Bank Bailouts and Bank of America Stadium
A rare sports columnist explains how publicly funded stadiums illustrate the nation's economic insanity
It’s the first day of autumn. As I write this, the weather is magnificent: 78 degrees, low humidity, with high-def clarity. The leaves are just starting to turn.
I spent the morning hiking on the lovely wooded trails at Renaissance Park. My Saints smoked the Cardinals. (Who dat.) The Panthers even won, in a rout. I’ve got the TV on CBS, and I'm watching the Colts play the 49ers on a bright, clear day in San Francisco. The field is grass. The uniforms are as they were 40 years ago, not abstract expressionist Under Armour monstrosities. It’s football the way it ought to be.
Except I had to go and harsh my own mellow.
On the hike, I listened to the podcast of a Moyers & Company episode from last week in which Bill Moyers hosted The Nation sports columnist Dave Zirin, a sportswriter who does what few of his colleagues dare to do these days: Examine the true effects, good and bad, of sports in society. Zirin writes about how sports don’t just hold a mirror up to a society and its priorities, fears, desires and prejudices but actually shape them — and about how ugly the results can be.
I knew he and Moyers would discuss the uneasy relationship between the NFL and the growing evidence that football causes brain damage. But I didn’t expect him to frame another issue — taxpayer funding of pro sports stadiums — quite this starkly (emphases mine):
BILL MOYERS: Don't you go to games for escapism? Are you always looking at what this means that we're not seeing?
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh no, I like the escapism too, but it’s a little hard to go see the Mets and be sitting in a place called Citi Field named after a bank that was paid for by billions in public dollars and not think to yourself, yeah, I think that there’s some political things maybe going on here that we should pay attention to.
But also, I think owners tend to be politically on the right wing of the spectrum. And when they say, and when a lot of their friends in the sports media say, sports and politics shouldn’t mix, what they’re really saying is sports and a certain kind of politics shouldn’t mix. Because when it comes to the politics of things like militarism and corporatism, those politics are blaring at a typical game …
BILL MOYERS: No one I know has covered so well the extent to which the world of sports has changed. What would you say is the defining feature of that change?
DAVE ZIRIN: The defining feature of that change can be seen in any city in this country where there is a publicly funded, billion-dollar stadium. That to me is both a symbol and an expression of everything that’s changed about the economics of sports.
Now look, I’m not saying that owners back in the day were these kindhearted creatures. But there was an economic system in sports where if you were an owner and you were going to make a profit, you needed to make sure that largely working-class fans would be able to pay money and put their butts in the seats and go to the park. Now fans have largely become scenery. The way owners measure profits in this day and age are public subsidies for stadiums, luxury boxes at the stadium, and sweetheart cable deals.
Now what's so horrible about two of those three things, the cable aspect and the public subsidies for stadiums, is that we're paying for this whether we're sports fans or not. Our cable bills go up, our taxes go up, to subsidize these kinds of ventures. And every single economic study shows that they don't work. So what these stadiums —
BILL MOYERS: You mean they don’t produce the revenue.
DAVE ZIRIN: No, it's more like a neo-liberal Trojan horse. Where people end up agreeing to things that they would never otherwise agree to, because it becomes wrapped in sports. And the idea, or maybe a fear, that the team will move. Or maybe excitement at the thought of a new building. Yet we all pay a very serious price for this …
BILL MOYERS: You've said that what's happened to sports in the last 30 years was actually preparing the public psyche, for what?
DAVE ZIRIN: I think for the Wall Street bailout more than anything else. I mean, if you think about the trillion dollars of public money that went to bailing out Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, and the terms of that bailout as well, asking nothing of Wall Street, prosecuting nobody, and preparing people for this idea that says the role of public spending is really to bail out private capital.
And that’s the way our society is going to work. Money will flow up. We have a trickle-up economic program in this country. So instead of a more classical economic model that says, if you get money in the hands of working people, they will spend that money, and that will stimulate more demand and make the economy grow, the other thing, the other model, is now it’s a finance model that says, get as much money as possible in the hands of big business.
And that’s going to be the basis of our economy, even though it’s going to, in an incredible sense, be like inequality on steroids.
“The role of public spending is really to bail out private capital.” Do those words make anyone else’s blood run cold? We’re living in an age when Congress can cut $39 billion from the federal food stamp program on supposed austerity grounds — we all have to tighten our belts in this economy — and because goodness knows how many slackers are leeching off precious taxpayer dollars.
Under Zirin’s scenario, the motivation is even more cynical: Those dollars are precious not because they’re an ineffective safety net for the poor but because they’re such an effective safety net for the rich, the society’s owners, when they take a flier, invest in too many mortgage-backed securities and damn near take down the world’s economy.
It puts the whole taxpayer investment in Bank of America stadium improvements in a whole new light, doesn’t it? At least Jerry Richardson and the Panthers aren’t asking for a new stadium, yet.
But when the owners of pro sports teams hang the threat of departure for a more welcoming city over the heads of a fan base, we should understand that this is just how the privileged class operates — and it’s not just the Richardsons and Daniel Snyders and Jerry Joneses of the world. The looming government shutdown is just another version of the same ploy. It’s extortion, full stop, the consequence-free luxury of a tiny overclass that views that kind of shakedown as nothing less than their due.