Friday, September 24, 2010

Sports Culture Capper: Yankees, Professional Sports and Criminals Wearing Yankee Hats

(Above, a Yankee hat for sale on the web, one of Jay-Z’s Yankee hats, a New York City Police Department drawing of the wanted Yankee hat-wearing perpetrator of a crime as it appeared in the New York Times.)

I don’t usually pay much attention to the world of sports fan culture when I analyze the urban planning concerns of locating huge stadia in the middle of the urban fabric or complain about the unfairness of how these private profit-making enterprises are being financed on the backs of all of the rest of us, but I have an irresistible temptation to write about the subject now and before I’m through maybe I will have made clear why I personally am not much of a professional sports fan. . . .

. . . . Did everyone catch the story on the front page of the New York Times last week about how New York Yankee caps and baseball jackets seem to have become the apparel of preference for the city’s criminal element?:
A curious phenomenon has emerged at the intersection of fashion, sports and crime: dozens of men and women who have robbed, beaten, stabbed and shot at their fellow New Yorkers have done so while wearing Yankees caps or clothing.
For more of the story’s information about the police data and statistics documenting the criminal fashion trend see: Crime Blotter Has a Regular: Yankees Caps, by Manny Fernandez, September 15, 2010. The Times story detailed the police data and statistics documenting the criminal fashion trend.

Easy Explanation?

The Times wrote: “Yankees caps and clothing have dominated the crime blotter for so long, in so many parts of the city and in so many types of offenses, that it defies an easy explanation.”

Somehow it did not seem so surprising to our Noticing New York sensibility that predatory criminals, the bank robbers and thieves written about in the article, should identify with the Yankees who along with their owners have turned professionalized theft from the community into a business. While the recent new stadia including Yankee Stadium have fewer seats (to boost prices) the Yankee Stadium is actually bigger than the old in order to suck up “inside the cloister of its privately-owned walls the economic activity that once upon a time existed in the surrounding Bronx community.” (See: Saturday, November 14, 2009, The Yankee’s Hoggish New Stadium Monopoly Taxes The Rest of Us.) As reported by WNYC, and what we wrote in that story, the new Yankee Stadium includes: “a `mega-mall’ that is in decimating competition with local merchants taking away the business that used to be theirs.”

Criminally Excessive Transfers of the Public Fisc

Whether we are talking about a reduced number of private-profit-making-stadium-seats or the inclusion of private-profit-making mall space, the public pays for more than a 100% the cost of what gets built with tax-exempt bonds, subsidized transportation access and diverted real property tax revenues. The chart below addresses the less-than-transparent issue of diverted real property taxes. If you want to get into the subject more deeply start with our prior article.

Then there is the seizure of land. Building the new Yankee Stadium involved building over the community’s newly refurbished parkland, replacing that land and its 377 mature oak trees with inferior and slow-to-materialize substitutes. (See: Yankees Claimed a Park; Children Got Bus Rides, by Jim Dwyer, October 23, 2009.) The "replacement" parkland for the community includes space on top of one of the stadium's parking garages, some already mapped parkland, and a patchwork of other plots ranging up from less than a half acre in size. Land seizures to enhance profit has, of course, gotten to be a dishonorable stadium building tradition. For George W. Bush his scheme to build the Texas Rangers stadium in was an excuse to take extra land by eminent domain to generate speculative real estate profit much the way that Bruce Ratner (now partnering with a Russian oligarch and perhaps 498 Chinese millionaires essentially buying green cards) has followed suit.

Turnaround Morality

These sports guys sure are able turn right and wrong around. Just the other day as I was channel switching I came across a couple of Yankee business types, “suits” being interviewed in the Times Center (it was probably a more extended version of this interview with Randy Levine and Brian Cashman) and I swear that these talking suits were asserting that other teams in the league had a moral obligation to go out build new (probably highly subsidized) stadia just as they had done so they wouldn’t be a drag on inter-team revenue sharing pool arrangements. Really? Good God, does that mean worse is yet to come and other cities better be prepared?

