Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kissing the NFL Good-Bye

A couple weeks ago I wrote about my like-dislike relationship with the game of (American) football. After reading it a friend suggested I read a book entitled The Winner-Take-All Society by Robert H. Frank. I've added it to my reading list but unfortunately my local library does not have a copy, so I will have to look elsewhere. About the same time the current issue of The Atlantic crossed my desk and I read a very interesting article in it: “How the NFL fleeces taxpayers,” written by Gregg Easterbrook. The article is adapted from Easterbrook's soon-to-be-released book The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America. I shall add this book to my reading list as well, but the article alone was enough to bring me to the conclusion that I need to withdraw my support from this league, if the reasons I listed in my previous post were not sufficient.

In the article Easterbrook describes how the NFL earns phenomenal profits for team owners and league executives while passing the cost of stadiums to the taxpayers in NFL cities. In an era of tight budgets and calls for decreased government spending, in a time when resources for the poor, for education and other truly useful services are being slashed by local and state governments, politicians continue to shovel largesse to private teams so that they won't move out of town. He cites numerous examples, all of which made me wonder why I should continue to give any support to this league. Why should taxpayers subsidize the Washington Redskins to the tune of $4 million dollars to upgrade their workout facility, when the team owner has an estimated net worth of $1 billion? Surely Virginia taxpayers could direct that $4 million towards more useful causes and $4 million out of Dan Snyder's $1 billion would hardly even make a noticeable dent.

The NFL is ultimately a business. It's about entertainment, but it's also about making money and it does that fantastically well. The league will receive about $4 billion dollars this season alone in broadcast rights. That's not counting ticket sales, merchandising and other sources of income. I have no bone to pick with the league and its teams for making money. If people want to pay for tickets and merchandise, if networks believe there is money to be earned in broadcasting the games, great. However, don't ask the taxpayers of Footballtown, America to pick up the bill for building, maintaining and upgrading the stadium that the teams use to earn their money. Teams should build their own stadiums. They could then choose to manage and lease them for other purposes as they see fit, earning additional income. This would be preferable to forcing communities to build these modern cathedrals, then paying them a pittance in rent to use them for their games.

In return for the stadium “rental” charges, teams receive in most if not all cases the exclusive right to revenues generated within the stadium, including ticket sales, concessions and, most importantly, revenue from the broadcast rights that go with each game. These sources of income far outweigh the rental fees the teams pay. When you factor in that the rental fees often don't cover the cost of actually constructing the stadium and paying off the debt for doing so, the teams essentially receive government subsidies to run their very lucrative businesses. I find it appalling that in a time when we hear politicians proclaiming the need to cut subsidies to the poor of our nation we continue to subsidize billionaire owners of sports teams. Something is seriously wrong with this equation.

I imagine someone will point to the economic “benefit” that sports teams bring to a city. Yes, they generate some jobs, but I wonder whether they truly generate enough local employment income, particularly jobs that pay a livable wage, to merit the subsidies they receive. For example, Louisiana gives up to $6 million a year to the owner of the New Orleans Saints as an “inducement payment” so he (hopefully) won't consider relocating the team. I would think that one could create a decent number of jobs in other ways for $6 million a year.

I am thankful that I do not live in a community with an NFL team, so I do not pay directly to support one through my taxes, although I do not have any idea whether and how much my state legislature has chosen to support the Arizona Cardinals with my tax money. I feel sorry for the taxpayers of Glendale, who get to pay for the shiny University of Phoenix stadium where the Cardinals play. (I think, to be fair, that they chose to tax themselves to build it, but I was not around at that time so I am not familiar with the details.) The residents of Tempe and Mesa should congratulate themselves on having the wisdom to reject efforts to construct the stadium in their cities.

The NFL will continue with or without my support. I don't even mind that they do. In fact I don't mind if they continue making money. But I do mind that they do so on the backs of taxpayers, when they do not need to do so. Team owners should take responsibility for the expenses of their teams and not expect taxpayers to subsidize them. Their earnings are more than adequate to pay for their stadiums and upgrades and whatever else they want. And if they aren't, then maybe they need to adjust their business model rather than blackmailing cities into pouring millions into their coffers. I don't expect them to change their ways, but until they do, I don't need to be an active contributor to their bottom line. I'm sure I can find better ways to spend my limited income—as well as my Sunday afternoons.

Friday, September 13, 2013

My Like-Dislike Relationship with American Football

 I have a like-dislike relationship with football these days (by which I mean American football). I won't call it a love-hate relationship because it's not that strong. I'm not passionate enough about football to feel that strongly one way or the other. I don't schedule my weekend around the football games I want to watch (although I have been known to schedule based on when a preferred soccer match will be on!) and I don't feel particularly heartbroken if I miss a game by one of the teams I support. However, I do enjoy sitting down on Sunday afternoon and watching a game, even if only absentmindedly while I read the paper or take an on-and-off nap. If I miss a game I do go online to see if my teams won or lost. I used to be much worse and the outcome of the weekend's games often affected my mood going into Monday morning. Given that my team at the time was the Kansas City Chiefs, that made for many a Monday with low spirits. These days I feel disappointed when my favorite teams lose, but I get on with life because I know there are far more important and interesting things in the world.

