Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism


Watson


When President
George W. Bush (among many politicians) advised Americans that an effective way
to respond to September 11 was to “go to the mall,” it was made clear that the
business of America, as Calvin Coolidge once put it, is business. That
being said, is there any anti-capitalist rhetoric or discussion out there in the
mainstream media? There is, but it’s not to be found in the op-ed pages of the
New York Times or on any of CNN’s innumerable panel discussions featuring
middle-aged suits vigorously agreeing that America is infallible.

Have you seen the
sports pages lately? Heard any sports talk radio? Watched an ESPN commentary
show? That’s where you’ll find some of the most vituperative anti-capitalist
rhetoric since Pravda folded.

Columnists,
reporters, and fans use these media outlets to relentlessly vilify the major
sports leagues. League officials, team owners, player agents, and the athletes
are all exposed to ridicule, scorn, and contempt. Greedy, arrogant, selfish,
oafish, cruel, racist, criminal, parasitic, and insane, these are just a sample
of the terms fans throw at those who play and control pro sports. The basis for
all this anger is almost invariably the big money in sports.

Listen to sports
radio for a few days and one quickly gets the clear impression that what helps
fuel this anger is the sense of betrayal fans feel toward their favorite team or
sport. Fans are, first of all, lovers of a sport.


The emotional and
intellectual investment a fan makes in a team represents an exploitable resource
for the owners of pro sports teams. Admission prices have skyrocketed to the
point where the best seats to a sports event can cost as much as a night’s stay
in a five-star hotel. The remaining seats are largely priced for upper middle
class incomes and the cheaper seats are often monopolized by those who can
afford season tickets or, if the team is popular, those who can afford scalper’s
prices.

Television, once
the great popularizer of pro sports, has progressively become more exclusive,
with sports programming moving to specialty cable channels such as ESPN or
pay-per-view.

Is the anger of
sports fans meaningful? Does it represent anything other than irritation with
the vagaries of a favored leisure activity? For several reasons I think it does,
the first being that pro sports exposes people to a portrait of capitalism
without the usual scrim of corporate/governmental PR and propaganda.

When NFL owners
like Art Modell, Al Davis, Georgia Frontiere, and others move their teams from
one city to another in return for tax breaks, subsidized or free playing
facilities, and a whole package of other inducements, they aren’t acting any
differently than American corporations that move factories to states or other
countries that offer low wages, low taxes, or other economic come-ons. The only
difference is that football owners don’t bother with spin control.

A factory that
closes in Michigan to be replaced by one in Mexico is described as
“rationalization,” “strategic re-allocation of assets” or “a necessary step to
stay globally competitive.” When Robert Irsay moved his tradition-rich Baltimore
Colts to Indianapolis he didn’t even bother with an explanation; he packed up
the team’s equipment and ran out of town.

Similarly, the
New York Yankees don’t apologize when they snatch up the top talent from small
market teams. The contracts these individual players receive can sometimes equal
the entire payroll of the team the player came from. This is similar, say, to an
agribusiness going into the Third World and buying up or contracting all the
best land to produce “cash crops” for export while the indigenous peasantry
starves for lack of arable land. The deleterious effect of these exports is
papered over with talk of “aiding the balance of payments” or “bringing
agricultural expertise to the underdeveloped nations of the world.”

It seems clear
that when sports fans react with rage at the actions of the Yankees and Irsays
of the world, they’re not just bemoaning the state of the game. Part of this
fury stems from the realization that money, capital, is being used as a weapon,
and a blunt one, at that. It’s capitalism unmasked and a significant number of
people, most of whom wouldn’t describe themselves as socialists if their lives
depended on it, are appalled by what they see.

 

Another
interesting aspect of fan anger is that the public forums it finds voice in—the
sports pages, phone-in shows, sports commentary TV programs—are probably the
only major media-sanctioned outlets for anti-capitalist sentiment in the U.S.
These outlets probably don’t realize that what’s being discussed would be
branded as “dangerously socialist” if it appeared in a different context or
forum.

