Keeping Score


It’s hard not to welcome in a new baseball season with each new spring. Someone like Joe Mauer, homegrown like a ruddy potato in our own back yard, seems so much like a rare innocent teenager we almost feel sorry for the trouble his $78 million will bring his way. We’re relieved to know he’ll be around to represent us for some years, unlike the vast majority of pro athletes for whom the green light to hit-and-run is always on. Our other current local hero, the Vikings quarterback, leaves us somewhat confused about ourselves. How can we adore this turncoat hit-and-runner, think of him as one of us?

My confusion about what really matters swells whenever a new stadium building season comes around. It’s always easier to find out who won yesterday’s game than it is to keep a running score of who the winners and losers are. Adding up the costs of our big pro sports franchises can’t compete with breaking news thrill-bits about Mauer’s latest encounter with the breaking ball, or the depth of Favre’s latest ache to continue playing the game.

What’s really hard to calculate is what the thrill-bits we get from pro sports are really worth to us. No one seems to be keeping score of that. While many parents, teachers, and coaches believe that sports build character, it’s hard to know if pro sports give us more characters than it does character. Since the kind of character we associate with moral integrity and steadfastness is hard to measure, and since its sources are not in plain view, it’s hard to really know for sure whether sports do us more harm than good. Einstein the genius gives us a quick way out of the problem. Not everything that counts, Einstein said, can be counted.

So why try?

Conventional wisdom normally works well enough to inspire Bob and Mary Taxpayer to get a new stadium built. Pro sports, we’re told, are good for the economy. New stadiums put people to work as builders, vendors and managers. The franchise owners and their millionaire athletes pay taxes too. And there’s a price to pay in the marketplace of world opinion when we leave the impression we’re a minor league place. It would hurt the convention industry, and tourism, the bars and restaurants. And imagine the emotional scars that would result from loss of Purple (or maroon or, in Nebraska, red) Pride, a virtue as invaluable as it is incalculable.

And one other thing is certain too: When Bob and Mary Taxpayer come through with enough funding to get another stadium built, it’s good business, not socialism.

So, dear Bob and Mary, give us our slice of your hard-earned bread or we’ll cook up our profits in some other major league city. And please, let’s not hear any talk about welfare for the rich.

How do we love our Vikings (and Twins, Timberwolves, Wild, etc.)? Let us count the ways. We provide them premium property space at premium discount prices. We construct, at public expense, infrastructure that makes access to these properties possible. We add hundreds of millions of pennies to the little taxes we pay. We pay bigger and bigger bucks to sit in a seat so far away the players look like ants. We exhaust a half-day’s worth of minimum wages for fries, a hot dog, a teeshirt, and a beer. When the good guys win we feel good as we swallow the suspicion we’ve been had, and the next day at work we have something to say about what everyone’s talking about.

We console ourselves: It’s fun, clean family fun on family days. Besides, we’re sick and tired of talk about deficits. Besides, there are so many troubles and wars we need something to put our minds on hold. Besides, we deserve to be winners too. Besides, even when we lose it might be good for the economy.

Ask any preacher or shop-keeper whose doors are open on game day. It’s hard to dispute that the sale of chips, beer and hot dogs spikes before any game, but what happens in churches, theatres, museums, and retail stores on game day? The traffic flow is sitting on the sofa in front of the TV, and the cash flow is on the one-way streets leading to the stadium. Has anyone in a school of business bothered to study this phenomenon?

The artists have been better than the athletes at keeping score, and they’ve scored a lot of points. If Minnesotans need to feel like winners their artists have earned them some bragging rights. According to results of studies reported by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, Minnesota was named “the most livable state in the nation” for the sixth straight year, “due in part to our citizens’ access to the arts.” And Places Rated Almanac rated the Twin Cities “one of the nation’s best art communities,” better even than San Francisco. A 2006 study of Minnesota’s arts audiences and arts organizations puts their total economic impact at more than one billion dollars, with the arts providing a return on investment of over $11 to $1. Of the $250.1 million total spent on the arts in 2005, 82 percent went to Minnesota merchants and businesses. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported (1/17/99) that more people (almost 9 million) attended nonprofit arts events than sports events, and that only 2.6 million paid to see the three pro sports teams.

These numbers suggest why pro sports are not shy about asking for donations. Ask anyone who runs a museum, art gallery, food shelter, chemical dependency counseling service, furniture store, service station, or grocery if they’d like to enjoy the same snug relationship that pro (and major college) sports have with newspaper companies. As the news in newspapers shrinks into smaller freeze-dried bits, the sports news industry–more and more often heralded on the front pages–routinely offers full sections worth of what amounts to free advertising to free enterprise sports monopolies. TV news, always mindful of the need to provide equal time, plays the same game.

Is the depth of Favre’s ache to continue playing the game news, or is it part of a free advertisement packaged as news? Are journalism’s unwritten rules of the game rigged against ordinary businesses and shopkeepers? Are there winners and losers? Who on a news staff is keeping score?

Tony Judt, historian, does some summing up in his book Ill Fares the Land, a work that could be called his last will and testament (he has ALS). The book’s first line doesn’t shy away from what many people quietly and deeply feel: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.” His conclusion is grounded on several studies that point to an unfashionable belief:

The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished
many, the worse the social problems: a statement that appears to be
true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent
a country is but how unequal it is.

If it could be established that major investments (like a new sports stadium) help ordinary folk pay their bills rather than ensuring that a few will swell their fortunes (often invested in offshore ventures), it would be patriotic, pragmatic and arguably moral to have a new stadium in every small town and city neighborhood.

But the present habit is to think big, to indulge in the wishful thinking that some mystical Hidden Hand will allow concentrated wealth to trickle down to ordinary folk. Those who credibly keep score of this phenomenon have bad news for us: Since the 1970s wealth’s Hidden Hand has stealthily and steadily pushed wealth upward instead. As Judt points out, “21.2 percent of U.S. national income accrued to just 1 percent of earners.” And it’s often a family affair. “The wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family in 2005 was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population: 120 million people.”

With family values running this high it’s easy to see why so many pro sports owners run their operations as family businesses. While Bob and Mary Taxpayer are free to kick in to guarantee that kickoffs continue and the owners score more profits, one would expect that taxpayers would share in a few extra points. But for profit-sharing purposes they are not part of the family team. So what part of the Vikings or Twins or Timberwolves or Wild does the public “own”? Why do we care so much whether they win or lose, especially when they win more than they lose?

What we maybe mainly learn from the contests we watch is that in the dog-eat-dog (do they?) world of pro sports the winners take all. In that world equality is for losers, even if it is well demonstrated that an equal playing field is better for all of us. As taxpayers and spectators buy into a game, they tacitly approve the “winning is everything” premise that makes losers of them. The games themselves constitute advertisements for the premise, and the ads work best against ordinary fans when their team wins and they go home feeling good.

I find it hard to divorce myself from a stadium roar that swells, it seems, out of some underground depth that sends us soaring every time someone hits a home run or throws a touchdown bomb. It’s hard not to feel good when we get another hit of deep Purple Pride. But do we confuse Purple Pride with civic pride, and does Purple Pride come at the expense of the important improvements that could be made to neighborhoods, schools, the arts, and small businesses? Is anyone keeping score of what growing inequality is costing us?

The Roman emperors understood well the value of providing panem and circenses (bread and circuses) as ways of controlling discontented populations. Today’s stadium builders are happy enough to provide the circuses, but where’s the bread?