and called it The Intelligent Sports Fan’s Guide to Socialism were it not for all of the flacks currently muddying the waters by claiming that Barack Obama is a socialist. Just as some once thought the target audience for Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism was not up to the subject, there will be some who doubt today’s sports fan’s ability to ponder questions deeper than clutching or choking. Unlike those who see the ritual attachment to groups of athletes in matching uniforms as a sign of mental deficit, Zirin insists that within every sports fan there exists a rational kernel. For he is one of us. And his socialism, by the way, is that of the Green Bay Packers.

Los Angeles Review of Books

But oh, those owners! Before you get to thinking maybe this book is some boring anti-capitalist tract, let me reassure you that Zirin never forgets he is foremost a sportswriter, and that a sportswriter must live by his wit. So this is, in fact, a very entertaining anti-capitalist screed. And oh, those owners! They sure do provide him with some good material. Of the dozen or so that he profiles, my favorite has to be Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, which under his leadership became “the only team that sells you beer inside the bathrooms.” Zirin is probably right in going on to claim this “violates every health care law since the Hammurabi Code,” but I hope that at least Snyder got some kind of efficiency award from his peers. And you gotta love the one about him sending stadium vendors out to sell year-old airplane peanuts — peanuts in Independence Air bags, a year after the airline went out of business.

Snyder’s “yesterday’s peanuts” scam is pretty much just, well, peanuts, compared to, say, the $12 parking fee tacked onto every ticket, regardless of whether the ticket holder actually parks a car, carpools or rides public transportation. And upon arrival at the 91,704-seat stadium — not actually located in the District of Columbia, but in “a godforsaken portion of Prince George’s County,” Maryland — that ticket holder can pay another $100 for a season pass to the express security check-in line. But the best had to be the $23.99 Pentagon Flag Hats Snyder made up for the fifth anniversary of September 11, with all proceeds going to the Redskins, until someone called him on it.

How richly stocked is the pond in which Zirin is fishing? Well, former Texas Ranger minority owner George W. Bush doesn’t even rate his own chapter. Zirin, however, does pitch an excellent two-page reprise of the man’s career — just when you’ve maybe found it a lot easier to forget him than you once might have feared would be the case. Made managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team on the strength of buying a 1.8 percent share of the team on borrowed money, and the subsequent receipt of another 10 percent based on the value of his celebrity name, Bush pushed the Rangers’ successful effort to get the city of Arlington, Texas, to cover $135 million of the $190 million total cost of the team’s new stadium. (Bush bought in for $606,000 and sold out in 1998 for $14.9 million.).

What fascinates Zirin, though, is that when Bush was interested in becoming Commissioner of Baseball, the owners opted instead for Milwaukee Brewers owner and president Bud Selig, who still holds the post, yet they didn’t hesitate to back Bush when he ran for President of the United States. They didn’t want him running their business, but they did want him in the White House, where there’d presumably be other people to sort things out for him. This rumination left me wondering if Selig would have invaded Iraq if things had gone the other way.

George Steinbrenner does have his own chapter, but the rest of the crowd is so good that he actually doesn’t particularly stand out in this book, the core of which is the story of professional sports’ continual grasping for the public dollar. Zirin quotes former National Football League team owner Art Modell describing his peers as “twenty-six Republicans that vote socialist” (now 32), which is to say they believe in government spending when it is carefully targeted to things like new professional sports facilities. Zirin figures the owners have tapped the public for about $30 billion or so over the past 25 years as publicly funded sports facilities have become “the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country.” Consider New Orleans spending $185 million renovating the Superdome — half of that Federal Emergency Management Administration funds — while famously unwilling and/or unable to house all of its pre-Hurricane Katrina residents.