Although much of
the public criticism directed at pro sports doesn’t rise much above the level of
name-calling, it’s significant that it exists at all. It’s hard to imagine a
newspaper or cable channel regularly devoting a section or program to the sins
of capitalism, but certainly on many days the sports media seems wholly
concerned with trashing the finances and corporate structure of pro sports.


The breadth and
depth of critical comment in the sports world stands in stark relief to
“regular” news. The mainstream press, for instance, has handled the Enron
debacle as though it was a kind of corporate train wreck, the blame for which
can be safely pinned on some rogue accountants and executives. There has been
little serious discussion about Enron being the end result of willful government
deregulation and a corporate culture that rewards and encourages fiscal avarice.
Mainstream media chooses to portray the Enron meltdown as an aberration, albeit
a spectacular one.

For comparison
look to the way the sports media has been handling major league baseball’s plan
to “contract” teams. Commentators (and fans) have been virtually unanimous in
deriding baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s explanation that the health of the
sport depends on shedding teams, pointing out that this move is more about
dividing up the TV-rights revenue pie amongst fewer teams, while at the same
time dropping two teams, Montreal and Minnesota, that add virtually nothing to
national TV ratings. Further, this attempted move has exposed baseball to a
blizzard of critical comment on all its activities, from exorbitant free agent
signings to the fan-unfriendly actions of stars.

Capitalist
indiscretions in the sports world are thoroughly and critically examined. This
critical analysis pro sport receives on a near daily basis has helped create fan
disenchantment and, in some cases, fan rebellion. Baseball, the major league
sport most egregiously dominated by big money, has been the most seriously
damaged by fan anger. In the years since the labor lockout in 1994, fan support
at the turnstile and in front of the TV has declined severely, a spectacular
example being the Montreal Expos, a team that now struggles to draw AAA-sized
crowds

One sure sign of
growing fan disenchantment with the capitalist knife fight that pro sports has
become is the number of franchises that jump from city to city looking for
greenbacker pastures. Unlike the expansionist 1970s and 1980s, when new
franchises and pro leagues popped up everywhere, the last ten years have seen
pro sport franchises move around like a traveling carnival. Now, a handful of
super-rich teams in each pro league dominate the elite player talent pool. This
results in a long list of have-not teams that struggle futilely to achieve a
winning record. Fans are painfully and angrily aware of this inequity


Perhaps the most
interesting aspect of the anti-capitalist bent of so many fans and sports
journalists is that it creates a fertile environment in which to educate people
about the larger problems created by a capitalist economy. Thanks to the
mendacious and piratical behavior of pro sports, millions of fans are savvy to
the ways and means a huge bankroll can stack the deck against their rooting
interests and the interests of their sport. It’s not a huge jump from there to
show people how the capitalism that ruins their favorite team or sport can, and
is, ruining lives within and without the U.S.

Any fan who has
wept over his or her team skipping town to set up in a more financially
accommodating city should be able to see and understand one of the main problems
of globalization; that is, the damaging effect of capital chasing cheap labor
and low taxes around the world.

Similarly, fans
of small market teams who gnash their teeth when their team’s best talent is
siphoned off to major market teams would undoubtedly have a keen appreciation
for the destructive power of capital in the Third World, where the most
lucrative natural resources (land, minerals, oil) are largely controlled by
foreign multinationals, who leave behind poverty and pollution after they’ve
exported products and profits to the Western World.

In these red,
white and blue post-September 11 days, with media-encouraged jingoism at an
all-time high, and a president and Congress that can be charitably described as
corporate America’s courtesans, it’s somewhat comforting to realize that a rich
vein of anti-capitalist emotion and thought still exists in America, even if one
has to go to a sports bar to hear it. Chicken wings, anyone?       Z