Owners’ Arrogance Sinking Football

Cartoon that first appeared in New York World in 1897 ran in a January New Yorker article about the NFL’s concussion crisis.
  • Cartoon that first appeared in New York World in 1897 ran in a January New Yorker article about the NFL’s concussion crisis.

Call me Little Mary Sunshine. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But I am beginning to believe that pro football’s domination of the national psyche peaked with this year’s Super Bowl. This can only be good news for San Diego, whose Chargers are trying to treacle-talk political and business leaders into a $700 million subsidy for a new stadium — but only if the team can’t first wangle a better deal in Los Angeles.

Pro football may experience a slow leak. It won’t be a bubble bursting, like dot-coms or subprime mortgages. But the bottom line, I think, is that the sport will be undone by hard dollars, health, and hubris.

First: hard dollars. States and municipalities are financially underwater, and San Diego was one of the first into the tank. Increasingly, San Diego economic seers are realizing the truth: the downtown stadium plans are just so much spindrift — what the techies call vaporware and the rest of us call horse manure.

Kelly Cunningham, senior fellow at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, is one of San Diego’s most distinguished economists, particularly knowledgeable on the local economy. He’s a fan of pro football, baseball, and basketball, but he wrote a note to me saying, “Having previously tried to rationalize public financing for ballparks and stadiums as an economic development tool and investment in the community, I should state my changing views. It is difficult, if not outright impossible, particularly during an era of budget austerities, to justify such expenditures.” He adds, “If it could be shown the dollars spent actually spurred greater return on the invested dollars, it might be justified, but economic studies show this not to be the case in about every situation.”

My guess is that most local economists who have studied the pro sports subsidy racket would say the same, but they have a constraint: establishment employers looking over their shoulders.

Cunningham points to the Super Bowl extravagances that line the pockets of the owners and notes that similar pickpocketing is rampant in other sports. “The economic realities of the costs imposed on the community, inflated ticket prices, increased luxury boxes, overpriced parking and concessions, with inflated salaries for nonresident players and relatively low-paying jobs for everyone else, only seem to extract more and more from the community,” says the economist.

And what about Petco Park? Has it been successful economically? “It helped spur development that probably wouldn’t have taken place otherwise,” says Cunningham, noting, however, that the subsidized condos and hotels in the ballpark district are hardly successful, and the City’s promise that the ballpark would be economically neutral was far wide of the mark. “The big recession and housing meltdown impacted those things.” But overall, the project “just redirected development into the downtown area. [Such redevelopment deals] only rearrange economic growth. We’re subsidizing wealthy developers and sports team owners — taking money away from the community and putting it in their hands.”

He says that the proposed football stadium won’t stimulate the surrounding economy, particularly since there would probably be only ten games a year (two preseason and eight regular season, and possibly some postseason games). “If anything, that stadium would take away from development,” he says. “Those owners don’t want you to spend money in the bar next door. They want you to spend money in the stadium.”

In San Diego, it is important that an economist of Cunningham’s stature is willing to state these truths.

So much for hard dollars. The next factor hitting pro football is just that: hitting. The sport’s violence is injurious to players’ health, and the public is beginning to get concerned. Ben McGrath’s article “Does Football Have a Future? The N.F.L. and the Concussion Crisis,” in the January 31 New Yorker, is a classic. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy results from “major collisions — or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice,” writes McGrath, citing premature deaths, suicides, chronic depressions, memory failures, and other consequences of on-field crashes that are more frequent as the passing game becomes more prominent.

“Retired [National Football League] players are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis,” writes McGrath. He says that baseball immortal Lou Gehrig “may not actually have had the disease that bears his name but suffered from concussion-related trauma instead.”

McGrath quotes Jim McMahon, the former swashbuckling quarterback for the Chicago Bears. At the 25th reunion of the 1985 Super Bowl champions, the 51-year-old McMahon said that his memory “is pretty much gone.”

The New York Times started the crusade against football concussions. (Sportswriters for other papers said they didn’t want to lose access to their sources.) The Times also focused on retired players who are permanently injured but are given little help from billionaire team owners. And that brings us to the third factor that could contribute to pro football’s declivity: the owners’ insufferable hubris. Even football lovers have decried the Super Bowl insult this year, when a gaggle of fans who had bought tickets did not get seats. Now the owners want to extend the regular season to 18 games; they scoff at players who are worried about injuries.