Power and Gangsta Success

The brazen aplomb with which these individuals accustomed to power can toss out the suggestion that stadium building falls naturally on the positive side of society’s moral equations supports the diagnosis offered by the Times that the criminal fashion spree is because: “criminals are identifying with the team’s aura of money, power and success.” The other leading theory the Times reports to explain the syndrome referred to as “the Jay-Z effect,” is that the hip-hop artist’s regular wearing of the Yankee’s hat gives the hat a “kind of street rep, a coolness.” Maybe the perps like Jay-Z’s platinum “American Gangster” album or maybe as they contemplate the distinct possibility of arrest when undertaking a big heist they find themselves soothed by Jay-Z’s similarly platinum “Reasonable Doubt” album considered to be an example of “Mafioso rap”.

It’s all hangs together perfectly though because Jay-Z is a 1% investor and PR front man (assisted by his super-celebrity wife, Beyoncé) for Forest City Ratner’s mega-land-grabbing Atlantic Yards Nets Arena. Is it possible the perps are really revering Jay-Z for the larceny associated with this multi-billion dollar raid on the public treasury? Are they astute enough to also know about Jay-Z’s similar role in the “unwholesome process” of developer selection in the Aqueduct racino deal?

Iniquitous? Ubiquitous!

Another concern I have about criminals in Yankees hats is touched upon by the Times article. As you would expect it is the general ubiquity of professional sports gear fashion accessories, the Yankees and other teams included. Obviously, if you are going to rob a bank you are going to want to blend in while making your escape. It seems doubtful that bank robbers would be wearing these garments if they weren’t already in general terms as the Times says “hugely popular” and widely worn so the fleeing suspects don’t call more attention to themselves than necessary.

I’ve got to ask: Why are professional sports as popular as they are such that we see so many sports garments?

A Few “Waisted” Thoughts About Sports Enjoyment

It is not that I have never enjoyed baseball. I wasn’t good at playing it myself. The kind of hand/eye coordination associated with hitting the ball wasn’t my strong suit, but I fondly remember going with my father to Brooklyn Dodger games (yes, he also took me to Yankee games). Still, I suspect the experience of attending a game now is not quite what it was then. What I remember then is smelling the freshly cut grass and the spilled beer and garlicky hot dogs with the taut skins breaking under the pressure of your teeth.

The thing is, particularly now as I age, I prefer sports that I do as opposed to sports that I sit and watch. Swimming, skiiing (preferably water skiing), hiking, biking are all great, but being a spectator to professional sports leaves something to be desired. These days it is a fight to keep my waistline from notching out to the next hole on my belt. I’m not doing badly. Everyone can bring to mind the stereotype of the star high school athlete who eventually can’t play like he used to and then balloons up, continuing to consume the same number of calories while engaging in a more sedentary life style. I’m sort of the opposite, the nerd who while he wasn’t really that interested in sports way back in school is almost as fit now as in those salad days of yore.

More Time to Waist?

I know that the average sports spectator doesn’t, per se, represent the highschool athlete-gone-to-seed stereotype. Nevertheless, let me make a few points. The average baseball game is a three hour affair (with extra innings they run longer). The movies Schindler’s List or Gandhi are hardly any longer. An NFL football game, which is comprised of 4 fifteen minute quarters actually runs about a three hours as well. Basketball games, technically only 48 minutes, run a little shorter, around two and one half hours. Work just a few of these games into your schedule, let alone conscripting yourself to the role of avid fan, and a good portion or your week is destined to be rather sedate. You may have problems burning off your beer and peanut calories. Dare we then be so indiscreet as to mention that the physique of the typical fashionable fan may sport a bit of paunch?

My own life is busy enough so that I have to make a concerted effort to fit in the sports I do for exercise. (The unfortunate ill effects of sedentary writing has to be countered.) Fitting in biking has multiple advantages: I can listen to the news, music or podcasts like On the Media, I can run errands and I can head out to inspect and explore my city, giving me a professional advantage so that I don’t make mistakes like the New York Times reporters who inaccurately report that the Atlantic Yards will be on top of rail yards, a misstatement that is only 40% true.

Our Friend “Ernie B”

Even if professional sports attracted me I can’t see enjoying watching them. I have a friend, let’s say his name is “Ernie B”; Ernie B. knows a huge amount about professional sports. Among other things he can speak for hours with eloquent cynicism about what a money racket the whole thing is and how the public is being soaked. But then he’ll go out and watch the games. For me the cynicism, the idea that I was being fleeced, would take the joy out of it all. Ernie B. also has some similarly themed uncharitable views about where our politics and politicians are headed but doesn’t initiate or engage in much actual oppositional activity.

