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Books | Sports

August 24, 2010

Taking Back the Playing Field

When owners play hardball, Dave Zirin has some ideas for fans to fight back.

Michael Gluckstadt

When an owner holds a sports franchise hostage, fans feel powerless in their plight. Should they acquiesce and give much-needed public money to fund a privately held and increasingly corporatized team and stadium? Or should they stand their ground and risk losing a part of their city's identity to some floozy town with the coffers and shamelessness to steal their beloved team?

It's a no-win situation, and that's because the owners and their big-money peers are controlling the frame of the debate. But, according to firebrand and progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin, this doesn't have to be the case. "If owners want to play hardball, we have to stop playing patty cake," Zirin tells Gelf. "If they want public money, then we need to demand partial public ownership." There are steps fans can take, like adopting the Green Bay public model of ownership, to ensure that others aren't the ones who get to dictate the terms; we are.

Dave Zirin
"Stadiums just don't provide the return on investment promised by their carnival-barking showmen on the sports page and in politics."

Dave Zirin

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for length and clarity, Gelf caught up with Zirin to discuss his new book, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love the legacy of George Steinbrenner, and what fans can do to take back the playing field.

Gelf Magazine: Something has changed since the other times you and I spoke. You're no longer the only one talking about publicly financed stadiums, the dark side of hosting events like the Olympics and the World Cup, and the overall disenchantment of the everyday fan. Have you noticed more people taking up your cause?

Dave Zirin: Absolutely I've noticed it. It's an incredibly important shift in the intertwining world of politics, sports, and economics.

Gelf Magazine: What has been the driving force for this gradual awakening of the American sports fan?

Dave Zirin: It's happened because we simply have more data now. When we first spoke, we were to some extent discussing opinions. Now we're far more firmly in the realm of facts. Stadiums just don't provide the return on investment promised by their carnival-barking showmen on the sports page and in politics.
Now especially in economic tough times, it's also a much more vital question. Millions of dollars still are plowed into stadium construction every year and the public, even sports fans, aren't having it. Not when bridges in the Twin cities collapse the same week ground is due to be broken on the new Twins stadium. Not when the Metro goes off the tracks in Washington, D.C., the year after a billion-dollar park opens. Not when teachers are laid off, food stamps are cut, and sports bosses—utterly oblivious —demand a few dollars more. Reality hurts.

Gelf Magazine: While fans might be more aware of the empty promises behind publicly financed stadiums, what can they do about it? In your book you lay out the only "successful" thwarting of such a plan I know of, by Sonics fans— and it's clear how things turned out in Seattle.

Dave Zirin: Well, in San Francisco, residents fought Giants owner Peter Magowan and he was forced to fund it himself. But your point is very well taken. Owners present to cities a "my way or the highway" choice. Cities can pay up or owners will leave. We are seeing this right now in Minnesota where Zygi Wylf, owner of the Vikings, is threatening to leave town if he doesn't get a new stadium.
My argument in the book is not at all that we should simply call the owners on their bluff and bid them sayonara. What happened to the Sonics is an absolute travesty. I am arguing that we need to fundamentally change the terms of the debate. If owners want to play hardball, we have to stop playing patty cake. If they want public money, then we need to demand partial public ownership. If they have their bags packed on their way out of town, then politicians should cite eminent-domain laws—the same laws, by the way, that are used to kick people out of their homes to create the real estate for stadium construction—and seize the teams. We should threaten to turn the Vikings into a public utility if they don't like it. I guarantee the terms of the debate will shift quickly if fans overcome their passivity and politicians feel the heat to actually do more in the face of sports ownership than just go prone.

Gelf Magazine: Clearly this is an uphill battle, with the politicians' and big-money interests (including sports media) generally aligned with those of the owners. How do you propose fans organize themselves into a force capable of dictating the terms of the debate to the owners?

Dave Zirin: It can take different forms in different cities. Actually, if you look at the sheer number of community coalitions around the country that have waged this fight, it's remarkably impressive. The problem is the terms of the debate. We need to hold up the Green Bay model—privately owned by fans—as a viable alternative. As for me, I'm on the board of a national organization called the Sports Fans Coalition that I humbly think every one of us should join.

Gelf Magazine: In your book you offer a complex picture of George Steinbrenner, as the owner who set sports on their trajectory towards greed and also as a decent man who had made you, when you were a child, feel comfortable in your lone personal interaction with him. How do you reconcile the two?

Dave Zirin: It's reconciled because it's really two sides of the same coin: the megalomaniacal team owner (which in baseball goes back to Albert Spalding himself) and the modern owner who sees their financial bottom line as directly connected to sweetheart cable deals and corporate welfare. Steinbrenner clearly had a sense of himself that was as big as the city itself. That means he could at the same time feel a sense of accountability to the individual fans as well as an outrage toward the city that it wouldn't be an open cash register for whatever needs the team might have.

Gelf Magazine: You dedicated this book to Howard Zinn. How did his influence extend to this work and to your career as a whole?

Dave Zirin: I dedicated it to four people, all of whom died this past year and all of whom were friends, and in their own way are part of the book: Howard, Lester Rodney, Dennis Brutus, and Dave Meggyesy to Etan Thomas, I can always count on you to find the most politically conscious athletes. Is there anyone new on your radar who isn't afraid to speak their mind about important social issues?

Dave Zirin: There are two political issues that will dominate the sports world for the next year. One is the efforts to move [Major League Baseball's] 2011 All-Star Game from Arizona because of the state's penchant for codifying racial profiling, and the other is the [potential for an] NFL/NBA lockout. On the All-Star game, pay close attention to Adrian Gonzalez, All-Star first baseman for the San Diego Padres. Gonzalez has stated that he will be boycotting next year's game if it's in Arizona. He has also shown a commitment to organizing teammates and even other All-Stars to speak out. So watch AG.
On the lockout front, the NFL news will obviously be bigger than the NBA because of the NFL's popularity and the growing news about concussions. There will be an NFL player who speaks out loudly and proudly on the question of concussions as the fundamental reason for why the owners' lockout is fundamentally immoral and unjust. I have some candidates as to who that will be, but I will stay mum on this for now. The drama is already unfolding. DeMaurice Smith has a quiver that is fully loaded.

Gelf Magazine: Your books tend to tackle broad subjects in sports, finding common links in multiple stories. Are there any particular stories you'd like to devote an entire book's worth of material to?

Dave Zirin: I'd love to do an entire book about Arizona, sports, baseball, the Phoenix Suns, and immigration. But that would take a pretty serious publisher willing to give me money to camp out there for months, and that's just not the state of the business right now. Hey, a guy can dream, right?

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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