The Doming of America

"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The era of big government may be over, but it has been replaced by the Rise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.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com