"You can't throw money at the problem."
As a former public school teacher in Washington, I heard this cliche from countless bureaucrats. It was code for "Stop whining about ancient textbooks and prehistoric classroom materials, because there is no money." Imagine my shock when the city announced it would be spending more than $500 million on a new baseball stadium. Clearly when it comes to the needs of billionaire sports owners, there always seems to be money available to be thrown.
This is hardly a D.C. story. The building of stadiums has become the substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. The stadiums are presented as a microwave-instant solution to the problems of crumbling schools, urban decay and suburban flight.
Stadiums are sporting shrines to the dogma of trickle-down economics. In the past 10 years, more than $16 billion of the public's money has been spent for stadium construction and upkeep from coast to coast. Though some cities are beginning to resist paying the full tab, any kind of subsidy is a fool's investment, ending up being little more than monuments to corporate greed: $500 million welfare hotels for America's billionaires built with funds that could have been spent more wisely on just about anything else.
The era of big government may be over, but it has been replaced by the Rise of the Domes. Reports from both the right-wing Cato Institute and the more centrist Brookings Institution dismiss stadium funding as an utter financial flop, yet the domes keep coming.
Our stadiums, funded on our dime, become the political province of those owners who paid nary a penny for the privilege. In many stadiums, they have started "faith days at the park" where evangelical Christian organizations set up booths and Christian rock gets blared over the loudspeakers. No separation of church and state, even when the state is footing the bill.
Then there is the force-feeding of political dogma. No freedom from that, either. On the orders of George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees now string up chains along the seats to keep people standing and secured -- and not going to the concessions or bathroom -- for the seventh-inning singing of "God Bless America."
As Neil DeMause, co-author of the book "Field of Schemes" said to me, "The history of the stadium game is the story of how, by slowly refining their blackmail skills, sports owners learned how to turn their industry from one based on selling tickets to one based on extracting public subsidies. It's been a bit like watching a 4-year-old learn how to manipulate his parents into buying him the new toy that he saw on TV; the question now is how long it takes our elected officials to learn to say 'no.' "
But our elected officials have been more like the children, as sports owners tousle their hair and set the budget agendas for municipalities around the country with a simple credo: stadiums first and people last.
In August 2005, we saw the extreme results of these kinds of priorities. After Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana Superdome, the largest domed structure in the Western Hemisphere, morphed into a homeless shelter from hell, inhabited yet uninhabitable for an estimated 30,000 of New Orleans' poorest residents.
It took Hurricane Katrina for them to actually see the inside of the Superdome, a stadium whose ticket prices make entry restrictive. At the time of the hurricane, game tickets cost $90, season seats went for $1,300, and luxury boxes for eight home games ran more than $100,000 a year. But the Katrina refugees' tickets were courtesy of the federal and local government's malignant neglect.
It was only fitting, because these 30,000 people helped pay for the stadium in the first place. The Superdome was built entirely on the public dime in 1975, as a part of efforts to create a "New New Orleans" business district. City officials decided that building the largest domed stadium on the planet was in everyone's best interest. Instead, it set off a 30-year path toward destruction for the Big Easy: a path that has seen money for the stadium but not for levees; money for the stadium but not for shelter; money for the stadium but not for an all-too-predictable disaster.
The tragedy of Katrina then became farce when the Superdome's inhabitants were finally moved: not to government housing, public shelters or even another location in the area, but to the Houston Astrodome. Ladies and gentlemen, we had the March of Domes.
I spoke to former Major League Baseball All-Star and "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton about the publicly financed "doming of America, and this is what he said:
"It's such a misapplication of the public's money. ... You've got towns turning out streetlights, they're closing firehouses, they're cutting back on school supplies, they're having classrooms in stairwells, and we've got a nation full of kids who don't have any health insurance. I mean, it's disgraceful. The limited things that our government does for the people with the people's money, to spend even a dime or a penny of it on ballparks is just a crime.
"It's going to be seen historically as an awful folly, and it's starting to be seen that way now, but historically that will go down as one of the real crimes of American government, national and local, to allow the funneling of people's money directly into the pockets of a handful of very wealthy individuals who could build these stadiums on their own if it made financial sense. If they don't make financial sense, then they shouldn't be building them."
Bouton went on to say, "If I was a team owner today, asking for public money, I'd be ashamed of myself. Ashamed of myself. But we've gone beyond shame. There's no such thing as shame anymore. People aren't embarrassed to take -- to do these awful things."
Bouton is absolutely correct. When it comes to fleecing our cities, some of the richest people in this country have shown a complete absence of shame. The question is whether we are going to finally stand up and impose our priorities onto them, instead of continually taking it on the chin.
Polls show consistent majorities don't want public funds spent on stadiums. That means the silent majority of sports fans oppose the stadium glut as well. We sports fans need to make ourselves heard. We may love baseball. We may love football. We may bleed our team's colors on game day. But that doesn't mean we should have to pay a billionaire millions of dollars for the privilege to watch.
Dave Zirin is the author of the new book "Welcome to the Terrordome:" with an intro by Chuck D (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1. Contact him at email@example.com