I am questioning more and more whether I can and should continue to support this sport, even in my relatively passive manner. Several issues prompt my doubt. The very nature of football promotes aggression and violence, albeit in a somewhat controlled manner. I don't object to the competitive nature of the sport. All sports are competitive in some degree. Someone wins and someone loses and within reason that's acceptable. But football isn't just about winning and losing. It's about the physical contact, the aggressive hits and the hard tackles. The fans want this kind of thing. Some have likened it to the Roman gladiatorial games. I don't know that it is quite that extreme, but the fans certainly experience some measure of catharsis watching the spectacle of crashing bodies on the field below (or the screen at home). We take part vicariously in the violence and in doing so, passively or actively celebrate and promote it. Do I really want to support an activity so fundamentally connected with aggression? I'm not sure I do anymore. I'm also not sure what it says about us and our society that we glory in this sport.

Even as we are enjoying the physical clash taking place on the field, those engaging in it are suffering bodily harm that in many cases will damage them for life. The indications that regular physical contact of this nature can result in long-term brain trauma seems fairly strong, strong enough that recently the NFL reached a settlement with a group of former players over the issue (without actually admitting any responsibility, conveniently). Some former players face debilitating brain injuries and some as a result have been driven to suicide. My enjoyment of their sport doesn't make me culpable in their injuries. Ultimately they are responsible for their choice to play and continue playing. But when I choose to watch, I help create the market that makes this sport financially rewarding and therefore help to perpetuate it. I realize that if I stop watching, the game will continue to be played, but my conscience need not bear the burden of supporting an activity that causes lasting harm to those who participate actively in it.

In addition to the issues related to violence and the physical harm the game brings, I am also disturbed by the sexism latent not only in the game itself but in the surrounding culture. I recognize that many women enjoy football and, in perhaps a paradoxical manner, am glad they do. Football shouldn't be the domain of only men as long as it continues to be played. Yet football (and related sports such as rugby) remains more male oriented than perhaps any other major sport. In other sports we see women's leagues being formed and growing. Although their popularity is not yet anywhere near that of the corresponding men's sport, we now have professional women's basketball and soccer. Women can play softball (although I fail to understand why they can't just play baseball), tennis, golf and even hockey. But women playing football remains a rare exception. On the one hand I would commend women for having the intelligence to avoid involvement in a sport that will, ultimately, harm them physically. At the same time the feminist in me revolts at the exclusion of women from this highly popular sport. And no, I don't count the lingerie football league as a true women's alternative. In fact, it's just another indicator of the underlying sexism in the sport. The only place we regularly find women involved in football at any level is on the sideline as cheerleaders. Without wanting to insult cheerleading, which can be a legitimate activity for both men and women (the fact that no NFL team I am aware of has male cheerleaders should tell us something), I find this very degrading to women. It insults me as a feminist and as a sports fan.

When you combine the exclusion of women from the game with the sexist attitudes that predominate in the advertising that fuels the football industry, it becomes apparent how women are viewed by a large portion of the football-watching world. Beer commercials, which provide a significant portion of sports revenue (I have no numbers on how much) regularly appall me with their blatant sexism (which, unfortunately, is not limited to commercials aired during football games, but that's a different topic.) As I said earlier, I fully affirm the right of women not only to watch but to play football. But I wonder why any woman wants to watch a sport that so fully excludes her from anything but observing and often reduces her to a sex-object to sell the sport and related products.

Finally, I question whether I want to support a sport that has come to pervert many educational institutions through corruption and scandal. I started reading today the article published by Sports Illustrated this week on the program at Oklahoma State University. I haven't even finished the article yet and already I am appalled. I would say I'm shocked, except that we have heard similar stories far too often in the past few years. It seems like every season we hear of another major university that, in the pursuit of football glory, has allowed and even fostered systems that promote winning over all else. Even programs that remain within the generous boundaries of NCAA rules still cause me to cringe when I read of the exorbitant amounts of money poured into them, even while academic programs at many universities struggle to find adequate funding. (I recognize that many athletic departments are effectively supported by their football program, but this does not necessarily make it right that so much money goes into football.) When we put so much significance on the success of a school's football program, we should not be surprised when rules are bent, ignored and broken in order to achieve that success. Do I want to support this system?

Yet even after saying all this I admit that I still enjoy a good football game. I still want to cheer for my alma-mater to beat the in-state and conference foes. In fact, somewhat ironically, I will be attending my first college football game this weekend for my father's birthday. I'm conflicted. I have a like-dislike relationship with this sport. My response at present will be to wean myself from watching football. I won't refuse to watch it if it's on, but I want to choose not to watch it when I have control of the remote. That won't be easy. It has become a sort of default behavior for me on Sunday afternoon over the years. But surely I can find better ways to invest my Sabbath day? I won't condemn or judge those who choose to watch football and cheer for their favorite teams, but I would encourage those of us who do to stop and think about what our support of this sport says about ourselves and our culture.