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More Than Just a Game

Team owners and politicians play big-money games with fans and taxpayers.
 
 
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This week's phrase is "it's only a game," uttered by non-sports fans to express their disapproval of taking seriously childish games played by adults.

The phrase, of course, is only a half-truth. Whether it's the NFL, NBA, MLB, the PGA or NHL, it is "only a game." But professional sports in America is much more than that.

Sports has a lot to tell us about ourselves as a society; about our national character, values and aspirations.

And as far as sports analysts go, Dave Zirin, in his new book "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" (Haymarket Books), takes you deeper than a Bobby Abreu jack in this year's home-run derby.

Zirin not only provides a rare look at American sports history, he's about the only sportswriter with the guts to connect the political and economic dots.

In the introductory chapter, Zirin reminds us that when sports became popular among working-class folk in the early 1900s, corporate America hopped on it right away, "starting (factory) teams as a form of labor management."

The factory team legacy is still with us today -- the Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers.

Zirin's book also reminds us that we deceive ourselves when we say we're attracted to sports because sports is free of politics; a social arena where people are truly judged based on merit and skill.

"In addition to becoming a profitable form of mass entertainment, pro sports were used by the political and financial elite as a way to package their values and ideas," Zirin writes.

"We are unique in playing the national anthem before every game... We are unique in employing scantily clad women to tell us when to 'cheer.' We are unique in calling the winners of our domestic leagues 'world champions.'"

In a section titled "Why Sports Matters," Zirin takes aim at liberals and progressives who often look down on sports as a mindless distraction from things that really matter.

"The story of the women's movement is incomplete without mention of Billie Jean King's match against Bobby Riggs. The struggle for gay rights has to include a chapter on Martina Navratilova.

"When we think about the black freedom struggle, we picture Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X," he continues.

In one of Zirin's more hard-hitting chapters, "Games That Bosses Play," instead of hopping on the athletes-are-all-overpaid-egomaniacs bandwagon, he takes aim at the 800-pound gorilla in the room: team owners, particularly one former baseball boss now occupying the most powerful seat in the world.

"No one ever fronted a stadium swindle better than George W. Bush," Zirin writes. And then he goes on to explain how Bush became managing partner of the Texas Rangers.

Like many sports teams, Bush and his partners threatened to move the Rangers out of Arlington if the city didn't buy them a new stadium.

Local government gave in and ponied up $135 million in taxpayer money. This is the same Bush who now loves to say tax money belongs to the taxpayer.

"The scam didn't end there," Zirin continues. "As part of the deal, the Rangers' ownership was granted a chunk of land in addition to the stadium...To make this happen, Democratic governor Ann Richards signed into law... the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority, which had the power to seize privately owned land deemed necessary for stadium construction."

Zirin quotes Joe Conason, a columnist, who said: "(Bush) didn't blush when he proclaimed that his campaign theme would demand self-reliance and personal responsibility rather than dependence on government."

Bush cashed out in 1998. Having invested $600,000 in borrowed money, Bush made a cool $15 million on the taxpayer financed scheme.

Zirin ends that piece with a zinger: "The next time someone complains about the 'greediness' of pro athletes, tell them if they are that bent out of shape about someone's undeserved wealth, they should make a detour to the upper deck and boo outside the owner's box."

It's really not just a game.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.