(Above, a cartoon by Mark Hurwitt, that perhaps doesn’t precisely coincide with what I am saying in this article, except at the very end. More about Mr. Hurwitt here. Judy Gorman, Mr. Hurwitt’s wife, a singer musician whose repertoire includes a number of activist protest songs- including Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”- is performing at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema on Wednesday night, June 27, 1912, at 9:00 PM. I am expecting that one of her songs will be “Everybody Knows” – See DDDB’s open letter to Mr. Cohen mentioning this song.)
Back at the start of the new year, as part of its ongoing coverage of the Atlantic Yards boondoggle of which the Ratner/Prokhorov (“Barclays”) basketball arena is an important constituent part, Atlantic Yards Report ran a pair of articles which conjoined to bleaken the rah-rahing regularly rallied up for the monied world of big-time organized sports.
The Prokhorov Ratner Arena: Second Thoughts Regarding College Basketball
One of those articles offered “some second thoughts” on the big-time sport of college basketball “that feeds the NBA and the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets,” reporting on two writers’ criticism about how college sports are no longer about what some once remembered loving about them (“fun, fellowship and artistry”), but are instead about a permeating hypocrisy of these big-money college sports whereby all sorts of people and corporations are making an unbelievable amount of money, partly because they do so with an unacknowledged commercialization on the backs of young “student” athletes who are not compensated for their participation in these enterprises. (See: Monday, January 02, 2012, Time for some second thoughts on college sports: giving up on college football and paying (football and basketball) athletes.)
Mr. Oder, who writes Atlantic Yards Report, concludes that article with the observation: “But the system would not be successful, as these writers make clear, without widespread fan complicity.”
Turning on Sports?
The other Atlantic Yards Report article reviewed a tirade written by a sports fan, musician/designer/activist Scott M.X. Turner, anguished about such complicity and the corrosive effect of big money on sports:
“I like sports and deplore sports”(See: Monday, January 02, 2012, RebelMart's Mimeograph Machine, on sports: "we sit in silence when owners and leagues rip us off")
“for a guy [himself] who hates sports this much, how come you still watch?”
“End of the day, sports fans are infused with self-hate. . . We shell out ridiculous amounts of cash to owners who steal candy from babies and then roll the pram in front of a bus to eliminate the witness.”
Scott Turner’s scunner for these negative aspects of sports had much in common with what I laid out as my own feelings about organized sports (Friday, September 24, 2010, Sports Culture Capper: Yankees, Professional Sports and Criminals Wearing Yankee Hats), the preeminent distinction being that Mr. Turner struggles with being a self-acknowledged fan of big-time sports and I am a self-acknowledged sports grump. Sure I went to Dodgers games with my father, but I got over that. As I wrote before, rather than being a sports voyeur, I'd rather go out and just get some exercise biking, swimming, or skiing (whether or not I go for a slightly-aging person’s personal best), and rather than paying attention to the teams, strategies and statistic-collecting of sports I’d rather invest similar energies to navigate the nefarious politics involved when, as Mr. Turner suggests, sports fandom is manipulated “to justify all the wasteful projects” (like Atlantic Yards, the Mets and Yankee stadiums) we “spend taxpayer dollars on.”
Yes, I’m a sports grump, and there is a lot to be grumpy about.
Methodical Madness, Behind The March Haircuts
When Mr. Oder reported about the critiques respecting how unfair it is not to compensate the young athletes who participate in big-money college sports, he missed reporting on a half-hour PBS Frontline segment “Money & March Madness” (video here and transcript here) that made even more scathingly clear the hypocrisy whereby the fairness of paying compensation to the athletes is being avoided. The theory for not paying the “student” basketball players is that because it is “college basketball” it constitutes “amateur” sports, and refusing to compensate the athletes keeps it that way. Everyone is catching onto the fact that big-money college basketball is hardly amateur or nonprofessional and the Frontline report adds to this the fact that very little of what goes on has to do with getting a college education, the ostensible rationale for declaring that the sport is amateur.
