Sports Stadium Conspiracy
WWW.NYPRESS.COM | MAY 3, 2005
NEWS & COLUMNS
Almost nothing proves a politician's fitness for office better than his ability to convince the public to fund a new sports stadium. You can doubt an elected official all you like, but any mayor or governor who can convince a majority of the electorate to hand over a quarter of a billion dollars to a bunch of gazillionaires ought to be given a goddamn medal. If he can pull off that sales job like Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty or Michael Bloomberg, with a straight face and a halo over his head, then he should be seriously considered as a candidate for sainthood.
Because in this world, there are little white lies, there are cynical public come-ons, and there is rank, fiendish bullshit; and then there is taking $300 or $600 million away from teachers and firefighters and police and handing it over to the heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, and asking for nothing but a job flipping burgers in return. Selling that is a tall rhetorical order, and anyone who can pull it off should not only be reelected until the end of time, but made lifetime Tsar of the planet Earth.
What is most remarkable about the publicly financed stadium craze, expressed most recently in the situations involving the Twins in Minneapolis and the Jets here in New York, is how effortlessly the public has swallowed the obscenely corrupted admixture of capitalism and socialism that is the state's relationship to professional sports.
The public can be excused for not protesting the grotesque state capitalism of the arms industry, the absurd parody of free enterprise that results from the activities of such organizations as the Ex-Im Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the welfare state of currency bailouts, and the risk-free money-lending of the World Bank and the I.M.F.
But there is no excuse for not protesting the preposterous thieving communism of state-aided sports-stadium deals. When the federal government buys a fleet of F-117 fighter planes, the average Joe does not know, automatically and ahead of time, exactly how much money will ultimately be wasted on $4000 wrenches and $750 washers before the deal is completed. In the case of the Jets, we know exactly what it is we're subsidizing.
If Woody Johnson is going to be short $600 million when he goes to build his new stadium, it just might be because he's paying Chad Pennington roughly $573,000 per game to play his ineffectual, happy-footed, tissue-armed brand of quarterback for the home team. Pennington makes about $9.172 million a year to play for the Jets. Assuming he takes about sixty snaps a game, this works out to about $10,000 every time he sticks his hand in Kevin Mawae's ass.
That translates to a public school teacher's salary about once every disappointing set of downs—and this only in the extremely unlikely event that Pennington manages to play a whole season without tearing his labrum throwing a wobbly incompletion into the wind in Orchard Park. If you figure in the inevitable stint on the DL he takes every year to ensure the Patriots the division, we're talking about a public school teacher about once every time Chad touches the ball.
We all know that a deal like Pennington's is the market rate for starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But can you imagine what people would say if Mayor Bloomberg decided to allocate public funds toward the construction of a middle school that was spending $10,000 per copy of Heather Has Two Mommies? The mayor would be hung by his balls on New York 1. Every right-wing radio jock in the country would pound His Eminence into oatmeal from sunup till sundown. But because it's football, everyone just shrugs and says, "Well, shit, how else are we going to pay for those luxury boxes on the 50-yard line?" A finer example of peasant-thinking could not possibly be imagined.
The argument that all of this can be justified by the economic benefit of a new stadium would make sense, if the state actually drove a bargain with its investment. While any public subsidy of the insane salary scale of the NFL or pro baseball is already obscene on its face, there's no denying that even with the crazy salaries, pro sports is a monstrously successful engine for profit. The usual counter-argument to the stadium deal is that investing in schools makes more economic sense than investing in a few dozen concessions jobs and parking contracts. But investing in schools probably does not make more economic sense than actually investing in a pro sports franchise.
Unfortunately, that is not what the city of New York is doing. Mayor Bloomberg wants to give $600 million to Woody Johnson to help him build a stadium. For that same money, the city of New York could buy the New York Knicks for $500 million or so, fire the idiot Isaiah Thomas, replace him with Daniel Doctoroff or anyone else with an IQ over ten, earmark the remaining $100 million to sign LeBron James a few years from now, and then spend the next decade after that quietly collecting the $150 million in annual revenues that the Knicks rake in now, even sucking as badly as they currently do.
That would be a shrewd business move and a legitimate public service. Instead of the sad layout of concessions jobs and the negligible tax benefit that is the ostensible "return" on a stadium investment, the state would own outright one of the most profitable businesses in sports—the Knicks—and its revenues would be used not to subsidize the highly irritating public eccentricity of the Dolan family, but to fund the essential services of the city of New York. Moreover, it is assumed that even the most inefficient government management would put a halt to the serial accumulation of 6'7" power forwards with max contracts who can't defend in the post. It would make sense both financially and in the realm of civic pride—"both on and off the court," to use sports terminology.
In any rational environment, no one makes a $600 million investment without becoming a partner in something. But in the American mindset, it is somehow immoral or politically unorthodox for a municipality to engage in actual capitalism. Instead, the role of the state is confined strictly to the gratuitous assumption of risk within a larger capitalist enterprise, in which someone else—read, Woody Johnson, Chad Pennington, Fox and ESPN—makes the real money.
There are exceptions to this rule. The city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, owns Lambeau Field, the team's stadium, and that has worked out fine enough. But for the most part, the state role in pro sports is the same as it is everywhere else in major industry in this country: socialize the risk, privatize the profit. It's the oldest scam in the book. A statist liberal should demand a piece of the action; a conservative should tell Woody Johnson to build his own goddamn playground. Both options make plenty of sense. Only a sucker does neither.
Volume 18, Issue 18
© 2005 New York Press