Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dave Zirin’s (Populist) New Year’s Resolutions for Sports

Back in October, I wrote about Sports Illustrated/Edge of Sports columnist Dave Zirin and his interview of Olympic veteran Dr. John Carlos in the wake of the Jena 6 scandal. One of the things I enjoy most about Zirin is his willingness to explore social and cultural angles that few other sportswriters even consider, and though I don’t always agree with his conclusions, his populism is important and engaging. This is especially true with regard to his last column of 2007, where he offers New Year’s resolutions as a critique of the sensationalism and top-down control that marred sports over the past twelve months:

“William Blake may have said ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,’ but this lost highway of excess has led to a crisis of overproduction: too much scandal, too much chatter, too much drama masquerading as sports.

“The Sports World needs to collectively resolve to see 2008 as a time to slowly mend fences with a fan base feeling the pain. The road to redemption begins with that staple New Year's resolution we are all too familiar with: It's time to shed the excess weight. And throughout sports, the superfluous baggage is flowing from the commissioner's offices.”

He then proposes replacing Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and (perhaps) National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, as well as a curtailing of National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell’s broad powers. While Zirin is obviously suggesting that these changes will aid the overall health of all three leagues, he is more concerned about sports fans receiving fair treatment in exchange for their time and money. The column’s key section appears near the end:

“This question of execrable excess affects all sports fans. We don't need stadiums that bankrupt our cities. We don't need athletes who treat fans like an inconvenience to be suffered in between checks. We don't need sports telecasts that look like they were produced by Maxim. And we don't need commissioners more concerned with PR than the basic health of their games.”

That first point above—the economics of new stadiums—has become increasingly important over the past several years, and Zirin’s aptly summarizes the issue in an Edge of Sports column from July: “The [new] stadiums are presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight,” even though they rarely provide a profitable return on investment for the cities and states that are financing them. My favorite football team, the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, might—I repeat, might—end up as one of the exceptions to the rule; their new Lucas Oil Stadium includes additions to the Indianapolis Convention Center in what has become a revitalized section of the city. Yet despite high revenue estimates, Indianapolis and the state will still shoulder over 85 percent of the stadium’s cost in the short term.

An associated problem with new stadiums is that even if fans don’t participate in the public financing for a new stadium, they almost always incur higher ticket prices if they actually want to attend games. As the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys build a new stadium that is set to open in 2009, their proposed pricing structure for the stadium’s club seats easily prices out lower- and middle-class income citizens by requiring long-term “personal seat licenses” (PSLs) that will cost as much as $50,000 before actual ticket purchases. The Cowboys’ plan is certainly expensive, but their use of PSLs is simply the continuation of a trend that has become popular among sports teams building new stadiums. It’s not difficult to see Zirin’s point in the aforementioned Edge of Sports column that “[s]tadiums are sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics,” where those less financially well-off bear a disproportionate economic burden, even though they sometimes simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Consequently, it’s reasonable to argue that at the least, professional sports teams are responsible for producing—to the best of their ability—a superior product, especially given how much they ask of fans and taxpayers. When this doesn’t happen, fans have every right to complain, and sportswriters can play a crucial role in developing a sense of accountability. Zirin continues to provide an excellent example in this regard; as we head further into 2008, I hope his colleagues will join his plea in Sports Illustrated “to stop making it so darn difficult to love sports” through their own work.

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