According to the Frontline report:
• The “student” players are given scholarships to play [they may not cover all their costs- “on average $3,000 short” of essential expenses] but the rule (in effect since 1973) is that the scholarships cannot be multi-year, only one year at a time. If the player’s playing is unsatisfactory (or if the player is unable to play because of injury) the scholarship can be taken away so a player should not expect that the scholarships will be in place except to cover their successful playing, i.e. that the scholarships are not in place to provide for an education. If a player isn’t playing well it is likely the scholarship will be taken away, to be offered to a replacement player. I don’t know under what pretense the 1973 rule against multi-year scholarships was put into effect but it seems clear it works against the players’ interests.This is college? This is amateur? Isn’t this just a big-business rip-off run amok?
• Actual graduation rates can be startlingly low for those playing football and basketball. For instance, the documentary focuses on Baylor College: “According to the NCAA [the “National Collegiate Athletic Association” the organization that runs the industry] Baylor's basketball team graduates less than half of its players. And last year, the graduation rate for Baylor's African-American players was 29 percent.”
• Playing basketball leaves little or no time to study: “Getting educated is hard to do when you're spending 50 hours a week playing football or basketball.” (Michel Lewis, Author, “The Blind Side”.) Lewis describes the players as “essentially indentured servants.”
• If, alternatively, it were to be supposed that the purpose of being a student athlete was not to get a general education, but to get educated in the game of basketball so as to start a career in that limited field the news is not good in that regard either: “1 percent of college players. . . make it to the NBA.”
• Frontline provides an estimate that in college football a star quarterback’s value, what they are not getting paid, is $5 million. With the players not getting paid there is plenty to divide up. The current 14 year March Madness contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting is for $10.8 billion. With advertising licenses and video games, that’s just one income stream. And everyone else gets to dip in deeply: Coaches are paid “$2 million, $3 million, $4 million, $5 million.”
Immiscible (definition to follow)
Among other things, this sports/business mix, this not-for-profit/business mix doesn’t sound like a moral environment. Jane Jacobs, who wrote a series of books that seized the public’s attention and steered the public dialogue starting with "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), much later wrote another book that, as yet, has escaped the attention it probably deserves, “Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics,” (1992). The book, which as its title indicates is about the morality of systems, convincingly argues the flaws of trying to mix things that should not be mixed, particularly mixing business enterprises with government and politics, because the moral systems that apply to each must necessarily remain different and incompatible (so much for the current fashionability of today’s “private-public partnerships” like Atlantic Yards).
Perhaps inevitably, near the end of the book (p. 190) the dialogue gets around to the problem professional sports as a mix of business and something else (Jacobs’ book is structured like a Plato dialogue with competing ideas and questions expressed by multiple characters, fittingly so because by the end she ascribes much of the derivation of the book’s ideas to Plato himself).
Using the word “immiscible,” which for many of us requires a definition (“incapable of mixing or attaining homogeneity—used especially of liquids” i.e. like oil and water), one of the book’s characters quotes evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould:
“Gould was writing about professional baseball. On the one hand, it's a business. On the other hand, it's a game of heroes and epic achievements and mythic failures. Each mode, as he calls it, is true of the game. The two are immiscible, and all lovers of the game must recognize the distinction. Then he goes on to draw an analogy to science and religion. I’ll quote him. This is a supposed conflict, more accurately a pseudo-conflict that shouldn't exist at all but flares up only when one side invades the domain of the other… These subjects form necessary components of a complete life but they integrate no better than… oil and water. We each need to carry a jar with two layers.”There is much in this ignored book by Jacobs to argue over (perhaps not successfully against) and to think about. It is hard to do her subtle thinking justice without going into much more detail. Jacobs would probably suggest that injustice is being produced when the mixing sports game with business allows a big-money college sports business decision to be made not to compensate the indentured servant athletes premised on a mythic sports game notion that these are amateur heroes who are truly college students.