Potential for Combustible Pizzaz?

It is not that being a professional sports fan is something that we can’t do with pizzaz in our family. We have a good family yarn about how my father was involved in mobilizing the Rockefellers to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. (It’s a story we promise to tell here one day in a later Noticing New York post.) And one of the stars of the extended family, my cousin Buster Olney, has earned acclaim as a sports columnist, analyst and commentator. Working for ESPN now, for a number of years Buster was actually covering the Yankees (and Mets) for the New York Times.

Far from dismissing sports as brainless, I recognize that there is a lot to say for the top-notch qualities that make for an analytical sports mind like Buster’s. Commendably his talent has taken him to the pinnacle of his profession. It is just that my personal enthusiasm for these things is more on a par with my cousin Mickey’s, Buster’s mother. When Buster recently played “Not My Job” as a guest on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! (the subject was Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens) he described how the rest of his family “had no interest in baseball.” He told the story of how as a Little Leaguer with a burgeoning nerdishness at the age 10 he recited for his mother in the family kitchen all of the plays and every pitch in every inning. Buster recounted: “after about two games, my mother said to me: Buster, you have tremendous potential to be very boring.”

Putting One's Potential Skill With Tedium to Work

When it occurs to me that a fair portion of the public actually has a marked facility for becoming immersed in such potentially boring statistics and play-by-play accounts of sports competitions, I am struck with a fair amount of wonder that essentially this same facility to deal with the tedious could be brought to bear in another context where it isn’t: to keep track of politics and what our elected representatives are doing (or not doing) to represent us, for instance, keeping the stats on how individual New York City Council members voted when Mayor Michael Bloomberg had them extend his term limits or how those City Council members have voted on rigged real estate projects like the Dock Street project, whose extra tall height will obscure sight lines to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

We wonder what the average professional sports fan keeps track of politically. Do they know that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's business, Bloomberg, L.P., creates conflicts of interest with almost every company of any size in New York simultaneously doing business with Bloomberg as both businessman and Mayor? Do they know the statistics about how since Bloomberg entered politics his wealth went up tenfold, faster than any other New Yorker’s, propelling him from a somewhat wealthy individual to New York’s wealthiest man? Do they know that Bloomberg’s regularly set up schedule is to leave early Friday morning for long weekends in Bermuda. Do they know he keeps his vast wealth offshore? Do they know how he uses his charities for political purposes and how he has now taken unprecedented and unrestrained power over Governors Island (and Brooklyn Bridge Park) even after he fielded the idea that Governors Island could be used as the home for his charities? Do they know about his national ambitions for higher political office? Or perhaps as professional sports and Yankee fans do they at least know how during Bloomberg’s “negotiations” to finance and provide city land for Yankee Stadium Bloomberg’s desire for a 12 seat luxury suite for the city’s (mayor’s) use, and particularly that it be stocked with free food, became a foremost priority? (To start learning about these things you might want to begin here.)

Engaging in Competition

Personally, I find that the scrutiny it takes to hold our politicians to account and remember their votes doesn’t leave me with much time to memorize batting average statistics. I’d rather spend time figuring out which new politicians have honest potential rather than projecting next year’s lineups or who is going to get what rookie picks in a draft lottery. That doesn’t mean that I am deprived of satisfying spectacle, the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat)*. The one thing above all others that sport contributes to politics is a cornucopia of useful sports-term metaphors (“end run,” “Hail Mary pass,” “three strikes and you're out,” “level playing field” “sprint to the finish” “frontrunner,” etc.) and that’s because the game of getting yourself politically represented, if you pay enough attention to it, has so much in common with sports. One difference though between politics and professional sports is that when it come to politics a member of the public can actually get in the game.

(* The melodramatic catchphrase “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat” comes from the introduction for ABC's Wide World of Sports.)

Because I engage in sports like swimming and biking, noncompetitive sports where my goal is admittedly only to exceed whatever ever-receding personal best remains to me as each succeeding year pushes me further into my decrepitude, you may conclude I am not competitive. Not so! I am quite competitive. When it comes to the game of politics as it can be played to properly serve the public I have a very competitive spirit. In fact, it is probably because I do that I have problems with other games where all I can do is sit on the sidelines.