Pro football is quintessential corporate welfare, and the owners have an unbearable sense of entitlement. During the lead-up to the Super Bowl, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell delivered the annual state of the league address. He lamented that since 2006 “we have not built a new stadium (other than those already in the works).” We? We? As sports columnist Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote, “This Super Bowl taught me a lesson: luxury can actually be debasing. The last great building binge in the NFL was from 1995 through 2003, when 21 stadiums were built or refurbished in order to create more luxury boxes, at a cost of $6.4 billion. Know how much of that the public paid for? $4.4 billion. Why are we giving 32 rich guys that kind of money, just to prey on us at the box office and concessions?”

Why, indeed? And why didn’t San Diegans give a well-deserved concussion to Paul Tagliabue, Goodell’s predecessor as commissioner, when he pronounced imperiously in 2003, as San Diego was hosting the Super Bowl, “From my own perspective, I’m surprised that we are here this week.” The outlook was not promising for future Super Bowls in San Diego. “And the reason is that, you know, so many new stadiums have been built in the last decade.”

It was magisterial extortion. And it still hasn’t worked. And may not.

Comments

Oh Don you're such a sports naysayer.

While I'll agree professional sports athletes and pro team owner are WAY over the top when it comes to compensation and corporate valuations. Of course, the cost of actually attending a professional sports game is completely unreasonable for the average middle class fan. But watching a game or two on television is good, and low cost entertainment.

Personally I don't think there's anything wrong with San Diego's stadium if you put it in the perspective of "playing" football. I also wonder why a contact sport such as rugby can be played without a helmet, but football cannot. I suspect if the weapons, oops I mean helmets, were banned, the number of traumatic and concussive head injuries would be close to zero.

Alas the fans who can afford to spend vast quantities of liquid assets and NFL management disagree with my assessment of the "Q". I suppose they want all the trappings of luxury to go along with small fortune they shell out to be-in-the-house of their sports heroes. Their raucousness condoned by their payment of alms to multimillionaires for the privilege.

There is nothing wrong with Qualcomm Stadium that a little fixup couldn't ameloiorate. It's well located. It's still a good stadium. And the Chargers are making oodles of money there. Best, Don Bauder

I believe the comment about the risk of concussions and resulting neurological issues from rugby being less from a lack of helmets is off-base. Frequency of concussion-inducing collisions might be less in rugby, but the collisions themselves are no less severe than in football. Science will ultimately tell us the effect of frequency, but apparently (and sadly) for some NFL players and ex-players, the limit has already been exceeded........

The concussions from football and rugby are both not worth the risks. Best, Don Bauder

I had MANY good friends that played rugby, and I woudl never, ever play that game b/c of the dangers involved...

Australian football is supposed to be pretty rough, too. Best, Don Bauder

I agree they are not worth it. However, if take any guidance from boxing, where such risks are well established and acknowledged, we know that the big money in sports will outrank that consideration. If gladiator games were big money, we'd have lions on deck at Qualcomm Stadium.

No corporate welfare,for the Spanos,and the Chargers. The stadium,was expanded ,for future Super Bowls. Now they say,it is not good enough. the expansion,has resulted ,in more blackouts.Because of the additional seats. Joe Robbie,in Miami,built his stadium,with his own $$.Let the billionaire Spanos,build his own. Spanos profits,on the Chargers. He makes $1000.00 profit,on a lousy keg,of Miller Lite. He plays Poker ,at Del Mar Country Club,at $10,000.00 per hand.He runs Hall of Fame players,out of town. then he wonders about fan loyalty.The Spanos,are slumlords from Stockton.they are too cheap,to put an ad ,in The Union tribune,advertising seats avaiable. It's all $$$,and nothing else,they care about. When was the last time ,you saw halftime entertainment,at a Chargers game??. If L.A.,is stupid enough,to take them. Bon Voyage!!

Actually, if a city and/or state holds off long enough, the owner will usually cave and shell out -- e.g. New England Patriots, San Francisco Giants, etc. Best, Don Bauder

Don, I can only hope that you are right. You've laid out all the reasons for your belief. That dominance of the national psyche, as you described it, is a good call. Only the NFL in a historically-brief four decades managed to create a brand-new national secular holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. It has its rituals, customs and observances that rival those of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Doubt that? Think of the mandatory nature of gathering by the TV set (gathering around the Christmas tree), overindulging in brew and snack foods (the turkey) and a whole set of superstitious behavior and mandatory pieties that go along with rooting for one of the two rivals.

But sports, especially their professional-level manifestations, are woven through our culture, and seeing this NFL-based mania wane will take a very long time, even if you are right. The mania isn't just limited to the NFL. Most universities pay their head football coach more than they pay the president. My alma mater now has a head football coach whose total comp package totals about $2 million a year. Is that because he's a winner? Uh, no. He's had three years in the job and has a miserable record. In three previous outings as head coach, he had losing records in all of them. So, why do they pay such a princely sum to a coach with a third-rate record? I have no idea. There's no rational justification for paying ANY coach in the NCAA that kind of money, regardless of whether or not he's a winning coach. A professor on the eve of winning Nobel Prize is usually lucky to just break into the six-figure salary band, while the football coach takes away twenty times as much? Just nuts.