Jacobs’ book is full of other examples of what happens when realms that should remain distinct (together with their associated moralities) improperly intermix, so that one gets what she calls “monstrous hybrids.” Most typically the examples she gives involve an improper mixing of business and government (but there are also examples of improperly mixing charity and business). These include: Corrupt police forces where you pay for justice, similarly judges and judicial systems that sell out to commercial interests, Mafia integration into business, Marxist government intrusions into business, government “economic development projects” that quickly convert to “Pork-barrel projects for political purposes, the world over,” state creation of monopolies, when investment bankers resort to cunning cooperate raider-style warfare, accountants and lawyers who participate in the perpetration of fictions. Jacobs' point is not that either business or government is bad: She's sees both are good but only when in their separate places although one of the proper roles of government is to police the commercial sector.
Suited For Leisure Play
In “Systems of Survival,” Jacobs advances some intriguing anthropological notions about how sports began (like games, dance, music and art) as frolicking leisure play, in what was a purer sort of sport-for-the-sake-of-sport noncommercial context, like tournaments held among knights, and that such sports traditions (as in the case of the Olympics) were inherently linked to a tradition of amateurism (“Think about the long aristocratic tradition of the amateur with time on his hands exerting himself strenuously for sheer love of a sport, an art, or a field of learning– not for economic gain.”- p.79) But it would probably be too much to go into this at greater length in this article so as to chart all the implications it might have for the nuances of this discussion.
When commercialism gets hold of sports all sorts of things can go awry, and sometimes when commercialism gets hold of sports it forays as well into the realm of politics and then things can get a whole lot worse.
Were it not for sports we might never have had George W. Bush as president. The same PBS Frontline series that presented the “March Madness” program every four years presents a delving special, (always titled “The Choice”) about the respective presidential candidates (there should be one coming up soon enough about Romey and Obama). In 2004 when Bush was running against Kerry it presented interlaced biographies of those two men. One thing that was clear was that it was Bush’s involvement in the twisted use of sports, his lending of his face and personality for the promotion of the public funding of Texas Rangers stadium and the associated eminent domain land grab of land for the stadium and land around it (for real estate speculation purposes), that was a turning point for Bush and transformed him into a potential candidate for governor and ultimately for president. He proved his ability to sell what probably ought to have been considered odious: Look where it got him!
Before his involvement with the Rangers stadium Bush was largely a failure, a draft avoider who went AWOL from the National Guard (where he had been politically ensconced to be safely away from Vietnam), a failed oil businessman, a heavy drinker, a poor student.
Interviewed in the Frontline documentary, Bush’s Texas Rangers partner Roland Betts* says (redacting out Bett’s hype and personal plug for the stadium):
“My counsel to him was, "You are only known as the son of the president of the United States. . . You can do something that attracts attention. . . and you're going to be in a much better position four or five years from now to then run.”(* Known to New Yorkers as the developer of Chelsea Piers and a member of many preeminent boards in the city including that of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation involved in rebuilding the World Trade Center site.)
The Frontline Narrator picks up: The plan was to build a new ballpark on seized land and then raise local sales taxes to pay for its construction. It generated some controversy. But Bush, good with people, came in and helped sell the deal. He became a partner and the club's most visible face.(* Other reporting, like Davis Cay Johnston’s calculate that the city’s public taxes transformed George W. Bush's 2% $600,000 sporting investment into a $17 million capital gain. Others calculated his gain at $14 million.)
Followed by Frontline’s reporter: By far, his most successful experience as a businessman was with the Texas Rangers. He was businessman as politician, in effect. He was the public face and, in a way, front man for the Rangers franchise. He sat in a box at the Rangers games and shook hands. There was a big political component to that because they had to get the stadium built with public money.
It didn't escape notice that he was the son of the president. And then he was surrounded with people like Roland Betts, who were very seasoned and experienced businessmen and who invested and piloted the project. And that was the one deal in his business career that he really did well on.
Segueing back to the narrator: In just a few years, Bush reaped a personal profit of over $10 million,* while building his own big-league reputation.
Happy Face Manipulations
To reiterate: It was Bush’s ability to put a smiley face on this enormous transfer of wealth from the general tax populace to a wealthy elite that proved his qualifications for further ascendency. Nicholas Kristoff suggests that part of Bush’s job, along with conspiring “with city officials to seize private property that would be handed over to the Bush group” for real estate speculation purposes was to mislead “the city into raising taxes to build a $200 million stadium” being handed over to the Rangers.