Invictus vs. a Sports Movie With Invective

I recognize and appreciate that sports can be praised for its use as a tool to bring people together. I will eventually get around to seeing Clint Eastwood’s movie Invictus and when I do I am sure I will enjoy it and appreciate its message about the unification of South Africa and races and the role of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in dismantling apartheid. In the beginning of that film Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, realizes that the blacks attending a stadium game, hostile to how their home team is a representation of the old power structure, are cheering against the team.

I am quite capable of enjoying all sorts of sports movies but my favorite one is not about sports bringing people together. It actually falls more properly in another genre I like better, science fiction. It is the movie Rollerball, the original 1975 version with James Caan directed by Norman Jewison (the 2002 remake should be shunned). That movie’s climatic ending involves a crowd cheering in opposition to the power structure behind the sports team central to the action. The film, set in the year 2018, is all about power and how a world of global corporate monopolies coordinate to use a the game of Rollerball (invented for the film) to manipulate, distract and pacify the public as those companies apportion and dole out society’s resources, paying particularly lavish attention to a thin privileged upper crust that includes highly rewarded sports stars. A key tenet the monopolies conscientiously promote is the futility of individualism and individual effort. Outlets and opportunities for opposition to the system don’t seem to exist. In the film, the global monopolies and teams they sponsor have superseded governments which have apparently disappeared.

In Rollerball the invented sports game is used to support a power structure where sports are basically an expenditure and distraction. Real wealth in the society is accumulated directly from the control of resources. For instance, the Houston team for which Jonathan, the principal James Caan character, plays is sponsored by the Energy Corporation which controls all the world’s energy. Other monopolies control such things as transport, food, communication, and housing. There is even a corporate monopoly specializing in the control and delivery of “luxury.” In our current, pre-2018 era, the accumulation of wealth by professional sports moguls is a tad more direct. Sports are more the immediate source of wealth rather than an incidental expense to its control. That is not to say that corporate sports moguls annexing cooperative government officials like Bloomberg, Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson as appendages (together with a host of public authorities employees) haven’t been branching out substantially. They do engage in the fringier areas of public subsidy collection and eminent-domain-abusing real estate transactions.* Nevertheless, the basic idea is the same: That a public that keeps its eye on the sports ball probably isn’t keeping its eye on the ball in the wealth and politics game. It has also been around for a while.

(* The pending NFL players strike and potential lockout is apt to heat up the question of stadium finance and owner profit in an interesting way. Both sides are fighting over who should pay for and get the benefit of the league’s highly subsidized stadiums and in this regard the players are fighting for the release of the owners’ financial statements and books telling the true story.)

Historical Tradition Over the Millennia?

In 1975 Rollerball looked forward to a distraction of the public with sports in 2018. Michael Moore’s 2009 activist documentary Capitalism: A Love Story opens by suggesting that we can improve our comprehension of the public’s present-day sports focus by looking back two millennia to the Roman Emperors' use of events in the Coliseum (starting circa 70 and 72 AD) to socially control and distract the public from, for instance, “the city’s ruins left from Nero’s despotic rule.”

Dispensing With the Sports Section

Do I follow professional sports? Not really. The first thing I do every morning to simplify my day and have one less thing to read is throw away the New York Times sports section. I get the sports news that is important to me from such sites as Field of Schemes and Atlantic Yards Report when it covers the public theft involved in building the proposed Nets arena. Sometimes, however, those sites miss something. As far as I can tell neither of them reported on the bad-guy bandit Yankee hat wearers. Thank goodness that the Times put its story on the front page.

Coming Back to Cap It Off

I don’t mean in my crankiness to begrudge or deny professional sports fans their pleasure. Certainly, I would like it if they were to join and fight a few of populist battles alongside the more regular political activists but each to his own. I recognize the pleasure that professional sports can be even it isn’t mine. Still, when I see a guy in a Yankee hat (or a Nets jersey) my reaction is not purely one of live and let live. It is one of unease. I think about how that fellow may be interested in the theft of my property and that is something I thought about long before the Times told us on the front page that we really do have to be careful about the larcenously antisocial instincts of people wearing such garb.

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