Don, I can only hope that you are right. You may be just "normative", expressing what SHOULD be the case, not what IS the case. Our world is a perverse place, and what should happen is often exactly what does not happen. But it is hard to imagine a future where this NFL mania gets more intense than in recent years.

Good points. Yes, it could be wishful thinking on my part. But remember: I only said it has PEAKED. I didn't say it is rolling off the cliff. Best, Don Bauder

Within ten years of of the printed cartoon, the rules of football were revised to increase safety, the wedge was made illegal, a soft helmet was introduced. As a result deaths on the field became rare. Now is the time for new reforms, because the game has evolved to become more dangerous.

Most obviously, the helmet and pads have evolved from soft leather protection into steel and rock hard plastic weapons. Pads and helmet should be redesigned to protect the ball carrier as well as the tackler.

Why the equipment manufacturers don't seize this opportunity to mandate the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of safer equipment amazes me. They also risk serious liability. They must know their product is hurting players, most of them under 18. These companies are only a sharp lawyer and juicy e mail away from bankruptcy, thanks to their dangerous product, when a safer product might mean a billion in sales.

Football is perhaps the largest reservoir of managerial stupidity outside the military.

The owners may be stupid, but they are getting filthy rich. And like Wall Streeters, they own both parties in Congress. Best, Don Bauder

I don't watch spectator sports at all, not a virtue just a fact. That gives me a perspective that is untainted by self interests. The Chargers do not have any case for legitimately claiming a net positive investment for the City of San Diego, period. People have to seriously consider the costs, and sacrifices we need to make to offset them, in order to have a team locally that really does not represent the city. You have to recognize that the team is nothing but the carrot dangling from a stick in front of you. The enterprise holding the stick is the Chargers organization (Spanos) and the City is the stupid horse focused on the carrot taking the enterprise where they want to go.

What is tragic is that the San Diego establishment is almost 100% in favor of an insolvent city subsidizing a billionaire-owned football team to the tune of $700 million. What does this say about the San Diego establishment? Best, Don Bauder

Uh, right, NFL is too big to fail, too, so we know what that means, don't we? Yup, BAILOUT time!!!

$9 billion is small potatoes. But politicians know what the public wants: jocks. So you may be right. Best, Don Bauder

So, there is going to be a lockout in the NFL, huh? This isn't a bad time to start one, just after the season ended, and well before the next season (or even pre-season) starts. But letting this impasse go on will shut off the golden eggs for both owners and players. There's no doubt that both sides revel in the dough coming in, and it's hard to believe that the next season will be lost. But who knows? It could actually go that way.

By the way, today's (Sunday, March 13) edition of the Light News has three things on the front page. The top story, as it should be, is the nuclear plant meltdown (or not a meltdown, depending upon who is talking) and the aftermath of the quake and tsunami in Japan. The next item down is inexplicably a puff piece about an painting exhibit at the Museum of Art. And then at the bottom, Nick Canepa pontificates about the NFL lockout and what it really means. (Except that Nick, like nearly all sportswriters seldom tells it like it is. If he did, he'd soon be retired. So he tells the fans what they like to hear and what the owners expect.) This all tells you just how deeply embedded pro football is in the psyche of the readers of the paper, and all conventional papers.

I suspect there will be a 2011 season, even if it is abbreviated. The most important number to remember: NFL players average 3.5 years in the league. Best, Don Bauder

I hope the players succeed in an anti-trust lawsuit.

I also feel the NFL should have their "non-profit" status revoked. Ridiculous to give them non profit status.

I hope the players can stick together, and then win an anti-trust suit. Best, Don Bauder

If a pro sport lost its anti-trust examption, it would be a sea change. The whole pro sports landscape would change massively, as would college and prep sports. And that might just represent a turnaway from the current system of misallocating resources to unproductive activity. But don't hold your breath waiting for change.

Gosh, if college and prep sports lost their grip on society, we might be producing good students who would become good executives. And they wouldn't rush to show up at every Super Bowl. Best, Don Bauder

"Most universities pay their head football coach more than they pay the president. My alma mater now has a head football coach whose total comp package totals about $2 million a year"

In a state where we cannot afford to fund education we pay college coaches huge sums of money. I don't get it!

There are other college coaches getting more than $2 million -- at least I believe I have read that. I don't get it either. Best, Don Bauder

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