Sports fandom can be used to manipulate, sometimes for arguable good as the point was made in the film Invictus about Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in dismantling the after-effects of apartheid, and sometimes as in the case of Bush and the Rangers stadium or Ratner’s arena, to gloss over real estate land grabs and major raids on the public treasury.
Manipulated by their fandom the public often fails to appreciate the significant costs into which they have been suckered. It definitely wasn’t the entire story or the only cause, but the $11 billion* 2004 Olympics in Athens definitely helped lead into the current Greek fiscal crisis. Many of the Greek facilities built for that Olympics are now mothballed and becoming modern ruins. Did the feeling that all possible and affordable, in retrospect not so realistic, contribute to the other famously fuzzy accounting that accompanied Greece’s addition to the eurozone in January 1, 2001? And many believe that the Greek fiscal crisis could precipitate the dissolution of the eurozone itself as a run on Greece’s banks turns into a run on Spain’s and ultimately those of Italy, one of the larger economies in the zone.
(*12.2 billion including security.)
Cities that host the Olympics don’t come ahead financially although there are inevitably those that will take both sides arguing whether there is sometimes benefit. But the costs frequently fall unevenly on the less advantaged.
China was accused of displacing more than 2 million people from their homes in preparation for the Olympics held there with inadequate compensation or due process.
Brasil, preparing for the 2016 Olympic games, is looking to evict the poor from the decades-old settlement in which they live. (See the New York Times Story: Slum Dwellers Are Defying Brazil’s Grand Design for Olympics, By Simon Romero, March 4, 2012.) In theory the planned Olympic Village in Rio De Janeiro will be “a new piece of the city,” it’s just that this promotional description disregards that this redevelopment jettisons an old already existing piece of the city, and as pointed out, the hosting of the Olympics will only last “a few weeks.” The poor who are being displaced from the neighborhood are in very technical terms “squatters,” but given that property laws are enforced in Brasil (like in some other parts of South and Central America) with the kind of clarity and feverish vigilance with which we in the United States enforce our immigration laws (i.e. practically none), that doesn’t mean that these lower income folk should be thought of as undeserving of protections and rights; being a squatter in Brasil is not like being a squatter in the United States. The residents of the settlement are resisting their pending eviction and the Times story describes a Brazilian press sympathetic to their plight.
The Times story points that the resistance of those being evicted coupled with efforts from local construction unions to benefit more substantially from the building of the facilities means that the construction is behind schedule and facing nightmarish overruns. At the same time the Brazilian press is pursuing corruption allegations about Olympic and World Cup plans and “scandals involving high-ranking sports officials.” Further perspective on the eviction of the lower class residents from their “favela” neighborhood is available in this opinion piece in the Times by Theresa Williamson, a city planner, who heads Catalytic Communities, a Rio de Janeiro-based organization assisting the favela communities: A Missed Opportunity in Rio, April 3, 2012.
Having proclaimed that I am not a sports spectator I must admit that I have been known to occasionally sit for a prolonged spell watching the Olympics (and it is a way to spend time with my wife who will inevitably watch some of the Olympics). Things like synchronized swimming, ice skating and gymnastics can be beautiful and some things like ski jumping and snow boarding in a half-pipe demonstrate human abilities that, like magic tricks are fascinating to watch* . . But how much would I call upon others, especially the already disadvantaged, to sacrifice for their glorification?
(* Sometimes I wonder about the freakish extremes to which these accomplishments can go: Swimmer Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in part because his unusual body proportions– Huge wingspan, slightly webbed fingers, unusually long torso, very short legs, size 14 feet– give him a shape a lot more in common with a whale than other human beings?- Whales are the evolutionary result of land mammals that returned to the water. Although humans in general have slightly webbed fingers, rumors that Phelps are more so are said to be untrue.)
Romney In the Footsteps of Bush?