Is your city going to play in the big leagues and build that new stadium, or do you want to let some other city do it while you let the team you thought was yours go away while your town faces the prospect of a future “trapped in a Thornton Wilder play,” as Zirin puts it? While many Brooklynites of a certain age still short-list Walter O’Malley with Hitler and Stalin for moving the Dodgers away, Zirin reminds us of the man who set the see-ya-later sleaziness standard, Robert Irsay. With the locals not willing to spring for a new football stadium for the Baltimore Colts in 1983 and the Maryland House of Delegates having passed legislation to buy the team under eminent domain, Irsay ordered up fifteen Mayflower moving vans and some Pinkerton guards and, under cover of darkness, packed up the team’s uniforms, files, and whatever else made them the Colts and took them to an empty waiting domed stadium in Indianapolis.

Now, for that Green Bay Packers sort of socialism. Packers fans don’t worry about this type of thing so much. Nowadays, a Wisconsin city of about 104,000 might seem a pretty unlikely place for a NFL team. Not always that way. When the Packers, named after blue-collar workers who packed things, joined the league in 1921, the American Professional Football Association, as it was then called, included teams from Akron, Canton, Dayton, Evansville, Hammond, Muncie, Rochester, Rock Island, and Tonawanda. The main reason Green Bay was still around to win the first two Super Bowls (and two more since) while the others were all gone by 1930 is that when the Packers experienced financial difficulties in 1923, the team reorganized as a public corporation with articles of incorporation stipulating that, should the team ever be sold, all profit would go to a local American Legion Post. As Zirin sees it, every fan deserves this type of security.

He does underestimate fans’ fickleness, though, and the degree to which winning heals their wounds. Given the 14 consecutive losing seasons Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos has presided over, Zirin writes: “It will take more than a winning streak to return the fans. That would be, as the saying goes, like ‘giving CPR to a corpse.’” Yet on May 25 of this year, 11,000 Oriole fans bought tickets on the night of the game, setting a stadium record for walk-up admissions. The team had finally started playing well and the fans returned, even though Angelos was still there.

Likewise, Zirin quotes a comedian who compares the National Basketball Association’s lowly Los Angeles Clippers and the 16-time champion Lakers, who happen to share the same playing arena: “The Lakers’ luxury box is prawns, caviar and opera glasses while the Clippers stock Zantac, barf bags, some good books, and cyanide.” But guess what? The Clippers acquired recent MVP Chris Paul to pass the ball, and Blake Griffin to dunk it (Griffin once dunked over a car in the league’s slam dunk competition — it was a Kia, if you’re wondering) and people started going for the Zantac; the Clippers outdrew the Lakers at home this past season.

You won’t find much comment on player salaries here either. This is not surprising for a book dedicated to the foibles of owners, and yet it seems an obvious omission in such a sharp social critique of professional sports in American life. There are justifications, of course. Why pick on the highly publicized athletes’ salaries when we generally don’t have any idea what the owners actually make? Who can name a single owner’s “salary”? Remember how upset Major League Baseball got when Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt had to open a Major League team’s books in his divorce proceedings? That sort of thing is not done. His fate with the league was sealed right then — even before he tried to force the rest of baseball to follow suit. We can perhaps make an educated guess as to owner salaries, though. The last reported salary for Commissioner Selig — $18.3 million in 2007 — and the figures from the McCourt case suggest that a $20 million annual take would not be unheard of for team owners. And given that there are only about a dozen baseball players making more than that, and the players are the ones that people come to the ballpark to see, you can understand how Zirin might not want to focus on outrageous player salaries. Besides, Luis Pujols’s wife hadn’t called the St. Louis Cardinals’ five-year, $130 million offer to her husband an “insult” when Zirin was writing the book.

As to what he did choose to write about, however, he’s certainly on the mark with his central ownership question. And don’t the owners know it! Recognizing that the good example of the Packers posed a threat to the “normal” owners, since 1960 the NFL has banned any non-profit organization from buying into or starting a team. As for baseball, when Joan Kroc tried to donate the Padres, which she inherited from her McDonald’s-founder husband, Ray, to the city of San Diego, along with $100 million, Major League Baseball nixed the deal. (Kroc would later sell to traditional rich owners for $75 million.)

And then there’s the one about the Texan buying the Liverpool soccer team — but I’m not going to tell you everything in the book. What I will tell you is that anyone who loves sports but hates team owners is likely to find it one of the best on the topic since Hunter Thompson’s last shot.

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