While promotion of public financing of the Texas Rangers stadium together with its associated land grab may have been what put George W. Bush on a new trajectory toward the White House, promotion of the Olympics is similarly featured as a “Turnaround” and key prominence-raising event on the resume of Mitt Romney, another son of a prominent Washington politician who is now eager to be the next Republican in the White House. Writing for the Daily Beast, investigative reporter Wayne Barrett took a lacerating look at whether Romney’s real achievements with respect to the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics were the touted managerial successes and successes in cleaning up the Olympics or, quite the contrary, becoming enmeshed “the ethical swamp” surrounding the running of the Olympics and thereby making alliances “with some of the key figures of the Salt Lake scandal--alliances that have been paying dividends ever since, and helping to finance his presidential ambitions.” (See: Romney Saved Salt Lake Olympics From Scandal, But at What Price? Apr 12, 2012.)
On the subject of whether Romney “overstated his contributions” to the Utah Olympics and was motivated by his political ambitions to take the position to “give him a platform from which to jump,” see this Washington Post story which seems to pull some of its punches with its he-said/she-said style: 10 years after Salt Lake City Olympics, questions about Romney’s contributions, By Amy Shipley, February 12.
Bloomberg and Olympics
Many New Yorkers are happy that Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not succeed in luring the 2012 summer Olympics to New York City (even reportedly a historically revisionist Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself!). That is certainly the Noticing New York point of view. In the “what ifs, and might-have-been department,” it is interesting to wonder though: Would the “ethical swamp” of the Olympics have found itself outmatched and unable to navigate the daunting morals of New York State mega-project real estate, or would it have been vice versa?
Unhealthy Sports Participation
Although I profess that for reasons of health I prefer participation in physical sports-type activity over spectation (I don’t want to sit around with potato chips and dip hitting the remote’s replay button while drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl), there are those sports that I have witnessed that for reasons of health I absolutely don’t want to participate in. Sports may have evolved from contests of valor like jousting but I have never had a desire to joust or fling a mace or have one flung at me. Similarly, boxing seems absurd to me. My high school briefly introduced boxing (and it was a Quaker school!) and I was assigned to box my classmate Barry Korey because we matched out at a similar big size. I found no pleasure in taking or delivering blows to the head, having my ears ring or feeling disorientated after a hit. (You may wonder if the ruminating way ideas are explored and connected in Noticing New York may have benefitted or not by this rattling of my brain in adolescence.)
You don’t have to like the sport of boxing to have a pronounced appreciation for Mohamed Ali as a human being. It is so sad to see that articulate beautiful man reduced by Parkinson’s disease, ultimately unable to speak in public, likely caused by the pugilistic trauma of repeated blows to the head, a condition that affects a high percentage of boxers.
For the same reason, I wouldn’t play serious tackle football. Brain trauma suffered regularly and with a predictability is a feature of the way football is now played in the United States. Former professional football players are being driven to suicide rather than continue to suffer the long term effects of such injuries and now, when they do so, follow a practice of shooting themselves in the chest so that their damaged brains can be scientifically studied when they are dead. (See: A Suicide, a Last Request, a Family’s Questions, By Alan Schwarz, February 22, 2011.)
British football also involves the prospect of similar head injury.
It isn’t just professional football where brain injuries are being suffered. PBS’s Frontline series, mentioned at the beginning of this article for its coverage of the abusive treatment of college basketball players in connection with “March Madness” and big business college sports, has also covered how High School and College Football players are suffering similar CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) damage, visible under the microscope when the brains of very young athletes are autopsied. (See: Football High, April 12, 2011) This Frontline documentary is not exclusively about the young players suffering progressive CTE, it is about how adults are pressuring young High School athletes to take all sorts of risks also, for instance, resulting in unnecessary heat stroke deaths and hospitalizations for coma, renal failure and potential permanent organ failure or less severe injuries that may debilitate and cause those athletes life-long pain.
The Frontline program examines the high-stakes influence of money on the High School sports activities and the way that these feed into the big-money college system with the High School players under scrutiny by “an army of college scouts and national media.” The immiscible line having been crossed, these kids no longer seem to be playing for their own fun and fellowship; there no longer seems to be sporting balance to it all.
OK, virtually all sports have some risk: You can be hit by a car biking through the streets of New York, horseback riding involves riding a several thousand pound animals that are unpredictable, you can drown swimming, you can wear out your knees running, but the risks seem qualitatively different when injury becomes almost more likely than not.
Fandom vs. Critical Thinking and Judgment
In considering these Frontline stories about the way that adults are treating and influencing students, I think we tend to recoil in light of the “consensus among neuroscientists, for example, that brain regions and systems responsible for foresight, self-regulation, risk assessment and responsiveness to social influences continue to mature into young adulthood.” (See: The Young and the Reckless, by Elisabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg, November 13, 2009.) Even without putting adolescence into the mix, sports fandom seems to be frequently accompanied by a lack of critical thinking, an abandonment of judgement. That doesn’t mean that sports fans should be denied their own choices, but when such a lack of critical thinking and judgment is abused as an opportunity to hurt others who are not in a position to look out for themselves it becomes highly objectionable. Children and student athletes shouldn’t be taken advantage of, just the same way as I object, when the lack of critical thinking associated with sports fandom is abused to divert my taxes into the pockets of the wealthiest or to spearhead their unfair land grabs at the expense of the poor and others through eminent domain abuse.
When sports fandom collides with critical thinking about abuses it would seem that it ought to be a teachable moment where we as adults can educate the younger generation that there are limits that should not be surpassed in the name of uncritical fandom: Why then is it that we so often feel that it must instead be the reverse and that adult judgment, knowledge and experience must succumb to the childish urge to cater to fandom at all costs?
I went to the recent June 10, 2012 clergy-led rally protesting the opening of the Prokhorov/Ratner (Barclays) basketball arena much of which involved pointing out that the arena was arriving on the scene with broken promises* about virtually everything else that was supposed to accompany it; jobs, housing, respect for the community. Many speakers made the point that public funds could have been spent on things of more value to the community than an arena. With all this, it was interesting how often the ministers and other speakers felt they had to craft into their expressions of ire hurled at the developer, admonitions to the younger generation of the community not to be distracted by the hype about the arrival of the Nets basketball team or the associated Jay-Z hoopla. It was further suggested that aware young people from the neighborhood should circumspectly avoid (boycott) the arena, although it was also pointed out that many young people in the neighborhood (for whom so many promises had been broken) might find it difficult to afford the high cost of a ticket to the arena, that the tickets were priced with a very different audience strata in mind.
(* There is more to be said about the rhetoric at this meeting, about how if the church leaders want to negotiate effectively to see promises kept and subsidy used effectively they are going to have to call for the “Atlantic Yards” site to be taken away from Ratner so that, for instance, the UNITY Plan could be implemented.)
Staying Conscious While Visiting Yankee Stadium
The fact that I am a sports grump is not going to change the fact that sports fans abound. At least one of my daughters has expressed doubt that she is likely to discover a boyfriend who is not a sports fan. That’s not what I ask for; fans can be fans, but I would ask for a responsible consciousness to accompany that fandom.
I’d ask, for instance, that a fan going up to the Bronx to view a Yankee game might visit not only the inside of that team’s new publicly paid for ballpark but would also tour the surrounding neighborhood to consider the well-documented evaluation by activists representing the community that the smaller and more fragmented parks the Yankees belatedly delivered to the community in exchange for the community park land they took to build the new stadium and parking lots are inferior. Not only that: The treeless park the Yankees have given the community that includes the actual playing field that was a a part of the old Yankee stadium is designed, with it many baseball oriented engraved-plaques and engraved benches, to be an ancillary advertisement for the Yankees. (The community report says that hundreds of trees, 70% of the community's mature trees, some over forty feet, and at least 400 trees in all were destroys for the Yankee’s project.)
I would also ask the visitor to take note that the new Yankee Stadium, although it has fewer seats, takes up a larger footprint than the old so that it can incorporate inside the stadium non-taxpaying replacements (owned by the Yankee team owners) for the formerly tax-paying independent sports businesses that surrounded Yankee stadium and are now (the stadium moved a distance away from them) consequently struggling.
If fans in their fandom can manage to stay conscious of prices paid such as this then perhaps sports fandom won’t continue to be the subject of abuse that makes the world a lot worse and leaves me grumpy.